Turf wars

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.


59 thoughts on “Turf wars

  1. Dear MM, I have tears in my eyes.. very touching – there ‘s lot to learn from you and your dad’s attitude…we see a program called super singers on regionalTV.. no names – but there is this guy say X who sings well – his mom is either maid or construction worker – the boy actually stays in one other participants house as his is too far – that kid is definitely upper class. but the boy said aunty is so nice to me – she treats me just like her son and pray for my winning the show…how many people have that mentality to treat them same?? just wanted to share it here.
    I am so proud of you dear…
    BTW How are chota nana and family? Please let us know…

    • Suj, I don’t know if my dad and I are doing anything great. I grew up playing with the househelp (we called them servants, but treated them a lot better than those who correctly call them ‘domestic help’ but treat them like they’re untouchable!) and I see no reason for my kids not to.
      Chhota Nana is better but has a long way to go. Many surgeries to reconstruct his leg. The rest are well on their way to recovery. Thank you for asking.

  2. it’s been ages since i left a comment here, nevertheless i am a regular reader :). Can’t agree more with you on the post. The baby crying with a flower stuck in his throat is heart wrenching. Recently we came across an organization called Bhoomi, and they run a day care for the children of the underprivilaged. A lot of these house help/daily wage earners have children and no one to look after them some even physically/mentally challenged. The best they do it lock them up in the house with a little food and return to them in the evening. They need their jobs to put food on their table and child support is not something they have. Even the well meaning ones are not able to do much for their kids.

  3. Bhoomi has young girls (read just out of college) working for this day care and taking care of these children..for FREE. Giving money to an NGO is one thing and dedicating your time for a cause is another..i am still not able to do the latter beyond a certain point. The times i have tried have gotten too emotionally involved and depressed. 😦

  4. I totally adore this post πŸ™‚ Sigh… there is hope in this world after all.

    And yes it made me aware of the numerous things one has to watch out for when one becomes a mother 😐

  5. Lovely post TMM. My eyes welled up too. God bless your Dad and your family. This caste and class system has bought so much shame to our country. My worry is that we are pretty much at the same place today as we were over a 100 yrs ago. Different utensils for servants, not allowing them to sit in the chair/couches that they have scrubbed clean, giving them food which is not edible for the rest of the family, etc etc. One step forward and two steps backwards is where I see the community going.

    • I know families where they don’t let the maid who cooks, sweep. and the maid who sweeps is not allowed to wash the utensils. I don’t get it! They’re all your household products. Why the discrimination between a mop and a dish? Don’t both get cleaned after use? And the same people will go abroad and mop their own floors and wash their own dishes without a thought!

      • Oh don’t worry. Here also you do have desis who have different cleaners for the bathroom/loo and a different one for the kitchen!

        • I think it’s a worry(perhaps totally useless) about non kosher hygiene standards of the help. So the help who cleans or mops the floor is suspect of not cleaning herself/himself up properly after the job and therefore unfit to cook food hygienically(Let us all forget about the cook who mops the sweat off her brow with one hand and then will let it drip into the very curry she’s cooking. Yep, have seem that happen around here believe me!).

          Anyways, the reason above was given to me when I asked a neighbor aunty why she has two different ladies- one to cook and another to just sweep and mop:-)

  6. This has really touched me. Really appreciate the way you and your father handled it. If we dont teach our kids the society equality, who will teach them? Though househelps we need to respect the fact that they are working hard and not in wrong ways. And the more we get into our kids’ fights, the more arrogant they grow is what i believe. There will soon be a day when the house helps and their kids will be taken care well owing to the less number of good house helps we get. We get what we give. We teach equality to our kids and we can see the wonderful generation coming up.

    • I agree – getting into our kids’ fights is not a good thing. But its always good to be aware of what they are up to and intervene when you feel there is an injustice being perpetrated.

  7. Great post!

    Really proud of you and your Dad for handling the situation so well…dont know if I would have had the guts..

    Completely agree with you that a man need not just be aggressive..a caveman had to be aggressive but in today’s world, this is not needed!

    • Sri, motherhood gave me guts, I have to say. I feel my courage shrinking and then I realise my kids are watching me. The thought that I have to walk the talk spurs me on and I muster up the courage to do things. That and the fact that making a difference to the world now matters so much more – I’m so much more invested in it through my babies.

