The lovely lies we tell ourselves about the women hired to raise us

Dear maid.
Dear maid.
Image: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui
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This morning my alarm went off just as I had settled down in the Pyongyang apartment of four young women who work as tour guides for the North Korean government.

In the dream, my husband and I were visiting the country as special guests of Kim Jong Un and, inexplicably, visiting Ganga, the old Bengali woman who had helped raise me and my brother in New Delhi in the 1990s, and was now working as a cook for the tour guides. I have dreamt about Ganga in the past; there is a reason she is a recurring character in my subconscious. Ganga was a force.

In the battle between nature and nurture, she is proof of the power of nurture. Under the right circumstances and with the right education, I am certain that she would be the dictator of a mid-sized nation by now. Instead, she lives in a small village hours outside Calcutta, in West Bengal, India, at the mercy of a daughter-in-law she deeply dislikes.

Ganga was a little under five feet tall, round, dark-skinned, and had only one eye. Her hair was long, black, and thick—something she proudly claimed was the result of a teaspoonful of fish oil taken daily. I had never known her to wear anything except a white widow’s sari that she draped in the traditional Bengali style in which the pallu falls in front of the shoulder. She weighed down the end of her pallu with a heavy set of keys that made it possible to hear her coming from the next room. She did not know her age, which was testament to her approximate age—she was born before birth years mattered.

Ganga joined our family when I was five years old and my brother was ten. I don’t remember quite how she came into our lives. What I do remember is that she loved us. My parents, both academics, worked full time and Ganga, along with my maternal grandparents who lived in the building next door, played a defining role in our childhoods.

Ganga lived with us in our apartment in East Delhi. She cooked, and she cared for me and my brother. In the hot summer afternoons, after lunch, when we would sit with the air-conditioning on, doing homework at the dining table, Ganga would nap on the ground next to us. Once we were done, she would make us cheese toast or puffed rice with spices, and sit and watch American television shows with us. When there was an accompanying laugh track, Ganga always laughed along. Even when there wasn’t, she knew exactly what was going on and was as invested in Kevin Arnold’s romance with Winnie Cooper as I was.

She understood the programs even though she had never learned English. In fact, she had never formally had any education and was always most comfortable speaking in Bengali. But she had an obvious knack for languages and in our home, even though we all spoke mostly Bengali, she quickly picked up English and Marathi, the other two languages we used. By living and interacting in Delhi, she also learned Hindi. One night, I left one of my French textbooks in her room so I suspect she became fluent in French.

Everyone in the neighborhood knew Ganga and she knew everyone. In the evenings, she would sit, with her one eye and white sari, on the pavement near the local fish-seller. There, she kept track of all the neighborhood gossip and also made sure the best cuts of fish were saved for us.

Ganga was fiercely caring towards our family, and to me and my brother within the family. She loved us in a different way than our parents and grandparents loved us. When they scolded or disciplined us, she scolded them. She baked us cakes and let me lick clean the empty cans of condensed milk. When I developed an aversion to eggplant and refused to eat it, she loved me enough to mince it up so it was completely disguised, and then lie to me and insist there wasn’t any eggplant in the dish.

We lived on the fourth floor of a building and, like everyone else in the building, our clothes were often hung out to dry on ropes that extended out past our balcony. The water from those clothes would sometimes drip down to the clothes drying on the balcony below. If the third floor neighbors ever came up to complain about the drip, saying that their clothes were almost dry until ours were put out and made them wet all over again, Ganga would yell at them and ask them what else they expected us to do. If, however, the fifth floor neighbors above us made the mistake of letting water from their washing drip onto our slightly drier washing, she would march upstairs and lecture them about their drying until they were forced to find space inside their homes to dry their clothes. Ganga was our guardian.

In 1996, my grandfather died suddenly of a heart attack and my family was wounded. The afternoon we got the news is, fortunately, a blur to me now. It was summer, it was hot, and our friends and neighbors all gathered to share our misery. I remember Ganga holding me as I cried. Even though she herself was crying, I did not realise then, that she also was mourning. They had never sat together at a dinner table but she also loved my grandfather. But that day, I focused my concern primarily on myself and then on my grandmother and mother.

Did Ganga love me more than I loved her? Was that a question I was even allowed to ask?

I think I still try not to ask it. I notice as I’m writing this that it has been largely in past tense. But Ganga is still living. She is not, however, a part of the life I currently lead, splitting my time between New York City and Mumbai.

It is a lovely and necessary narrative we create—that the women who help raise us are like family. But while I speak to and see my parents (and even my remaining grandmother) regularly, I have not seen Ganga in many years. To reach her village, I would have to fly to Calcutta, take a train, then a bus, and then a bullock cart. And once in her village, then what? Her India is simply not my India. I am not equipped to live in a hut and walk into the woods to use the toilet. I am accustomed to electricity, filtered water, and cement.

I have spoken to her on the phone a handful of times since she moved back to her village. That is not easy to do. I must call the landline of the one local shop and tell the owner to send a messenger to her to tell her to come to the shop in an hour when I will try calling again. A lot of variables have to be in place in order for me to hear her voice.

Last year, my brother and his wife had their first child. My brother managed to reach Ganga to tell her the news. Across a scratchy phone line, she cried loudly with joy. In New York, there is a nanny who looks like a larger, younger, two-eyed version of Ganga, who cares for my new nephew during the week. She adores him and spends far more hours per week with him than I do.

When I go to visit, I scoop him out of her arms and play with him and then hand him back to her when it’s time for me to head out and go about my own day. Right now, at ten months old, he reacts to her the same way he does to me—with laughter and claps when she enters the room. I wonder when we realise the difference between our families and the people who are hired to help take care of us? Thirty years from now, will my nephew call her to tell her he’s going to be a father?

I don’t know how Ganga felt when she went back home. I know that she wanted to return to her village and her family but when she did, did she miss us and ache for us or did she feel like she had happily retired from a job? A job that she did extremely well but a job nonetheless. And perhaps the more difficult question: how do I want her to feel? Do I want her to miss me? Or do I want her to see me as only a job she once held. For her sake, of course, the latter. For my own, I’m not sure.