Almost all households in India – middle class and upwards have a maid for doing the dishes and washing clothes. This maid is typically called “Bai” in most of Maharashtra. My home in Nagpur is no different. Our bai’s name is Rupabai. She has been our “bai” for about 19 years now. I was only 13 years old when she started working at our place. She was hired as a result of some recommendations that came through word-of-mouth from some neighbors. Rupabai is from a lower caste (quite common for this profession); she is about 5 feet tall, broad and heavy-set. She wears a typical Maharashtrian nine-yard sari worn in the old fashion of tying it in the back from between the legs. She has a slow walk and wraps the loose end of sari on her head and holds it between her teeth when she walks from house to house, while working she tucks this loose end at her waist. She has the typical tattoos of women of this sect on her forehead and forearms. She wears a thick round red vermillion bindi on her forehead.
When I was growing up she would come to our house at about 10 AM. That was the time when everybody – grandmother, mother, father, grandfather, I and my brother would have finished their morning bath in that order. She would have a bucketful of laundry soaking in Nirma (as we grew older, this was replaced by Rin and eventually to Ariel) waiting for her. Mom would have also kept the used utensils from the previous day in a container made of wrought iron out on the porch of the kitchen.
Rupabai would open the compound gate of our house and walk to the back-yard at around 10 AM (she kept this time quite consistently). She had a singular style of opening the wrought iron gate – she would be very delicate in opening so as to make minimal noise. The faint ding of the gate was an indicator of her arrival. If either I or my brother had not bathed yet, mom would yell at us “Rupabai is here; you better take a bath and throw your clothes in the bucket on the porch”. There were only two free-passes to get out of this – either you were sick or it was Holi.
Rupabai would carry the bucket of clothes and the dirty utensils to the back side of the house to her “workplace” – a small cemented open water tank and a washing area with a stone in the middle for scrubbing clothes. Her tools were simple – a plastic bristled brush to scrub the clothes, a soggy cake of Rin soap, a roll of steel wool and some white powdery substance for scrubbing the utensils. For the next hour or so (depending on the quantity she had to clean) she could be heard scrubbing the utensils or beating a piece of clothing on the stone. She would then hang the clean wet clothes on the clothesline for drying. She would carry the container full of clean utensils back to the porch by the kitchen. So long as my grandmother (aaji) was alive she was not allowed inside the kitchen. So she would place the clean utensils on the porch and aaji would keep each utensil in its proper place – one by one. After aaji passed away, Rupabai started keeping the container in the kitchen and mom would arrange the utensils back in the shelves. Rupabai would say quietly from outside in the general direction of my mother inside the house “Bai, jaate” (“Madam, I am leaving now”). It’s strange how she addressed my mother also by “Bai”. The difference between the social statuses of the word “Bai” depends on which “Bai” says it to which “Bai”.
This routine continued with minimal changes for years. Rupabai’s presence was always there in the background in festivals, in our little family functions. My mother and she slowly developed a strange bond. My mother is not the “secular-all-creation-is-equal” types, but she was a little less stringent than aaji. Aaji never directly took anything from Rupabai. Rupabai would place the item on the floor and then aaji would pick it up. I and my brother would deliberately tease aaji by making direct contact with Rupabai. Rupabai would discourage us from doing so but we continued the game. Aaji would get furious but gradually ignored us. My mother, Aaji and Rupabai had a strange love-hate relationship. There were arguments and bickering on the pay, the quality of work quite regularly. It was all in the background of our growing up years. During religious festivals there would be a multitude of people eating at our place and consequently the number of utensils to be washed would go up during these times. Aaji and my mother would save food for Rupabai and would ask her to eat at our place on such occasions. She would probably spend 4-5 hours washing utensils on such days.
