Choreless in Paradise

My mother was at best a responsible housewife and reluctant cook, but now we had servants: David to bake and cook the meals, Nunu to serve them and do the dishes, Annie to look after us children, Fatima to do the laundry, a mali to tend the garden and a sweeper to clean the floors. For the first time in her life, my mother was freed to develop her talents, to homeschool not only her own children, but the those of others as well. Thanks to colonialism, with a little help from the caste system, I grew up without chores.

To critics who observe that such a retinue was hardly in keeping with missionary nonmaterialism, my mother would explain firmly that she would have liked to have done with far fewer, but although her servants were Christians, not even she could fight the centuries-old system of caste. The cook wouldn’t do dishes, it was beneath the bearer to tend the garden, the ayah refused to do laundry and only an untouchable would stoop to sweep a floor. And stoop he did, speaking to no one, his haunches rocking from one calloused heel to the other, as his short-handled brush hissed like a snake across our glossy floors.

David and Annie James, our cook and ayah—my favorites—accepted me with unusual kindness. Annie was a small slim woman who wore white cotton saris with bright borders, her dark hair pinned into a neat bun at her neck, a patient smile on her face. Her whereabouts were always known to me, musically betrayed by countless glass bangles. She never took them off, not even to sleep or wash. She’d have to break them to remove them, she told me. I begged for glass bangles like Annie’s. Tempting displays were frequently arrayed like rainbows on a cloth in the driveway by a wallah who’d unpacked them from the huge bundle he’d carried in on his head, but my mother forbade them. They could slit my wrists, she said.

Annie’s husband David wore a white uniform and sometimes even a chef’s hat when he worked, his creased, good-humored face hovering over steaming pans atop a mud, coal-burning stove. The kitchen often lured with new-to-me fragrances of baking bread, boiling buffalo milk and banana cream pie. One day, I found David outside on the back kitchen stoop plucking the feathers out of a chicken, the bird’s severed head lying in a nearby puddle of blood next to his ax. He had a firm grip on the bird, I noticed with relief—I’d once watched our dinner escape and run headless around the vegetable garden, a sight so disturbing I’d thrown up under the banana trees. As I’d never seen a half-plucked bird do that, I sat beside him, assuming the squat Pakistanis preferred to chairs. Why, I asked David, were he and Annie so unusually dark and small? David took no apparent offense. He and Annie were from Bombay, he said, a very hot city in southern India where many people happened to be small and dark like him.

If Annie and David felt any resentment at their own quarters—one room and a mud-walled courtyard behind the house next to the kitchen garden—they never took it out on me. I often escaped our silent house to squat between that wall and the row of sweet pea vines that lined the path to the servants’ quarters. I could hear the pungent spices sputtering over the open fire, smell the olfactory fireworks. I would bury my face in cool mounds of pink and purple, white and blue, and listen to the lively chatter of Annie and David’s six children on the other side of the wall.

Now in my seventies, I still blame my unkempt house on a childhood absent of dishes and dusting, when little more was required of me than attention to rules for my safety and, of course, good manners.

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