She’d be a comical sight if she weren’t breathing fire. Puffed up with rage, marching onto the playground, dressed in a too-small tee over a bulky salwar.
She had three little boys trailing behind her and she marched up to to a boy in his early teens who squared his shoulders, took a deep breath and steeled himself for her assault. As she began to scream my mind wandered back to when I’d first met this little boy, S.
The brat had begun to come home from the park much dirtier, sweatier, happier. ‘I and S wrestled today,’ he’d grin.
‘S and I,’ I’d absently correct him.
S and I played chor police today.
S and I took our cycles over the hill and came racing down.
Why don’t you bring S home, I offered.
The Brat shrugged, wiping his filthy, sweaty little face on his sleeve,’I asked him to, but he prefers playing in the park.’
Mentally thanking my lucky stars that the Brat had made friends with a little boy who preferred the outdoors to TVs and iPads, I got back to work.
A couple of days later I got done with work early and walked out to the park to get some fresh air and hang out with the kids. The Brat was playing with a boy I didn’t recognise. Must be the famous S, I said to myself. Deciding to introduce myself I walked up to him, said Hi, asked him where he went to school, for lack of any other conversation.
He politely responded, giving me the name of the local underprivileged school.
Ah. So that was it. This is why he refused to come home. His parents were househelp in our complex and he had probably been told not to stick to the park and not venture into homes. He was dressed very simply, neatly and cleanly. Far cleaner than my son who was sweating buckets and looked like he’d been mud wrestling with pigs.
I told him to drop in sometime and he politely said that he liked to spend his evenings playing in the park. I didn’t want to make him uncomfortable by going overboard with my invites. Now this is where desi class politics enter the picture. Although the area is full of househelp, some fulltime, some part time, none of them are allowed to bring their kids to work, neither are their kids supposed to be playing in the park.
“We paid X crores to buy a house in this area and I will not have my children get less time on the swing because of the househelp,” the mails rush in to the e-group whenever a rare maid’s kid is seen on the swings. I’ve tried to intervene but taking on the wrath of the self righteous, upwardly mobile middle class alone isn’t easy. They have washing machines – but they teach the maid to use it. They have strollers, and they get the help to push it. I give up.
Where do they want the help to leave their kids when they’re working? How is one to make these kids invisible? Most often the help leave their kids with family or neighbours, but some of them have no option but to bring them along and then leave them outside the house they’re working in.
Sometime last year I heard a baby crying piteously while I worked in my living room. No one else (my parents were visiting) in the house could hear it and the OA joined them in laughing at me and calling me baby crazy. I rushed out like a mad woman, looking for the child. I found him finally, under a champa tree. He was barely 7 months old and crying hysterically, snotty, filthy, naked but for a torn vest. I began to check his limbs for an injury or a bite. I found nothing. Helpless tears began to well up in my eyes – why was he crying in such distress? This was not hunger. And then I opened his mouth and found it – he had swallowed a champa flower and it was stuck half way down his throat. I have no idea how I forced my adult fingers down his throat and pulled it out, but I did. He stopped crying and proved my theory that a child never cries for no reason.
I picked him up and looked around, there was no adult in sight. And then a maid came rushing out of one of the homes, looking at me suspiciously. It was her baby. I explained to her how I’d found a flower stuck in his throat and was about to tell her to keep a closer watch on him when I realised there was nothing I could say to her. She wasn’t irresponsible, she was as helpless as the baby. The employers probably didn’t allow her to bring him in. I don’t know what prompted me to, since I’m just done with my own baby-rearing business, but I asked her if she wanted to leave him with me everyday while she worked. She looked shocked and refused point blank. She’d rather leave him out under that tree than trust me with him. I left him to her care and went back to work. I still wake up at night hearing that child shriek, feeling very helpless and disturbed.
Anyhow, this is the state of domestic help in India. And so, for S to be playing with my son, was nothing short of a miracle. He was allowed to do so as long as he followed the unwritten, unspoken rules. He must not use the swings meant for the residents’ children and he must always play second fiddle. The Brat, being the vague, dreamy kid that he is, hadn’t realised that S was the son of a domestic worker and so was playing with him as an equal. That is why they were such great friends. I left them playing and stole away.
Snapping back to the present I realised this lady was by now frothing at the mouth. Her child and two others were playing with S and one of them had got hurt and bled a little from the mouth. She was accusing S of hitting him. I didn’t know if this was true.
At this point my father who happened to be visiting and had been playing football with the boys, walked up and asked her what the problem was. One minute she was yelling at the maid’s son, next minute a clearly well heeled older gentleman, a resident, was intervening. She was a little taken aback. He hurt my son, she muttered.
My father then told her that he’d been present when the incident took place and the three residents’ kids had been wrestling with S. Naturally with three against one, he’d had to fight back harder to defend himself, resulting in an accident.
Yes, but my son is bleeding, she repeated.
My dad then mentioned that he’d taken the Brat’s bottle of water and washed the little boy’s mouth out and checked to see if he was badly hurt. Then pointed out that they’re little boys – if they want to play rough and wrestle, they must learn to get hurt. That it was unfair of three of them to get on top of S and beat him up. In a minute, it went from innocent game to upper class bullying lower class. He also pointed out that they’d been playing some ball game and each time the ball went too far, they ordered S to get it, basically treating him like a servant, their own personal servant. He wasn’t being paid to entertain them in the park like a lot of other underage minders, my dad pointed out. He was just a little boy playing in the park too, and if they chose to play with him, it must be as equals.
She blanched, realised my dad had a point and decided to ignore him and resumed yelling at S. I’d been on the sidelines until then and now that I’d heard the story I called out to S. Come here, beta, I said. Play with the Brat who wants to play with you. Don’t play with kids who don’t play fair.
He stood there uncertainly. Should he take a side? Would I be there to protect him everyday? What if she came back?
My dad walked up, put his arms around him and gave him a big hug and said, “Arre yaar, you’re a great guy. Come play with us.”
The lady looked deflated. The Brat who had as usual been lost to the world looked up and said ‘Dost, aa jao!’ and kicked the football to S.
S wiped his eyes, grinned at my father and shot off.
S is good for my gentle little son. He is toughening him up and playing all the physical games most of us played out on the streets when we were kids. All of this with no malice and plenty of sportsman spirit.
I’ve had my son play with a lot of aggressive, vicious upper class kids. I’ve seen them sit on him and even the Bean, hold their hands down and punch them in the face. And when you bring it up with the parents, the response is a standard – oh well, it’s just a little rough play. Boys will be boys. The world out there is rough. You’ll turn your boy into a sissy.
Yes, the world out there is rough but an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind. I won’t even get into the argument that we seem to think a sissy is an insult – because you know, being a woman/girl is for losers. I’ll simply move my son away from anyone who seeks to teach him that being male means being aggressive because I doubt they’re capable of wrapping their head around a new concept.
On the other hand, I have all the time on earth for a bunch of little kids rough housing when there’s no malice involved. When the intention is to have a good time, not to bully or hurt the other. When they play as equals, not master and servant. Not aggressor and victim.
My dad and I stood there watching them play. In a while they were too engrossed in their game to remember that we were still there. Yes, boys will be boys. But ‘boy’ doesn’t have to mean aggressive.