  8. Your dad is a rockstar na..so much to learn from him and from you. Honestly, I doubt whether I would have offered to baby sit that kiddo. Glad that Brat found such a wonderful friend in S. and honestly I dont think the strata of society (which we create!) matters. Some of my good friends from childhood have been the kids of the milkman and the househelps and we got along just fine having fun!

    • My dad *is* a rockstar in every way that matters. I’ve learnt so much from him to stand up for things that matter. I think we all feel that way about our parents… But at times my dad is more broadminded about things than I am. And he says sorry when he is wrong. I’m learning that one too.

  9. Woman, I love you. I can’t seem to say that enough.
    I’ve heard that story too… the girl who works at my place these days, has had her 3-year-old daughter left to sit outside on the steps while she worked inside. The girl is now 6, and still refuses to be with her mom while she works, because ‘madam will make me sit outside the house.’ It’s heartbreaking. Thankfully, she’s been over at my place a couple of times, loves playing with my dogs, and insists on speaking to me on the phone whenever her mamma calls me.
    And, tell you dad and the Brat I love them too.

    • You know, I understand that people don’t like employees bringing kids to work. Our organisations wouldn’t encourage us to bring our kids to office either. But then there has to be a solution. And maybe some rules. I even understand that having small kids around means you have to babyproof your house and that might not be fair to people who have no kids/grown up kids, white sofas and crystal glassware. So then demarcate an area, say the balcony or the kitchen or something, give the kid some biscuits or fruit and make it clear to the maid that the kid has to stay there. But to leave them out on the steps or under a tree… breaks my heart.

      • Yes, yes! And after all, they are *kids*. Why not think about making them a tad comfortable rather than intimidating them? Would you treat your friends’/relatives’ kids the same way? Aren’t the maids’ kids human enough for you to give them a little attention and some space to sit/sleep comfortable while the mom/dad cleans or cooks for your comfort? Inhumanity seems to come more naturally to humans.Even my dog started lactating in response to the presence of a helpless kitten in the house. (Sorry, couldn’t help but compare!)

  10. As a child, I used to tutor my maid’s daughter in English. She was just a year younger to me, and went on to become one of my earliest friends. Unfortunately, I don’t know where she is today. But the memory of her makes me smile till date. This post brought back those memories of her. So glad you are so conscious of what is right, MM, when most others are only conscious of their class.

    PS – Been meaning to ask you this for a while, but I have been hesitating because I know you’d be busy. I will go ahead and just ask now. You had done a Diwali post in which you’d used your bandhani dupattas as drapes what seems like a gazillion years ago. It was on your old blog. Do you think it would be possible to share that post anytime? I’ve been dying to take a look at that.

  11. Where have you been ? Can’t see your updates on FB anymore 😦
    You did a good job but nothing less is expected of you or the Brat.
    What amazes me are these people. Why can’t the househelps bring kids to work ? Is it specific to Delhi or NCR ? I have always seen househelps bring their kids to our and our neighbor’s home and there was this particular boy whose education was kind of my Mother’s responsibility. And it was nothing out of the ordinary that we did,
    In fact recently my Mother’s househelp brings in her 2yr old boy who is so pampered by all residents that he opens the refrigerator and helps himself to soft drinks and chocolates in most homes and my mother carried toys&chocolates for him from here.

    • Hope you get the spirit of “nothing less is expected of you or the Brat.” I mean, I can never imagine you, B&B doing anything other than what you did in this scenario.

    • I don’t know babe. Maybe its an apartment complex thing? Houses are smaller so you can’t have a kid playing in the garden outside, he has to come in. That and the combination of a particularly snotty, rich locality I suppose.

      PS: I deactivated my account. Between office and kids and freelance and house and traveling husband and family accident I had my hands full and my patience with some people was wearing thin… seemed like a good time to take a break.

