Living with domestics can get personal
“You can’t trust them to do a job properly,” says Mrs. Telles. “I have to watch these dum-dums like a hawk.” She has several “servants” to look after her property, dogs, and eighty-one year old self, and her Defence Colony neighbours come to her – as Aloysius did recently – when they’re looking for a new one.
When I moved into Aloysius’s Porvorim house here in Goa, “the boy” was here and had been caretaking the two-bedroom house for eight years. It was 26-year-old John’s responsibility to keep the place free of dust, dirt and pests; water the vegetation in the yard; and generally make the place look lived-in to discourage break-ins while Aloysius and his family lived in Mumbai.
I’ve learned to eat with my hands, say Deo Bore Kurung (thank you) in Konkani, and haggle the price of pau (Portuguese rolls) from the bike vendor. Now this Canadian would get a taste of Managing The Servants.
Two duffel bags
Aloysius and I arrived at the Defence Colony house in Goa in November unannounced and found that John had been sleeping in Aloysius’s bedroom, cooking breakfast in his kitchen, bathing in his bathroom, and – as a number of neighbours told me with a tsk in their voice – hosting the occasional social and overnight guests.
Aloysius acknowledged that it wasn’t his fault – John didn’t have a bed of his own. Aloysius had the verandah at the back of the house grilled-in before he returned to Mumbai and invited John to move out there before guests began arriving over the holiday season.
Sharing the house (as I thought of it) with John didn’t bother me. I live with five housemates in a rooming-house set-up in Vancouver. Besides, John was barely home; in addition to his duties at the house, he worked noon to midnight as a cook at a popular backpacker restaurant, the Hotel Venite in Panjim’s Portuguese quarter.
Things changed over Christmas. Since business was slow at the Venite and I was installed here at the house, John asked both his boss and Aloysius if he could take a month off in January for a long-awaited visit with his family in northeastern India.
“Yes,” Aloysius told him in response to his request, “But bring everything with you – I don’t want you leaving your belongings at the house.” John had been here for five years, but everything he owned fit into a suitcase. He’d borrowed and packed two duffel bags with gifts for his family, but left the suitcase behind. I had a bad feeling.
News over the phone
John called a week later. He’d arrived safely at his village and was happy and busy visiting his relatives. “Phone Aloysius,” I urged him. “I think he’d like to hear from him.” He did, and Aloysius called me after that to tell me he’d sacked John. He’d told John to collect his things when he returned, and he told me he’d consult Mrs. Telles on finding a servant for a few hours a day. With the new security grilles installed in the front and back verandahs, he reasoned, a live-in servant was no longer necessary.
My heart sank. True, John had slacked off in his cleaning duties and had the odd friend over for beers, but the 22-year-old held down two jobs, sent money to his family, read the Bible daily and was one of the kindest people I’d ever met. Wasn’t it something a stern reprimand could remedy, I asked Aloysius.
He’s had a few over the years, my uncle said, but it’s more than that. It wasn’t personal, it was political. It was about land, ownership, and occupancy.
“Occupancy of a house – either as tenant or caretaker – can become quite a legal tangle,” wrote my uncle when I asked for his perspective.
“John was for all practical purposes the caretaker, for which I was paying him Rs. 500/ per month …He had also time and again on one excuse or other tried to get me to give him a letter that he was a resident of 75, Defence Colony which, of course, I would not give me.
“I explained to Mildred [John’s relative, who put John in Aloysius’ care in 2001] that now that John is doing well and also since he has now with him four other brothers/cousins, it would be most convenient for them to jointly hire a room or small flat, where all of them can stay comfortably… Prevention is definitely better than a cure – I am sure there will be plenty of persons who will teach John how to establish himself as a claimant to our house. ”
Lessons from the boy
Before he left, John pointed out his hometown of Shillong on a map. With his modest income “the boy” was making payments on his own piece of land back home. He hoped to eventually marry a girl, return to Shillong and start a business – perhaps open his own restaurant. To improve his prospects John had been taking driving lessons, applying for work at casinos, and learning a new English word each day. He was gentle and soft-spoken and in his company I learned about kindness, pliancy, and faith.
Minaz now arrives each morning to sweep and swab the floor, wash the dishes and water the bougainvilleas. I don’t “manage” her (though I receive advice on how to do so), but I do lift my legs as she swaps the floor on her hands and knees under my work table. She secures the the ends of her dupatta (scarf) around the waist of her orange sari and moves a rough hemp towel across the red tile floor. She says “Sorry madam,” we exchange smiles, then after ninety minutes she returns to her family.
John’s suitcase waits in the back room. I worry about him, and wonder how he’ll do.