SUNDAY MAGAZINE

Diary of a Maidservant

Exclusive extracts from Krishna Baldev Vaid’s new Hindi novel, soon to be published in an English translation.

Diary of a Maidservant, Krishna Baldev Vaid, translated by Sagaree Sengupta, OUP, price not stated.

The generous, educated Mrs. Varma gives her teenage maidservant Shanti a notebook to write in. Through this “diary” Shanti discovers all kinds of things about herself — impulses, dreams, contradictions. The same diary unfolds some of the forces an intelligent but poor girl has to contend with in burgeoning New Delhi. Shanti copes with a family struggling to survive, predatory males, demanding memsahibs, and a multitude of her own desires. Even the kindness of her middle-aged employers, Biji and Newspaper Sahib — two people who idealistically set out to improve Shanti’s lot in life — brings problems with it. Krishna Baldev Vaid has dedicated this book to hard-working women domestics. As in his other work, he thrusts the reader directly into the complications of everyday relationships, this time between masters and servants and men and women. Excerpts…Ma says masters and mistresses are by nature mean, you can’t trust them, they don’t have any sympathy for our kind, so you should never trust what they say. Ma has gotten old scrubbing other people’s pots and pans. Just like Ma, I’ll grow old slogging as a servant. My children too. I shouldn’t have quit school. By now I’d have passed my tenth. But then what? I’d still be a maidservant who’d managed to pass her tenth. Now I’m one who has failed her eighth. I too will get old scrubbing pots and pans like my mother. But I’ll never marry. I’ll never have children. I’m a maidservant of the new age. I feel like laughing and crying at the same time. Fatty Mem began yakking again while I was dusting today. What is it you people eat that gives you so much energy? You’ll break everything to bits! How many times do I have to tell you that you’ve got to handle my things gently! The way she throws them around! And such expensive things, too! God only knows if there are any brains in that head of hers or just bhoosa! Ma says, Let her carry on and you go on doing your work quietly; as soon as you get another house to work in, you can quit hers. Ma says all mistresses are alike. They’re all as mistrustful and miserly as you can get. And the masters are all lecherous and lustful. But this Fatty is the worst! Fatty is jealous of me. She knows I’m prettier than her. Her husband knows it too. Poor thing. All mistresses are jealous of their young maidservants. They see them as potential co-wives. They are afraid the maidservants will steal their husbands. Ma says some maidservants do just that…

There was a rumpus in the Bengali household today. Now these Bengalis aren’t real Bengalis — they’ve been here so long that they’ve become half-Hindustani. They speak a mixed language, a sort of khichadi. The cause of the rumpus was that their elder daughter Jharna has become entangled with some Muslim chap. Somehow, Jharna’s mother Lakshmi found out about this today and began to scream and yell. The Saab kept begging her not to do such a tamasha in front of Shanti, (that’s me), but she seemed possessed…

I didn’t even feel like going over to Newspaper Saab’s. I’d have to make up a lie to tell him tomorrow, so what? Newspaper Saab is an innocent man. Any lie at all would work with him. I’ve noticed that elderly men are often innocent. Sometimes they’re a bit stupid too. But not all of them! Some old men are real rascals, such as our hakeem. The Newspaper Saab is very well-educated, but completely simple. He never sees through my lies. He believes whatever I tell him. Ma says his wife left him. She says he’s not totally dumb. She says newspaper people are never totally dumb. Maybe they’re not, but this one is. Privately, I think of him as “uncle”. Ma says, old fellows are real rogues. And newspaper fellows! …He never suspects me of stealing anything. That’s why I like him. And he’s likable, too. There are always piles of papers and books in every room at his place.

I’d really like to quit working for Fatty, but then I like her son. I like looking at him, and he likes looking at me… Today he was ogling me wide-eyed while I cleaned. Actually, he was ogling my breasts. His eyes were glued to them. No, he was feeling them up with his eyes while I continued to clean as if there was no one else there besides myself. My kameez was open at the neck and made of thin cloth… Ma says these days you can’t trust your own father and brother, or even a dead man for that matter.

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