Then in the summer of 1992 I left my home for pursuing engineering in a far away town. As much as my family was sad when I left the house, Rupabai was also in the background saying her goodbyes to me as I left my home into the unknown. It was during my years staying in the hostel, that I truly realized the importance of Rupabai. This was the first time, I had to wash my own clothes – it was either spend money on laundry or beer, well I do not have to explain to you kind folks what my choice was. As the semester would come to an end, I would not wash any clothes and carry the whole stinking lot back to Nagpur and eventually to end up in Rupabai’s able and skillful hands. She would instantly know looking at the 4 buckets of laundry that, it’s the end of a semester at Shivaji University. And then all those nasty, smelly clothes would do emerge clean and would be dancing all happy and smelling of Rin on the clothesline.
After four years of this routine, I moved to Pune for a job, and eventually started earning enough to afford the luxury of giving my clothes in a laundry for cleaning. I would still be glad to see Rupabai on my occasional visits to Nagpur. She continued to lead her same routine, but now the numbers of clothes and utensils to clean were significantly lower. My grandfather (Dada) had passed away; I had moved out and my brother was also in Pune. Religions festivals were no more the huge gatherings of the extended family anymore. Rupabai was the silent spectator through all these years.
January of 2000, I moved to the United States. It was a different continent; it was a developed world – a world of common laundry rooms in apartments, a world of dates at the neighborhood laundromat. Guess what, memories of the hostel days came flooding back. That aching feeling of missing Rupabai resurfaced. No sir/madam – no matter how much you enjoy the feel of the fresh, warm and soft laundry out of the dryer or the smell of “Tide with a touch of downy”, give me Rupabai any day of the year and I will be in laundry Nirvana. In the meantime Rupabai kept serving the remains of the Kulkarni household. In 2001, Aaji passed away, and Rupabai was still very much there to witness it and to clean after the flood of relatives who stayed at our place. I guess, she was expressing her grief and paying her respects to Aaji by not crossing the kitchen line even in her death.
I got married to A in 2002. Rupabai was there assuming the role of the head-bai of the other bai’s that she had summoned to handle the extra load of the many relatives staying at our place. I must say her supervisory skills were a surprise to all of us as she managed the whole backstage operation with extreme efficiency and finesse. Mother bought Rupabai new clothes on occasion of the wedding. She gave her blessings to me and A. When me and A left for the USA, she said very earnestly to me “Shirpa” (she calls me that, I still don’t know why) “sunbai chi kalaji ghya baga”! – “take care of the daughter-in-law now”. And just like that I was gone again.
Last year when dad fell really sick, I had to fly back on a short notice. I reached home from Nagpur airport and there was nobody but Rupabai at home, everyone else was at the hospital attending to the situation. Rupabai was busy cleaning the utensils from the previous night. She said, “Shirpa, saahebala bara nahi haay. Bai gelyaat dawakhanyat. Baai mhanalya tumi aanghol karoon lawkar jaawa, me haay hitha,”. “Your dad is not doing so well, your mother is at the hospital, she said that you should take a shower and rush to the hospital. I will be here”. I did as she said, gave my clothes with the grime of three continents to her and rushed to the hospital. I looked at her while handing her the clothers and something about her had changed (other than her age). I could not put my finger on it but had too much on my mind to think about it.
In about 3 weeks dad came back home. Rupabai did her best to keep the household running during those trying times. One fine morning as I was handing over a bucket of dirty clothes to Rupabai, I noticed the change in her. She had no “sindoor” in the parting in her hair, she had no red vermillion bindi on her forehead. I was shell-shocked. I ran inside and asked mother – she told me about the sudden death of her husband 2 months ago. I was ashamed at my own callousness and apathy towards her, towards a woman who had washed the dirty laundry of this family, who had been through births, deaths and marriages of this family. I somehow never thought of her as a person who had her own family and a life outside of serving us. I was disgusted of myself. I went back on the porch and saw her hobbling back with the same wrought iron container. I ran and took the container from her hands, she hesitated, and I looked at her. She had a distant look in her eyes but she knew what I meant. She let me carry the container from the cement tank to the kitchen.
Today, she still serves the Kulkarni household. She has gotten old and tired. I bought a washing machine for my mother and now the machine does the laundry. I could tell Rupabai was a little jealous of the new “Videocon-bai”, and was worried about the pay cut. I assured her that her pay will not go down. She smiled, that’s the least I could do for her.