  12. I’d a very close friend in college with whom I often spoke over the phone. One fine day while we were on the phone talking, I heard a teen age girl crying, she had just finished her primary school, I think. I asked my friend who’s that, friend said it was their house help. My friend’s mom had admonished the girl for eating something from the fridge and finishing it all. My friend in an irritated tone told me, the girl did this often, hearing that my heart sank. I turned inexplicably sad. The girl stayed at my friend’s place and helped in household chores. Girls parents were paid a measly sum. From that day on, I often repeated to my friend that no one on this earth has the right to ruin someone’s future for they can afford to shell out some money. our friendship went downhill, I was cynic my friend commented about me all my gang, but I’ve never been more happy all my life at something that ended, that held more promises for me in the future.

    another incident that I constantly revisit in my head – during my college,our hostel warden met all the Hostel Staff the first day he took charge. in the far corner was this inferiority filled guy standing with his head down. Warden walking across talking to all, took this guy’s name and addressed him with “ji” and “aap”, the guy had his eyes welled up, almost. he washed toilets in our hostel. The biggest lesson I learned that day was Respecting humans is non-negotiable. I was lucky and I just happened to be there that day…

    Thanks for your post, it made me smile, reminded me to be polite and respectful to people around.

  13. Can I play the devil’s advocate here?
    I have a live in maid. Actually her whole family lives with us because we have a house and an independent servant’s room/bathroom with external entry. The couple moved in with us through a reference before they had a child. Soon she was due and did not want to go back to the village for her delivery because her earlier issue had died soon after birth ( lack of proper care during delivery ). I supported her, and her baby was born here. Of course, I let her bring in her baby to work after she recovered enough ( 3 mo ), I also cut down her work and hired additional help. The trouble started once the baby became mobile. She was all over my house!! Jumping of sofas/ beds/ dirtying them due to lack of diapers & being barefoot. Her mother showed no interest in disciplining her!
    It was really more than I could take.I hate to discipline/ be rude to others kids and it was really stressful. I am ok if the kid hangs around the mother or sits at one place and colors/ plays. But I am not ok if the kids goes around coloring my walls, exploring stuff around my house. This kid has opened my purse and scattered my credit cards, sprayed my son’s medicines all over the floor etc.
    Those 2 -3 years were really the lowest point in our ( me & my maids πŸ™‚ ) relationship. I was not able to tell her to keep her kid under control straight forward. I ended up yelling at the kid, or making indirect remarks at her. I think we stuck around because both of us did not have any other option then. I couldn’t find another maid as reliable. She couldn’t find another employer with such a small baby.
    Things improved when the kids started school. I have also turned out to be the villian aunty for her and she is scared of me so she is under control at least when I am around. I really did not want this to turn out like this. I wanted to be the who would pamper her.
    Also, my son was 2 years older and I had to be extra strict with him for this child ( like you mentioned I did not want the upper class bullying lower class kid scenario come into picture ). I gave him extra punishments if he hurt her.
    So, well letting maid’s kids into your house is easier said than done. I am not sure if failing to discipline was a problem in particular with my maid or if that is in general. Our sensibilities come from how we have grown up. Frankly, if and when my maid of 8 years has another kid, I have made up my mind to ask her to take a break.

  14. “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.”

    So, I gotta ask … is this a gudgaawa thing, or did you see it in Dilli too?

  15. The more I read your Brat and Bean stories, the more I realise this one truth (among many others :D) – while kids are born with an inherent personality all their own, the responsibility of ensuring that they never lose any of that goodness, lies squarely on the shoulders of the parents (it does extend to the family at large, teachers etc at a later stage, but you know what I mean). I’ve seen kids like the Brat toughen up and go over to the other end of the spectrum, simply because no one bothered to invest their time and effort in them. And then I see the Brat – gentle, sensitive and caring. I hope he never loses any of that.
    And your dad? Rockstar πŸ™‚ (You too, but that you already know).

  16. I’ve definitely seen this behaviour and it bothers me too because it seems to be very common. Growing up we played with the maid’s kids too and we were never told not to and we played fair, never treating them as less than ourselves. And it’s funny because I don’t think I saw other parents behave differently either but I realize now that I lived in a bubble. We grew up on a small university campus and so a lot of the women who worked as house help had husbands who worked in the university as care taker staff. Many years later after we moved off campus some of the kids I played with even came to my wedding because my mother had invited their parents through her office.

  17. I could practically imagine the scene as it happened while reading the post. It sounded like some flashback in a Hindi movie while explaining the firm “dosti” between the two young men – Brat & S – who are on a bike & singing “Yeh dostiiiii” πŸ˜›

        • I will also say one thing.

