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Household Help

Its almost end of Feb!! As per my resolution I should have had my post for this month out already. Honestly this time, the delay was not because of my laziness. I really did not get time. And I am not going to use little “A” as an excuse. This month I spent most of my time at the computer looking for a job. But I will talk about that experience some other time.

Today I am going to talk about a subject very dear to all the women planning to R2I. If you ask an NRI woman to name the top 3 reasons she wants to R2I, “affordable domestic help” would definitely be one of them. It topped in my list too. But when it actually came to hiring help, initially I found myself pretty uncomfortable having someone else taking care of my house. We got so used to our private life in the US that the thought of having a stranger working inside our house was a bit awkward. But I knew right away that I needed some help to keep the house clean. Unlike in the US where you could keep your house clean by using the vacuum only once a week, here you have to sweep and mop your house everyday.

So I began by hiring a maid to do just that. She used to come and go in an hour everyday, without disturbing our privacy. I kept the cooking and vessel cleaning to myself. It was working perfectly fine until my little princess arrived. I needed more help and went on to hire a cook and increased the scope for the maid to clean the vessels. This transition was not easy as I had to let go my control over the kitchen to a stranger and be at peace with the dirty vessels remaining the sink overnight. But slowly I got used this arrangement. The cook is there for an hour and the maid for two. I get to spend quality private time with little “A” for rest of the day. The months passed by and little “A” turned 9 months old. It was time for me to start the process of getting back to work.  Hence came the requirement for the most important help – child care. After much deliberation, we decided that we are going to send little “A” to a daycare once I start going to work. But till then I need some help looking after the so mobile and so active baby of mine, while I concentrate on my job hunt. So I went on to hire a nanny for half a day. Thus, in 15 months since R2I, I went from no domestic help to 3 domestic helps !!!

Now let’s talk numbers. The 3 helps together cost me 7k a month (yes, thats why I said “affordable” not “cheap”). I have two alternative options -(a) Pay couple of thousands more and hire a live-in maid and get help in doing every chore in the house. But then I need to be okay with another person being there in the house all the time – a big NO!! (b) Pay couple of thousands less and hire a full day nanny and do the cleaning and cooking myself. Hmmm….. its kind of difficult to go back to that now, I would rather spend my time with my baby. So here I am. In 15 months, I have settled in the very Indian lifestyle of not being able to do without a domestic help – but still not settled enough to give up my family privacy for round the clock help.

I am slowly mastering the art of managing these 3 women employed by me. And believe me, it is similar to people management in the corporate world – just at a different level :-). You need to be very clear in allocating individual tasks, you need to resolve conflicts when they start arguing with each other and you need to manage their expectation while giving out Diwali bonus!! As I interact more with them, I get an insight in their lives as well. And I am amazed to see how different their lives are from the time when I was growing up.

From those days I remember a poignant picture of a poor, untidy woman sweeping the floor, or an underaged girl in a dirty frock taking care of a baby in a pretty frock. They worked for getting two meals a day. They spent their childhood serving in other people’s house and later sent their children to do the same. There was no dream or a chance of a dream for a better future. But I see a different picture in new India – a positive picture of a well-groomed, professional woman with a cell phone. The child labour law finally has seen real implementation in the cities. I do not see their children working at other people’s house anymore – they are in school. And they are not sending their children to a government subsidized school because sending them to work is prohibited. They are sending them to a private English medium school in the hope to get them the best education. They earn an honest living and dream of a better future.

So if the dependency on domestic help and their “affordable cost” sounded intimidating to you, I hope this fact about their improved lifestyle would sound inspiring.

Back to Blogging

Today someone commented on my last post and it helped me remember that I have a blog. The whole of 2010 passed without a post. But now I have made a new year resolution for 2011 – I will have at least one post each month !!

2010 was an eventful year in my life. There have been so many changes – settling down in Bangalore, surviving the summer heat and then the arrival of the little angel in our lives, a wedding in the family and so much more. Life in 2010 was so different from 2009 that I can not say it was a new chapter in my life – it was the beginning of a whole new book. Now that I am back to blogging, I am finding it difficult to choose a topic. There’s so much to write about, so much to explore!

So I have decided to continue from where my husband left on the R2I series : Return to India (R2I as they say!!) . He jotted down his initial experiences in settling back in India. Now after a year, we do not find any such experience worth mentioning. We are settled back into the system so well that we got used to the great Indian stare, the crowd, the traffic and the false promises made by the customer service guys etc. So what I am going to write about is my very personal observation of my country and it’s culture after spending 7 years away. And I have a title for this new series – “Inspiring, Intimidating – Incredible India”. I would try to be as much non-controversial as possible :-). Will be back soon with the first post of the series.

To change or not to change

Like all the women in today’s world, I had the choice of whether to change my last name after marriage or not. I had told my husband before marriage that I would never change. Not because of any feminist view, simply because my name had been my identity since my childhood and I did not see a reason why my identity should change after marriage.

In ancient times, there was no choice. A woman did not have an identity of her own. She was supported by her father till she was married off and then the responsibility shifted to her husband.  So her identity at a given point of time, had to carry the name of the man in her life who supported her at that time.

That made sense in those times. But in today’s world a woman has her own unique identity which is known to her acquaintances by her name. Marriage adds on to her social circle, but there is no need to change her name to be identified in the new circle. Then, what sense does it make to change the last name to her husband’s last name in today’s world?

