As I boarded the flight to return to Mumbai after six months in Delhi, I made a note of the people I had to call. The top 10 names on my to-contact list were not friends or work acquaintances, but a network of support staff and domestic service providers. Some of them have not just laboured for me in exchange for wages but held my hand through tragedies, made me tea when I was crying, cried with me when pets died, attended my brother’s wedding, invited me to their celebrations, and often made demands of me that friends make of each other.
One of my more candid maids made me book tickets for the film Sairat for her and her boyfriend, whilst I was ostensibly vacationing internationally with my boyfriend! Her logic was simple, Tu apney lover ke saath masti kar rahi hai, mereko bhi thoda majaa karney dey [You are enjoying with your lover, let me also have some fun].
A week into the national lockdown, my other maid, a recent entry into Team Bhasker (domestic chapter), arrived at my doorstep.
“Didi, urgent baat karna hai [Need to talk to you urgently].”
“Kya hua? [What happened?]”
She eyed the cook. “Personal baat hai [It is personal]”.
I took her to my room.
“Didi, aapkey paas sharaab hai toh do na thoda [If you have alcohol give me some].”
“Kyaaaa? [What?]”I asked, stumped.
“Haan [Yes],” she replied earnestly. “Mere pati ko lagti hai sharaab. Abhi ek haftey sey nahi mila usko, mera jaan khaa gaya hai [My husband needs alcohol. He hasn’t got it for a week. He is after me.]”
Knowing well that she knew exactly where the alcohol was kept, I relented. As soon as she left, my 24/7 Jeeves equivalent—a cocky young man from the Bihar-Nepal border—emerged from the kitchen: “Hum bhi lengey ek botal rum. Bahut tension mein hain [I also need a bottle of rum. I am tense]”.
Damn this egalitarian nonsense, I cursed myself, wondering what my mother would think about the household I ran.
But the sassiest of my support staff is my gardener, a wiry man from Motihari, Bihar, who has for the past 10 years tended to the 20-odd gamlaas [flowerpots] that hold various apartment-friendly green plants and are positioned in nooks and corners of my 2BHK cramped with furniture, books and pets. The first time he came home, I was not comfortable leaving him alone in the hall of my (tinier and more cramped) 1BHK, so I sat nearby and fiddled with my phone. He turned from weeding and asked me,
“Didi ji, kya kar rahi hain? [What are you doing?]”
“Kuch nahi [Nothing],” I responded, surprised.
“Ek cup chai banaa dijiye [Make a cup of tea then]”.
How, after that direct assertion, could I refuse him? Ever since, he has never left my house without his customary cup of tea.
The day I returned I found him in my building tending the plants that I had left downstairs. He sat on the sofa opposite me. I asked him how he was.
“Beti ka shaadi kar rahey hain [I am getting my daughter married].”
“Thodi madad kariyega aap bhi [I need your help].”
I frowned. I had paid him and the rest of my permanent staff every month during the lockdown.
“Rajkumar ji, hum aapko bahut paisa de chukey hain [I have given you enough money].”
He calmly told me the exact amount.
“Haan toh ab paisa nahi hai, hamara bhi kaam band hai na bhai [There is no money, even my work has stopped],” I tried to evade his request.
“Koi baat nahi [It is okay],” he responded, unperturbed. “Abhi teen mahina hai shaadi ko, kamaa lijiyega [There are three months left, you can earn by then].”
I frowned at him but smiled to myself.
As I locked the door to catch my return flight to Delhi, the characteristically frank Jaishree said grumpily, “Ae tu jaldi vaapis aa, tere bina main kaam kartey kartey kantaal jaati hai [Come back soon, I get fried working without you].”
I smiled thinking of how the small, insistent demands of these hard-working people made me feel like I too had some roots in this city of migrants.