          When people tell me stories about A as a kid, they all talk about what a lovely quiet well-mannered boy he was, would only speak when spoken to, lost in his world of books. The way you describe Brat. And then A went to engineering college, where he realised that he could either sit tight & get ragged or give it back to his seniors so they wouldn’t bug him anymore. However, he didn;t rag people when he became a senior & didn’t allow anyone to cross the limits of decency.That’s how he became the gunda he is today πŸ˜›

          You got hope with Brat yet

  18. You know, this post brought back a memory of something that had happened 3 yrs ago. My MIL had yelled at my cook for bringing his 1 year old daughter. She was upset that this little child would slow her dad down. Plus she has peed on the floor. I remember being very angry and upset at my MIL. My 2 kids loved to play with her, her name is Subah (morning). She is so adorable. I knew that it always boiled down to class. My MIL would wash my son’s hands every time he touched Subah. My kids just didn’t care if she was the cook’s daughter or what not. It is us adults who have a huge responsibility of teaching the right things to our children. Loved your post and love love your parents.

  19. Funny how people who use clichΓ©s like “Boys will be Boys” are parents of kids that tower over the pack and are in no danger of being beaten up/bullied themselves.Their kids never pick on anyone their own size but God forbid, they’re hurt or someone puts them in their place then “My poor Munnu” and “aap mein baccha paalne ki tameez nahi hai” etc.The hypocrisy is nauseating.

  20. This is an awesome post, MM. Really touching, and at the same time a realistic illustration of the challenges and contradictions of modern India. Thanks for sharing.

  21. Kudos to you and your dad, MM! I grew up playing with the househelp and their kids and have the fondest memories of them. I find it difficult to deal with when the class system is so shamelessly flaunted in one’s face. I am bewildered when househelp or office staff hesitate or refuse to enter the lift while their employers are inside. The few who do invite such disapproving looks. I cringe and inwardly seethe over the unfairness. I’m taking a cue from your dad and you – instead of being cowardly and saying nothing, I will stand up for what is fair and right! πŸ™‚ Lovely post and thanks for sharing!

  22. Hi MM,
    I just had to comment on this post.
    I had a baby boy 3 months back. While I’ve always liked children I dont think I was ever maniacally sensitive about them. Enter baby. Now whenever I see a baby/child even remotely distressed, I want to pick him/her up and bring him/her home and just make things right. (Kidnapper much?!) Reading about that baby crying all by himself with something stuck in his throat brought tears to my eyes- not only because it reminded me how very helpless all babies are but also because of the utter helplessness of his mother to do anything to prevent a similar accident in future. To think of the lengths we go to, to care for and protect our children (and by ‘our’ I mean the relatively privileged sections of society) it makes my head spin to see the callousness that is meted out to the lesser privileged. It is comforting to know that there are still some people like you and your father who can do the right thing.
    Regarding the incident with S, again I am continually shocked by the conduct of ‘residents’.. a rather interesting word in this context, dont you think? The reference seems to extend beyond living quarters to a parallel social system. I remember when I was young, my nanny used to take me to the park, where my playmates, among several neighbourhood children were a group of kids from the nearby slum. I dont remember my parents ever objecting to my playing with them and in fact recall one particular birthday party I had where they came over with the other kids. Their presence at home was not made much of by my family. They were like any of the other 6- 8 year olds running around the house.
    Finally, I’m a firm believer of the idea that bullies need bigger bullies. Children who think its ok to bully the help’s kids either need to be set straight by their parents. Or if their parents are useless, then by kind elderly gentlemen or friendly but firm aunties! (The latter reference is to myself in care you’re wondering ;-p)
    I loved this post because it spoke of something I feel very strongly about. The world’s gone mad. Its going to take the collective madness of all the mommas out there (and some) to come up with an antidote!

  23. Dear Mad Momma,

    I salute you. I moved away from India to avoid facing the issues which you are dealing with head-on. By your actions you make history…change India for the better.

    Thank you!

  24. Ok this one really touched me. Let’s crank out the cloning machine. We need more people like Mad momma in this world.

    By your actions you put your ‘hands on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day’..

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