When I got married, I was already working in the US. I did not need a proof of marriage for visa purpose. The question of changing the last name never came up in the family circle as everyone considered it an unnecessary hassle. Some of my colleagues had asked me if I would change my long last name now that I was married. One of the reasons quoted was that when you make a flight or hotel reservation over phone you have to spell both the last names. Having one last name, you can save some hassle. Is that a big hassle really? Well, if my first name was simpler like Sita or Gita, probably it would have made sense. But I have to spell my 9 letter long first name anyway, then what’s the problem in spelling out 9 more letters for the last name?

So I stayed married for 5 years without ever considering to change my last name. Then what happened now – so is the question of many of my girl friends. Well, being married makes you life -partners, not exactly a family. You become a family the moment a child comes to the picture. So now with the baby coming, it made sense to me to have one common last name for the family. Again, not much for any practical purpose. Some told me that it would be difficult to get the kid’s passport if the mother and the kid do not have the same last name. But others said they did not have any issue with that. I am sure it is not required for the mother and the kid to have the same last name in any legal procedure in India. India being a patriarchal society however, it might be required for the father and the kid to have the same last name. My reason for me wanting to change my last name to my husband’s last name at this point of time is simply driven by my wish to have the same last name for my family.

So now we are the “Karimpana“s. A unique surname for Indian standard (9 letters again). If you want to know how we landed up on this one, you can read on: http://ajithkarimpana.wordpress.com/2009/01/17/namefate/

Not only I had the choice of changing my last name, I also had the choice of picking which last name I wanted my husband to retain :-). We decided on “Karimpana”, first because we both got used to it while in the US, and second we like the fact that nobody can guess the caste from the sound of it. In India, there is a general tendency of guessing the caste from the last name; and we did come across people for whom it matters and they asked indirectly what religion/caste we belong to. So we like this last name from which people will not be making judgement on us based on their prejudices. But we are also well aware that it does not sound that cool and our kid may not like it at all. Then we will give the kid the same choice I had – to change his or her last name whenever it makes sense to him/her 🙂 !!

The alpha numeric identity

Today, after a very long time, I read an Assamese novel. The story by Anuradha Sharma, is about a woman’s experience in a university girls’ hostel and it took me down the memory lane as well.

I was thinking about how a number associated with your temporary stay in an academic campus becomes an integral part of your memory of that time.  The street address of my childhood home or my previous apartment does not come to mind when I remember the times spent there. But following two alpha-numeric numbers are etched in my mind along with the memories of two special phases in my life.

F212 – It was the room number in Indira Gandhi hall in IIT Kharagpur(KGP), which was my address for 1 & 1/2 years. I remember how I had to struggle to get this particular room allotted to myself so that I could be in the same floor with my two best friends in KGP. The room, next to the stairs near the bathroom, was not the best location in the building. But being strategically located at the junction of two wings, this room became the center of most gossip sessions. Some would call me the resident of “F212” rather than calling “F212” my room. The news paper guy would leave the papers subscribed by individual girls, in the foyer and my papers would be tagged “F212”. The mess-duty girl would check my preference in the menu everyday, and I would be identified in the list as “F212”. This number became my identity during my short but blissful stay in KGP.

E2079 – It was the apartment number in Chapin Apartment complex in SUNY Stony Brook, which was again my address for 1 & 1/2 years. Here again I had to go through some struggle to get allotted to this apartment where already three other Indian  girls were staying. I even lied to the campus residence office that I was a vegetarian and preferred an apartment with other vegetarian Indian girls. 🙂 Eventually we became a gang of 5, living in the house. Chores like cooking and cleaning became fun group activities. How many complains we had to endure for high noise level, but we never stopped our out-of-tune singing sessions and mid-night laughing sessions. Slowly people started recognizing us as residents of “E2079”, rather than our names or departments. Surely this became our unique identity in the Stony Brook campus.

No matter how many years pass by, these two alpha-numeric numbers will always remain parts of my identity.

Namesake

Jhumpa Lahiri’s famous book “Namesake” touched upon something which was so natural to me that I never thought of it as an issue.  Everyone from north-east India has at least two names – one by which he or she is called in the family (the “pet name”) and the other by which he or she is known to the world (the “good name”).

Everyone from that region is so accustomed to the tradition that there has never been any confusion about a person’s identity based on the name. As a child when I was introduced to a guest visiting for the first time, my parents would decide which name to give out depending on their relation with the visitor. And depending on which name was used, I would understand whether the visitor is in the close family circle or just an acquaintance. So my father’s cousin would know me as “Monmi”, my pet name. But if he ever happens to call my office or contact any of my college friends, he would make sure to find out my good name and refer to me as “Aparajita”. Now I represent an extreme case of this multi-name system as I have more than one pet names in different family circles. I know exactly how to introduce myself to an extended family member depending on which circle he or she extends from.

There is no problem as long as the people in all your “family circles” is part of the same system. Problem occurs when you get someone outside the system to these circles. My husband was the first one in my life to raise this as an issue. He has been quite comfortable with various names that I have in different circles. But he had signed up for this with only one person – not everyone in the family!! Since he was considered a part of each of my family circles, everyone else was introduced to him with their pet names. This would work fine as long as he had to speak to them in person or over phone. But now there are emails and Orkut. (Yes, I forgot to mention that we prefer to keep our “good names” in the internet.)  So my poor husband now has to associate all the “good names” in his Orkut friends list to the respective “pet names” he has known !!

Initially I was not able to understand at all why he should be so bugged about it. But it dawned upon me when I compared this with my frustration over my husbands multiple sur-names – something from the naming system in south India.

Now we both realize that a complicated “namesake” is an Indian thing that we both share !!