Joyeeta Dey is currently working with a non-profit research team in West Bengal. She has a Masters degree in Sociology of Education from the Institute of Education, University of London and Bachelors in Philosophy from St. Stephen’s College, Delhi University. Joyeeta most enjoys contemporary poetry and modern art.
Advocate Biswas came to our house today to give her the verification papers for the south Kolkata apartment she was buying. She fluttered around him with tea and heaped platefuls of chanachur.
“Shob theekachey toh?” (Is everything in order?) she asked in fifteen different ways, amidst excited giggles.
“… maney otogulo taka…” (… it’s a lot of money…)
My brother finds her incessant and unwarranted giggling intolerable. “There’s nothing funny in what she’s saying! She laughs when she’s not even amused herself!”
Which is true. Like the time when my grandmother asked her— “Protima, tumi biye koroni keno?” (Protima why did you never marry?)
She laughed and told us it was written in her kundli that if she ever married someone, he would die soon after.
“No doubt,” my brother muttered under his breath.
Having worked from the time she was fourteen, she goes through her chores with a practiced efficiency. Most days she’s finished cooking for the day by mid-noon. This frees her up to spend the rest of the day as she pleases. What she pleases most is pacing up and down the house yelling dire and impossible threats at her relatives over the phone. She will throw them out of their own homes, she thunders, as they merit nothing less than being whipped naked. While they must surely grumble behind her back, they never openly retaliate. This might be out of fear or the shrewd awareness that no one else is as invested in the welfare of their children. No one with any means, at least.
Once they had come to her for money for their daughter’s dowry. She flat out refused, declaring that fifteen was no age to get married, and promptly paid for private tuitions, IT training and a bicycle, as the senior school was a little way off. Left with no excuses, the girl’s parents resentfully but silently submitted to her decision. Her decision was to make the girl a “naars” (nurse) as she had seen regular calls in the newspaper for nurses. Her niece was smart and “naars-er khoob demand,” she told us, nodding wisely. Maybe those were her reasons, or maybe she felt personally about aborted schooling.
Some days my feudal mind is momentarily taken aback when I enter the house to see her sitting on the sofa watching TV. (The much better-loved Sandhya masi, who does the cleaning in our house, would never dare to. “Poor Sandhya masi,” we say. “Things have been so bad for her.”) She mostly watches cooking shows on regional channels because they use familiar ingredients that are readily available at the local market, though a couple of times she’s come to me and asked questions like—“Ei bell pipper ta ki jinish?” (What are bell peppers?). If a recipe excites her, for the next couple of weeks we have to eat varying versions of that for breakfast, lunch and dinner till she’s mastered it. She doesn’t care that the family stomach upsets its way through those weeks, much less for my father’s pleas to avoid experiments.
“Rokkha koro,” he says. (Spare us.) “Abar koro,” (Make it again) we say, once she’s learnt it.
There are no kitchen wars in our home, which is clearly disappointing to her. Her appetite for drama remains completely unsatisfied. Her natural assumption of antagonism between my mother and her mother-in-law had led her at one point to complain about each to the other. They would nod, pretending to agree and then later giggle and exchange notes about it. They would very magnanimously dismiss this behavior as unimportant and attribute it to her just needing sex.
“She’s always thinking about money,” my grandfather would tell me with disdain towards this frankly unfeminine trait. (We all knew about her furious investing and insuring because, not knowing English, she would make us fill out her forms, write her cheques and because she keeps up a steady dialogue with my parents on these matters to get advice and keep herself financially literate). At the same time, my grandfather attributes her authoritarian attitude to a stifled feminine instinct of being a ‘ginni’ (the mistress of a house). There is a sweet spot one needs to occupy as a woman, which only the men of the world seem to have identified.
For all her passion for emotional outbursts, one time she fell silent. Her brother-in-law, who had been consistently falling ill, was diagnosed with AIDS. It transpired he had worked away from home for a couple of years and in that time visited brothels. Then it was revealed his wife had contracted the disease from him. She knew all of this and I don’t know whether, being rather prudish otherwise, she felt any kind of repulsion. It didn’t stop her from regularly taking him to doctors and trying to find hope in treatment. When they both died soon after she threw herself into preparing their son for the entrance examination of a good boarding school.
In the course of a fact-finding mission about the legal rights of her orphaned nephew, she heard that that their family may belong to the category of Scheduled Caste, though nobody had a caste certificate. I suggested that if this turns out to be true she should get one for herself as well as there were important benefits to be had from it. “Well, she doesn’t really need it, though,” my mother said, forgetting how strange it is that this should be so. Though we know, it’s easy to forget that she came to the city to make a living when her father abandoned her mother and six sisters. She makes it seem unlikely that she could have been begging at a traffic signal like most of the others who came with her. Of course she needs no institutional leg up, we say nonchalantly. She would be the creamy layer.
She loves being the creamy layer. She dresses in muted saris, takes care of her appearance and steadfastly refuses to wear spectacles even though she so obviously needs them. The slightest tinge of grey appearing at her temples sends her rushing to the nearby beauty parlour for a touch up. Her products of choice are from L’oreal- because you’re worth it. Her appalling, wasteful vanity lets her enter banks and hospitals and be treated like everyone should be.
She’s been working at our place for fourteen years now. She came at a period when we had had a string of people joining and not lasting for more than a year. Often when she is blatantly unreasonable and bad-tempered, my parents think that, given a choice, they’d ask her to leave immediately.
“But she’s so competent… and trustworthy…” they rue. So we sit and pity ourselves at being left with no choice, even in an employer’s market.
We regret never having the privilege of being spared her opinion on everything we ever do. My mother has resigned herself to coming home after getting a haircut to be greeted by Protima didi pulling a face and telling her it looks hideous. She consistently voices her strong disapproval of my clothes on account of their shabbiness. One time, she got so sick of my tatty chappals that she went and bought me a new pair of sandals.
Strong and useful, they’ve become my favourite pair.