March 8th, 2007 - Anu Kumar
On a day the world’s women celebrate themselves, Morgina did not turn up to work. Not at her usual time, not even an hour later.
Earlier that year, we had moved from crowded, cosmopolitan, Mumbai (always Bombay to me, and not merely for the name’s nostalgic value) to Gurgaon, near Delhi. Bombay was where I worked for a liberal magazine, a place I loved. However, I still had an open mind about Gurgaon, a town that had leapfrogged to a medieval modernity. It had all the world’s IT companies, glitzy malls and high-rise buildings with state-of-the-art security systems.
Every so often, especially on slow-moving summer afternoons, a vile dust would come dancing up from hills in the west and weave through Gurgaon’s streets. The dust seeped through windows, snaked past every available gap; it arranged itself in fine grainy layers on furniture, especially bookshelves, and left a brown layer on everything exposed. One needed a domestic helper to tame the dust, and Morgina had already worked for us for two months before the day she vanished.
Morgina was ‘sent’ to me by a neighbor.
"She works for me in the mornings, but she can come over to yours for an hour. You don’t have much to clean, since it’s just you and your husband, but make sure you give Morgina enough work to fill that hour." My friend added that I must never allow the maids to feel too important. Calling them domestic helpers was quite unwise. "Monitor her. If you are casual, these people will see through you and adjust accordingly. They are flexible that way."
My friend instructed me to negotiate the salary. "If Morgina’s going to come to work for you on the 10th or any date, pay her on pro-rata basis, and only pay her on that date."
Besides these rules, there was advice: do not completely believe their stories. Their excuses could be fiction. And one must never get too friendly with them. It’s all about getting them to do the work.
I forgot these warnings when Morgina didn’t arrive for work the first time. When Morgina did appear, two days later, calm and nonchalant in the manner I had come to associate with her, she told me her husband had been picked up by the police. Morgina’s husband was a rickshaw puller and he ventured out only in the afternoons, after Morgina had returned from working in other people’s apartments. Morgina’s husband had no money to give the police their weekly bribe. The police were insistent, she said. If he didn’t pay them the ‘hafta,’ they threatened to arrest him as an illegal immigrant from Bangladesh.
“When the police do that, we are helpless.” Morgina said. “We don’t have papers, a ration card. We never had money to stand in line. And the man who can stand in line for rations demands money. Someone ran away with our money.”
I felt guilty for not paying Morgina her salary earlier. It could have saved her husband from police harassment. I gave Morgina the money so she could get someone to stand in line for her ration card. After that, Morgina never seemed to run out of stories. She began to linger after work every day. She gossiped, telling me about how a little girl in another flat followed the servants around in every room, monitoring them; how a husband and wife quarreled in another house, and the way a mother-in-law nagged her son’s wife constantly in another home. I reciprocated by telling Morgina about her namesake, the clever helper from the Arabian Nights’ story of Ali Baba.
Perhaps working for a left-leaning magazine taught me to appreciate the unexpected stories that come my way from such chance encounters. And maybe that is why I broke every rule, and ignored every advice when it came to domestic helpers. My apartment was unquestionably the dustiest, something in-laws frowned over and found fault with.
Morgina left suddenly.
One day she didn’t turn up. After a while, when she still hadn’t returned, I knew she never would.
"The police told Morgina and her husband to go," I heard a friend say.
"Some maids went to the other new high-rise which offers better pay," said another.
All stories about Morgina were somehow incomplete. But, I feel sure Morgina’s story was, and is, happy. Since then, I’ve learned to accept, and to love, incomplete stories and all the possibilities they contain.
Anu Kumar is a graduate of Vermont College of FIne Arts' MFA Program in Writing. Her most recent novel is Emperor Chandragupta (Hachette India), and she also writes regularly on books for Scroll.in