My Bai, the Cleaner of My Conscience


My Bai, the Cleaner of My Conscience

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

When I moved out of my parents’ house, I went forth into the world with a renewed sense of independence and a can-do attitude. One year later, however, the backbreaking labour of washing dishes and sweeping floors turned my can-do into canned. As a freshly minted adult trying to run a house on his own, it dawned on me that apart from rent, groceries, and bills, I would also need to keep aside a portion of my rapidly vanishing salary to hire a house help.

That’s when I met Chandramukhi. The world may look upon her as my bai, but she is actually my teacher. It’s from her that I learnt how to make a snap judgment.

In the initial days, I used to think the Devdas connection with her name was funny, until it became dangerously apparent that Chandramukhi might actually drive me to develop a drinking problem. How else would I escape the immense pressure of her expectations of me? Even though it’s been years since I sat for an exam, the moment the doorbell rings at 8 am, I break into the kind of cold sweat I’d experience before entering an examination hall.

First, I need to ensure my face is washed and my teeth are brushed, so that I don’t look like I’ve just gotten out of bed when she arrives. Because the latter is just an invitation for her to throw shade in the form of an “Aaj office nahi jana hai?” And then, God forbid I haven’t had time to pack away my laptop, or she’ll refuse to clean anything on the table around it, because “computer dust se kharaab hota hai.”

I’ve often wondered whether it’s better to be inside or outside the house while she’s cleaning. For Chandramukhi is adept at ensuring that I feel hunted all the time.

It usually begins with her emptying my ashtray into the dustbin while making full eye contact. The reek of disapproval overpowers those of the cigarette butts. Once, when I wore the same tattered t-shirt through a weekend-long Netflix binge, she mocked me for not understanding the concept of laundry. “Pata hai, aap washing machine mein ghar ke kapde bhi daal sakte ho, sirf office-wale nahi.” Thanks for the lifehack, Chandramukhi.

She will treat rings left by chai mugs on the table as unforgivable war crimes, berating me while scrubbing them and reminding me of the existence of my coasters. (What confounds me is how these same rings somehow become invisible to her when I’m not around.)

Over the past year, we’ve developed a unique give-and-take relationship. I give her a monthly salary and she doubles up as my tough-love therapist.

Chandramukhi’s blindness is selective; I’ve seen how razor-sharp her observation skills are. It’s almost a superpower, one that she mostly employs to embarrass me and make me feel bad about my existence. Should I ever buy a family pack of cookies and finish them in one decadent midnight snack session, she’ll waste no time in acting shocked about their disappearance when she arrives the next morning. “Poora kha liya? Baap re baap, bhaiyya. Ab toh exercise shuru karna hoga!” she’ll say with mock concern, looking squarely at my midriff. I am certain she secretly congratulates herself on that sick burn – she’s after all reminded me that I’m both, a glutton and a couch potato in one breath.

Her powers of observation operate at their highest capacity when either my girlfriend’s parents or mine come to visit. Like a waiter rattling off the menu at an Udipi restaurant, she’s capable of reciting a litany comprising every smoke you’ve had, every party you’ve thrown, and every time you’ve spent your grocery money on cup noodles and beer. Forget Aadhaar and the NSA, my maid sets the gold standard for violating privacy guidelines and snooping around.

Over the past year, we’ve developed a unique give-and-take relationship. I give her a monthly salary and she doubles up as my tough-love therapist. I might ignore Chandramukhi’s judgey glances when I’m smoking and her taunts about my binge-eating and life in general, but she’s the only reason I still have a life. Growing up in a house where I was the “Baba”, I never quite realised how time-consuming it was just picking up after myself, until I moved out. If it wasn’t for Chandramukhi’s helping hand, I’d be going straight from a keyboard at work to a jhadoo at home, with no room left for any personal, mental, or professional growth.

They say that when you don’t achieve the goals you’d set out to accomplish, the universe will instead bring you something that you didn’t know you needed. And so it is with Chandramukhi. I moved out of my house to find my independence. What I found instead, was a person who made me question everything about myself. If that’s not the surest path to self-discovery, I don’t know what is.