Brrrickfist Sah?

10:07 AM Thursday, April 27, 2000

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Good morning India. Why is it so hot out already? I hear the telltale sign that another tour bus visiting Gandhi's house is blocking a neighbor's driveway. Hey doofus, we know you're blocked. Do you have to sit in your car and honk constantly for ten minutes? Get out of your fucking car and go and find the bus drivers! Everyone knows they all hang out down with the bhelpuri walla on the corner.

Nirmila the maid will be missed. Nirmila is my light of the morning. She's hanging the clothes up now. I can predict that within a few minutes, in a voice full of air, lilting and childlike, she'll say, "Brrrickfist sah?" And I'll say, "Yes, please." Then, "Omelet? Toast butter sah?" Mmm yes, and she'll make me a huge cup of chai too. Nirmila is the maid that the Mystery Woman was so worried about. I think we've integrated just fine. She comes every day from about 8AM to noon. She cleans the whole house, does the laundry, makes food for the whole day, does the dishes (!), cooks my breakfast and keeps me company while the MW is at work.

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Nirmila is not your typical servant, and our relationship is strictly non-traditional. But I want to record some of the things I've noticed about servants here. It's one of the first things that catches a westerner off guard when he visits a nice Indian house. There's the servant. Sometimes he or she is from the sweeper caste. If I remember correctly, the sweepers are pretty low down the caste system. There's good chunk of the population that belongs to the untouchables, also called "scheduled castes" or dalits. Sweepers are near the bottom of the untouchables. If the MW were being a good Brahmin, she'd have to make sure that Nirmila was not an untouchable because they're not allowed to touch Brahmins. Hence the name.

This is all "old school" stuff that most people in Bombay don't pay attention to, but there are still a lot of old people around. The MW's grandma was a hard liner when it came to caste and she would never let a sweeper do anything but clean the toilet in her house. What's worse than a sweeper? A Christian or Muslim servant touching the food. They're not even part of Hinduism and therefore even more impure. The whole trick with Brahmins, the priest caste, is that they have to stay really clean. Their high genes must float in a cloud of hygiene. Cleanliness is next to godliness and they're as close to God at you get. Brahmins are on their way out of the cycle of reincarnation so it's like a last wash-up before you go to meet God.

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So anyhow, I was talking about servants. Caste is important to remember when talking about servants because servitude brings out the weirdness of caste-mixing. A family maintains a very strange relationship with a servant which is incredibly complicated and individual to each family but generally, the servant is a life-long, 24-7 employee that is extended various levels of membership in the family. Some people treat servants like shit, yelling at them constantly and hitting them. Others eat and watch TV together. I just read a book, (won't tell you which one) where the family troubles and anger were routinely handed to the servants like a load of laundry. When some shit hit the fan, the beloved family servants, the people who *really* raised the kids, the sweepers, were the scapegoats. Eventually, after a servant had sex with a family member, he was handed over to a mob waiting with caste-inflamed hatred and beaten to death. I tend to believe it is usually a slightly more upbeat situation.

When you first look at a guy cooking and cleaning and answering the door and shopping you don't think about what the rest of his life will be like. If he's lucky enough to get hired by a family, maybe at age 17 or something, he'll spend the rest of his life, except for 1 month off a year when he visits his village, working for that family. But it's his village that he's really working for and that's where his money goes. He's giving up any hope of having a life so he can be a cash pump for his family back in the village. He's like a monk. Not only is he not allowed to do any normal leisure activities, he's not expected to have any desire. He's not expected to want to go out and sit in the park. He's not expected to want to get laid. He's not expected to want to have a family. He's not even human really. He's treated like a robot. Do you think he's gonna get a little indignant? Maybe resentful that he has to work from 6AM to Midnight, 7 days a week and sleep on the cement floor? No way. If he got even a little bit pissy, the family knows that there are hundreds of millions who would gladly change places with him. When you first look at him he looks like an unlucky bastard. When you think about it, you realize he's got a one-in-a-million job. He lives in a big house, he eats all he wants, he doesn't have to work outside. If his family is nice and humane, and they let him sit and watch TV with them, well, then he's certainly got it made over 90% of the population of untouchables. Only problem is he's not with his family.

Nirmila works for 3 families. She's Christian. Her husband works in Dubai. She gets up every day and gets on the train at 6 from the suburbs (possibly standing up for 2 hours) to our house then she goes to another house and then cleans another. She lives with her husband's family and undoubtedly sees no action, sexual or otherwise. Her monthly wage from all her jobs is something like six thousand rupees. I think that's bank compared to most servants. She is unfailingly sweet. And she's so pretty that I have to believe that she's do quite well on the matrimonial market.

Yesterday was another family day. The Tea Center with MW's mom and sister-in-law was quite nice. MW says that the word "quite" translates to "not really" but I disagree. I use it for emphasis. We were there for high tea after seeing the latest Rahul Bose flick, _Split Wide Open_. I hope Rahul doesn't get mad with me if I say it sucked. A muddled, impotent narrative, served up by lackluster acting and immature direction. No need to waste words on it, it's a flop here in Bombay. I think I'd still recommend it to people who aren't here. It's a good survey of the scenery and a brief, shallow treatment of the city's social problems. Good if you want to show someone what Bombay looks like but it's not a work of art. Instead of it, watch _Salaam Bombay_, even if you've already seen it.

Mom was coming down to the Eros Cinema for the first time in twenty years. It's 10 minutes by car but she hadn't been out much. In that regard she's not much different from most Indian mothers. It's possible to walk the streets around the house every day for 40 years to do the shopping and never go beyond a 5 block radius. I was eating up every little quiet comment she had about the changed scenery. She's become frail and thin following an illness and she arouses very strong protective impulses in me. I'm smitten with the MW's mom, She's beautiful and graceful, prim and proper, insightful and witty and damn nice. Apparently I got a good review after our initial meeting. I've been favorably compared to the last boyfriend. I called her today: "Hi, Sheila, this is David. We'll be around to pick you up at 12:40. Will you be down? Ok, terrific. Bye." I was impressed that we had coaxed her out.

My fears about meeting mom were generally subdued and I'd guess, "well within the acceptable range". Last week we went over to the house for lunch. Pa was home from work to be fed and have his nap. How many years has mom been heating up his lunch and chatting with him on his mid-day break? I met the parents the day the NASDAQ crashed. Pa's an economist and I have tech stocks so we discussed that situation with whimsy and established a gentle male bond. I want to thank them for making the Mystery Woman. They've made a healthy contribution to the good of the world.