Monday 2 April 2012

The man with the iron hand

Jaidevi was tall, dark and comely. She had a generous build, was honest and, being punctual to a fault, very popular with the households she worked in.
She rang our doorbell sharp at 6 in the morning. Indeed, so reliable was she that I stopped setting the alarm soon after I engaged her. If at all she took leave, she would warn me beforehand. It would be on a weekend, when the children did not go school. So it did not matter if we woke up late that day. She worked for us nearly five years, but was never away for more than two days at a time.
Jaidevi chalked out her routine with clockwork precision. She started from the front gate and worked her way indoors. Tucking the broom out of sight, she expected the tap area in the backyard to be clear for her. By the time the bucket filled up, she would have dusted the furniture. And woe betide anyone who left footprints on the freshly mopped floor.
A shy Jaidevi in her finery.
Digital sketch: Harjeet
By then, my daughter would be done with her bath and it would be time to wake up her little brother.
Mop and pail in hand, Jaidevi would add to my call: “Baba, get up... Get up, Baba.” He would be out of bed like a shot at the sound of her voice. “Oh no, my slippers! Jaivedi Aunty she has moved them again,” he would wail. “Jaivedi”, not “Jaidevi”, in case you did not notice.
My son did not like to walk barefoot. He would position his slippers every night in a way that he could step straight into them when he got off the bed next morning. Jaidevi, however, never could put them back where they belonged when she swept the floor. The child was bound to protest. She would rush in and offer to put his little feet into the slippers, coaxing him: “Say my name again, no, little Baba... please, Baba.” He would not oblige.
Initially this exchange irritated us, but soon we realized they shared a unique bond.
Jaidevi told me she had two sons, but now they were grown up. She said she loved it when the “little Baba” looked at her accusingly, his brow all puckered up. And the way he pattered off after their daily little spat.
“To look upon him makes my day. And only he in the entire world calls me Jaivedi,” she said sheepishly in defence of her teasing.
Her “Baba” also missed her. If he found his slippers were in place, he would promptly ask if “Jaivedi Aunty” had not come in that day.
Jaidevi was not very chatty, but dispensed advice freely if she felt it was warranted.
“Never leave the tawa on the stove,” she told me once.
“Why?” I was puzzled, sure that I had turned off the gas.
The reply amused me. “It is not good for husband-wife relations,” she said gravely. That same evening, I bought a stand for the tawa.
Her home remedies for a running stomach, a headache or a cold were all honey-based. She suggested that my father-in-law take a spoonful of honey with a dash of lime in warm water every morning to get rid of constipation. It worked. He followed the practice till his last days.
Jaidevi clearly stood in awe of her husband. He ran a small fleet of cycle rickshaws, and was a terror for his workers, she said. He ruled the household with an iron hand, and led a very regimented life. Towards her he was stern but caring. He took care of their meals in the morning, but expected her to serve lunch sharp at 1.30. Now I understood why she was so fussy about her timings.
One day she came dressed in a shiny sari and a tikka on her forehead. After some prodding, she disclosed shyly that she was going out with her family. They would be picking her up from our gate.
She scurried out when her son rang the bell. We craned our necks to catch a glimpse of the famous husband. The elder son was in the driver’s seat, the younger one with his father at the back. She joined them on the back seat, turned and gave us a proud smile.
A stunned silence followed. As they disappeared round the corner, we burst out laughing at the contrast between our collective image of Jaidevi’s husband and the man himself. Not only did he have a slender frame, her man with the iron hand was a full head shorter than his wife.

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