The excitement early in the morning was palpable. Every member of the family was up by 7 a.m. and tried to do his/her bit to spruce up the house. I quickly set to work with cleaning the kitchen, tidying the beds, clearing cobwebs — in fine making the house look a liveable one. Anyone who saw us would know we were preparing for a big event. Only a mother-in-law’s visit would augur such levels of readiness and anxiety.

I had tutored the children and their father on how to put their best foot forward. Obviously, all of us wanted this second home-coming to be as welcome as it could be for our guest. The younger one even went a step further, suggesting a traditional arti and tilak, but the idea was promptly shot down as that would appear too over the top.

We had gone through the dos and don’ts so thoroughly that my eldest son, the moment he was asked, promptly rattled off the entire list like a waiter at a Udipi hotel. “No fuss over food — greeting with a smile — saying ‘thank you’ at the drop of a hat — running used plates under water before dumping them in the sink — no unreasonable orders etc, etc.”

Finally, when the doorbell rang, all of us leapt at once to open the door. To our chagrin, it was the milkman. He looked perplexed at seeing all of us waiting so eagerly for him. On other days, he would keep buzzing the bell and one of us would reluctantly attend to him with a scowl on the face.

But when the bell rang the next time, we exchanged knowing smiles. It was the same unmistakable, crisp, no-nonsense ring. We leapfrogged once more to throw ourselves at the door. I even ignored my husband, who literally received the guest with open arms!

Standing before us was Shantabai, our housemaid who had left us a month ago for greener pastures (frankly, she found us undeserving of her services). With hands on her hips, she sized us up suspiciously. Shantabai sensed the desperation writ large on our faces despite our best efforts to look composed. Following precise instructions, both my children clung to her by the hand lest she scoot from the house. She reluctantly crossed the threshold. As for me, every cell of my aching body wanted to give her a bear hug, never mind the heavy Vim-bar odour!

We seated her in a chair and surrounded her expectantly as if waiting for Moses to mouth his ten commandments. Shantabai too had done her homework well this time. Without wasting as much as a smile on us, she put forth her conditions. “A hike in salary, weekly off, medical leave, no extra guests, no recycled breakfast and tea, children to call her aunty, money for mobile recharging, memsahib not to yell, etc, etc.” Thus spake the Zarathustra …

Little did Shantabai know that she needn’t have wasted her breath as we were willing to pluck the moon for her if she had so desired. Quick to read our thoughts, she looked assured having had the last word. I would have strangled her for that smirk on her face but today the tables had turned. So keeping in view the emaciated members of my family I declared truce!

Just a month ago, in a fit of pride I shunted Shantabai out and declared I wasn’t one of those memsahebs who couldn’t get down on all her fours. Shantabai knew only too well that the next stage to getting down on all fours was lying flat on your face! She too left in a huff unable to bear the insult of being refused a hike. One maid-less month was enough to bring me down on my knees and exactly two sinkful of dirty plates to realise my folly. Before the week ended I was sending peacemakers and an ombudsman to Shantabai’s house. She did not relent until I personally pleaded with her to bail us out. So with pride restored, her majesty decided the date of her second coming.

Someone wisely said, “It’s the maids who make our homes a haven.”

(The writer is an assistant professor of English in Varanasi and can be reached at bhanumish9@gmail.com)

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