Over the last few weeks, my wife
Radhika, the extended family and I have been low —
overwhelmed by one health crisis after another. A
much loved mother having cancer flare up yet again;
a long serving maid having had to go through four
chemotherapies, a radical mastectomy and now being
prepped up for four more chemo-sessions followed by
two dozen bursts of radio-therapy; another mother
suffering from acute osteoporosis and mid-stage
dementia. Plus deaths of parents of close friends.
We’ve been consoling each other saying, “This too
shall pass”, but without conviction — as repeating
this litany would soften our lament. Till today.
Having almost completed building a house in Goa, we
have been actively searching for a reliable person
or a couple who could take care of the place. After
some failed attempts, Radhika spread the word far
and wide. Yesterday, she said that a super-confident
Hindi-speaking lady had rung her up and wanted to be
interviewed; and that she would be coming to meet us
the next day.
At 11.30 in the morning in walked two young ladies.
Sisters. Let’s call the job candidate Uma, and her
accompanying sister, Ruma. Here is the story. They
are two of three sisters, all in their thirties.
Their father, who is in his seventies, used to work
at the Chelmsford Club. After losing his wife five
years ago, he has become increasingly depressed, and
is now cared for by the girls. Two of the sisters
are married. Uma, the one who wants to move to Goa,
split from her husband twelve years ago, and has a
girl who has just finished Class Six. From hearing
about all three and talking with two of them, it
seemed to us that the siblings were close-knit,
extremely independent and seriously competent
Here is what we have gleaned about Uma from herself,
her sister and her brother-in-law, whom we know
otherwise and who recommended her to us. She studied
up to Class 10. Was married off early and became a
mother at 19 or 20. The husband split soon after
child-birth. She wanted a divorce, for which her
husband demanded custody of the child. She refused.
So he went AWOL, and hasn’t been seen since. She and
her sisters brought up the child.
Having studied up to Class 10, Uma started working
as a sales-girl in a large store in New Delhi’s tony
Khan Market for six to seven years. Thereafter, she
started working as a child-minder and housekeeper
for expatriate couples in Delhi — mostly Europeans —
and continues doing so till now.
For a while, Uma entertained hopes of getting a
domestic helper’s job abroad, which the lucky ones
do get, for either expatriate Indian families in
Singapore, Hong Kong or Dubai, or the diplomats and
World Bank / IMF / UN families as they return to
bases abroad. She even got herself a passport.
Unfortunately, such a job didn’t materialise.
So, she was looking out for a higher paid job of a
full-time housekeeper, which brought her to us.
Radhika explained to her the travails of taking care
of a large house in Goa — often-time living alone in
the property in a part of the world very different
from the Delhi that she was born, brought-up and
worked in; away from the support of her family; and
in an unknown, less urban area where people spoke
Konkani instead of Hindi. Nothing phased her. She
exuded the confidence to make a success out of a
We offered Uma the job, on her terms, making it
clear that since we didn’t negotiate with her about
what she asked, we would expect her to work with us
as long as our other maids have in Delhi. She
understood that and acquiesced. We shook hands.
Neither Radhika nor I know how Uma will turn out to
be. Hopefully well, as has been the case with our
other maids. But we were both hugely impressed by
her confidence; her determination to make a better
life for herself and her daughter; the support that
she had from her sister; and the simple clarity with
which she wanted to move on and improve her pay and
Uma made us feel good about the fact that there are
still so many independent minded women who want to
earn a decent livelihood; and will go far enough to
do so, if the odds look good. We pray that she will
continue impressing us as she has today; that we can
take care of her daughter’s education and bringing
up; and that two more good people will be liberated
from a certain life — because of the capability,
confidence and chutzpah of a mother who wants
change. May there be many more Umas in India. They
Published: Business World, April