“Look at this lunch box!” SR exclaims.
“What’s wrong?” I ask, pointedly ignoring the smudges of Vim around its edges.
“This is intolerable. You have to tell Vasantha to wash the dishes properly,” he complains.
I agree meekly, the very thought making my stomach churn. I have tried giving her constructive feedback only once before. It did not go well.
“Vasantha,” I had said naively, “You haven’t cleaned the bedroom properly – just look at the quantity of dust under the cot!”
Her eyes widened. Without a word, she turned around, got the mop and duster and barged into the bedroom. (SR, who was changing, yelped and rushed for cover.) She lifted the mattress and tried moving the cot onto its side single-handedly.
“What are you doing? Let me help…” I tried to intervene.
“Vendamma, venda… naane panren…” she wouldn’t let me.
In the next one hour, she tipped most of our furniture onto its side, raised a perfect hell storm of dust, emptied buckets and buckets of water onto the bathroom floor, and scrubbed all the kitchen utensils we had, including three sets of unpacked dinnerware we had got as a wedding gift. She spurned every offer of help.
All the while, she muttered steadily under her breath. Every now and then, we would hear snatches of how it wouldn’t matter even if she worked herself to death, because no one – not even the man she had been looking after for thirty years – would care, and how she would probably collapse on her way down to the car porch. SR and I sat mortified in the living room.
I was young then, foolish.
All night, I lie awake, trying to frame diplomatic ways of presenting the matter. The following morning, as we are having coffee, I mutter nervously under my breath,
“Vasantha, this here lunch box, you see… perhaps you could oblige me by looking at it? If you don’t mind, could you please consider…”
The doorbell rings. I quail in my seat. SR looks exasperated.
Vasantha enters. She is a small, dark woman with the long, mournful face of a Basset hound. A couple of months ago, while we were taking a long break, I told her she needn’t come to work for two weeks; essentially, paid leave. She looked as though I had given her a very poor quote for both her kidneys.
Today, she handed me a packet of sweets and said sorrowfully, “En payyanukku kalyanam fix aaydchu!” My son’s wedding has been fixed.
“Oh… er, very nice.” I say. She smiles sadly and disappears into the kitchen.
SR hisses, “That’s no excuse! She has been doing a half-baked job for months now! You tell her to do her work properly – show her who’s boss!”
I settle into the living room couch, pretending to look busy while glancing surreptitiously at her every few minutes. I am waiting for an opportune moment. She swishes the dust from one corner of the room to the other. Half of it rises and settles back down. She ignores it – along with the cobwebs dangling just before her eyes. I debate whether I should draw her attention to it; then decide against it. Focus, I tell myself firmly. Focus on one thing.
A few minutes later, I hear the clanging of pots and pans in the kitchen. I summon up courage, walk up to her holding out the offending lunch box, clear my throat and begin,
“Vasantha… this… this lunch box… if you look at its rim, you can see…”
She turns around then, wringing her hands and nearly weeping, a picture of abject misery.
“What’s the matter?” I ask, distracted.
She looks as though she can hardly speak. Her lips tremble.
I imagine a death in the family. Cancer. Bankruptcy.
“Tell me, whatever it is!” I urge her.
She gathers courage and says, “Vim kaaliyayduthumma…”
We are out of Vim.
I say desperately, “No, no… I have an extra bar!”
I search for it frantically. As each second passes, Vasantha seems to shrink. I finally find it and thrust it into her hand in relief. “Please don’t cry!” I nearly add.
She smiles weakly and gets back to work.
I am shaken, reminded once again of the Bedroom Dusting Fiasco of 2011.
I return to the living room.
“Did you tell her?” SR asks suspiciously.
“Yes, the problem will be solved.” I say with dignity.
I plan to wash it myself, later.