I was busy working on my laptop when my phone buzzed. I looked at the phone’s screen. It was a message from one of the zillion WhatsApp groups I was part of. As some of us do, I ignored it. I was down writing two more lines when suddenly my phone started ringing with messages. Either there was a breaking news or someone’s birthday. Curious, I opened my WhatsApp. The messages were from one of the women groups of Powai. After a few scrolls down, I finally reached the origin of the buzz. Someone was looking for a Bai aka maid and had put in a description which read like this: ‘Urgent. Looking for a trustworthy, well-trained, punctual and reliable maid. Someone who is versatile and hygienic. She shouldn’t take unannounced leaves and should happily manage some odd jobs from time to time. Please help.’ As I scrolled down the chat, the reactions were mixed and many. Some ladies had thrown ‘I am also looking for one’ hat in the ring while some had responded with downright cynicism, discussing their own bai woes. A few women, however, had tried to help with numbers of bais, they knew. The thread had now become a conversation, the lady who asked the query, since being absent.
This is, however, not an uncommon event. The ‘Bai’ woes are regularly discussed on footsteps of yoga classes, during lunch with the ‘girls’, while watching over kids in the garden and since that doesn't satiate our frustration, over phone calls as well. Yesterday only, my mom called from Dehradun, telling me how her bai, whom she had tried to disband from the house, wasn’t letting anyone take the job in ‘her territory.’ The business of bais affects each and all of us.
The ‘bai’ is to us what HR is to office goers. No-one is happy with them, they think they run the house and when it comes to criticising their lack of response, the lines of seniority or class get blurred. In bringing women together, the topic of bai finds its only parallel with that of their mothers-in-law or daughters-in-law, depending on which side of the wrinkles you are on.
In fact, our relationship with our bais is a lot like a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law relationship, except a way more complicated. When it comes to chores, the bais show the lousy behaviour of a ‘nayi bahu’ but the moment guests arrive, they suddenly turn the ‘saasu-maa’ mode on, leaving one high and dry. Despite your severe lack of liking towards them, you cannot just throw ‘I am having a bad day’ tantrum to your bai as you might to your husband. Unless of course, you want your bad day extended to next 48 hours. Your character and personal skills are judged not by the friends you keep but how long you can keep your bai.
But bais can be very resourceful too. In our gadget-addicted world where we know everything about our Facebook friends and nothing about ‘know thy neighbour’, bais bring the current affair that isn’t published in any newspaper. They keep you abreast with everything that you need or needn't know about your neighbour or someone within a 1-km range. From which didi has frequent guests, which didi is too demanding to which didi is going for a ‘phorein’ holiday, they keep you updated about everything! If you are wondering where they get their information from, try stepping out of your 700 sq ft world or whatever is that you afford and take a walk downstairs. You will find, various groups of bais, engaging in serious conversations, as they slowly rub the gutka masala on their palm and with the finesse of a professional, tuck it into a corner of their mouth. Gossips are exchanged and the reverse topic of ‘memsab woes’ are discussed. Fascinated with the idea of what exactly they discuss, I have even tried to pull a slow walk, just to eavesdrop, but to no avail. However, these women are not all talk and no work. You realise that only once in a while when one of your NRI relatives arrives and seeing the maid, gives a deep sigh saying, ‘I forget what it felt like to get your work done. Back in the US, it's all hands on for us.' Just like any Indian, you get defensive with ‘you know, you don’t need to clean every day there. Here in India, there is so much dust’ reply while secretly thanking the underdeveloped state of our country for the cheaper services.
My phone buzzed again. A lady replied to the one looking for a maid, 'I think you have just described the best bai in the world. Someone, we all dream to have one day. If you do find her, please send her across.’ This just reignited the chat conversations.
So does the best bai in the world really exists? Isn’t it like asking an employer, does the best employee in the world exists? Isn’t that an enigma? Those who might have the ideal one wouldn’t speak of it, afraid of being poached from and those who haven't found one, it's a hunt forever.
This time my phone rang. A crackling voice came from the other end, ‘Didi, main aaj nai ayegi!’
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(Sugandh is a petroleum engineer turned full-time writer. She also manages her blog www.curiousinkpot.com. You can get in touch with her at firstname.lastname@example.org)