In the States, a typical household has two working parents who are still expected to cook and clean. The beauty of an aya is that they are the ones who do this, so you can come home from work to food already on the table. A full time aya position is seven hour days, six days a week, so they are responsible for two meals a day — the only day to think about is Sunday.
Upon my arrival to India Ketaki had employed Sheela only for the month of May — she could only work part-time, and that wasn’t going to work for us long-term. But the person we were going to use couldn’t start until July, so we kept her on in June. During the month of June we talked about keeping her for good — she is very fast, very trustworthy, and her Tamil cooking is excellent. But she spoke little English and had no idea how to cook Western food, which was very important to our younger son Noah, who didn’t want to move to India in the first place. In the end, we decided to keep her. I would work on both the language barrier and the Western food.
This is Sheela.
She has a gorgeous smile, but there is no way I can get that out of her for a photo — Indians are traditionally very stoic and formal during photograph sessions.
Before I left, someone asked me if I as going to learn Tamil. My answer was “no.” While my answer sounds a bit disrespectful, I had my reasons. I have enough of a time learning foreign languages in general — I have to re-learn Hindi every time I visit, and I know very little Bengali. Neither of these languages are spoken in Tamil Nadu — Tamil is very different from them — and enough English is spoken here to get by.
But I hadn’t thought of the aya issue — and so I am learning Tamil. We treat Sheela with utmost respect, pay her well, and give her food to take home. The hard efforts she puts in day in and day out is her doing — we want her to do her job and do it well, but at the same time she isn’t our work horse.
Our boys think they can leave the house a mess because we have a maid; they are wrong.
She is a widow with full-grown children — she looks so young! We like her and we want to help her. I think in the end keeping Sheela was the right decision, but it will take time to rectify both her weaknesses and ours.