Homecoming Reflections

“My apologies, dear Reader, sometimes I listen, to learn, not judge……It was at the last Ladies Luncheon…”.

There are passionate voices extolling the virtues of professions over motherhood, of choices made, with the support of a husband or joint family, but are these coloured with a twinge of melancholy or is it guilt?

A doctor has to make a choice between serving her patients and her children. A business woman does feel pangs of unhappiness as she juggles her dual roles, while the two male ‘spouses’ at the lunch offer us balanced views on the topic. Education, one says, is what will help. Another lady reveals her husband asked her to stay at home with her children and she professes no regrets. There are smiles as she deftly averts her eyes and looks across the group, with just a glint of knowledge in her eyes.

A young wife then says, “One of America’s highest paid women executives has recently created a furore with her choice of words: “I don’t think women can have it all…..”

The group sighs in unison!

But wait, I muse, there is one person missing here – yes, a home-maker, one who is thrust into such a role by circumstance, not choice. I could be referring to myself here, as someone who has travelled across continents, resided in seven countries and the homeland, over the past three decades following my husband to his postings. Being in the foreign-service family is fascinating, vastly challenging in certain countries for the civil servant, but even more so for the ‘spouse’.

The government has graciously granted the spouse leave to work, within specific parameters that pose no direct or indirect conflict of interest. This is a given- to uphold the dignity of our country at all costs. However, jobs are not easily available in certain countries or at the time of a posting. Then there is the question of the existence of double-taxation. Then employers are not usually impressed with a chequered experience table. How may one fill in all the years given away to the family as a wife and mother? Some spouses are delighted to be home-makers and care-givers. Others decide to pursue their ambitions, in India, or even overseas. Some stay on, fulfil all their duties unstintingly, but often sit down and have a good cry, especially as the days turn to months, then years and the decades fly by.

Preparation for an event begins ~ Back lawn at India House Nairobi

Till it is time to return home, perhaps to retire, or fade into oblivion? The husband will retire as a Distinguished Citizen of India. The wife, who has worked unstintingly behind the scenes in varied roles supporting her husband, what will she be remembered for?

At this point in time, regrets? Perhaps a few. Remorse? I do not think so. A sense of guilt? Why? Did she not ‘have it all?’ The children are all grown – up, in their chosen fields, given the choices that she could not have made without upsetting the earlier generation. It is a hard cogged wheel that turns exceedingly slowly and painfully, for some of us. The question I am underscoring here is: why should I feel guilt for not having a career, if I stayed with my spouse and children, for not contributing to the monthly single-income? Does not earning make me a ‘bad’ mother? Has my unhappiness at not having a career or pensionable job lowered me in their esteem? Do they think that I ought to have been like some of my University batch mates, in high places- how did they manage to balance marital matters and motherhood with a profession?

Destiny, Karma ,call it what you may, or just the sheer outcome of having made the choice of getting married.

The questions and answers, not just at that Ladies Luncheon but also on TV panel discussions are difficult to answer or compartmentalize neatly.

Today, in urban India, young adults in their late-twenties or mid-thirties are quite happy to be professionals and single. They may accept their parents’ concern, or their opinions in their stride, but may not heed their advice. They are not afraid to voice their opinions either. Just chill! These are the smartphone kids, the short-texting generation, no voice calls really required. They are at ease anywhere- nationally or internationally. They traverse spaces with verve. Their parents are often stuck in limbo between two generations – two World Wars, Vietnam and the missions to the Moon. Now it is Mars. Unable to come to terms with this distancing or rather ‘my space’ or ‘my time’ or just plain ‘let me be’? Understandable, as today is fraught with a myriad deluge of issues. They need time to think, to gauge points of view and then arrive at their conclusions. We need to understand their anxiety and allow them to take their stands. They are the youth of today, the future is theirs to know.

Many have just barely escaped the vulnerability of adolescence.

What worries me is whether they are able to share their anxieties with their companions, in order to be happier or calmer and move forward. If they may overcome peer-pressure and the ticking of the biological clock. I cannot be sure if ‘guilt’ figures in their thoughts, given their independence and their choice of friends and careers. I can only wish them well, in whichever role or roles they choose and keep them safe in my prayers.

I only know that we all need to adapt to circumstances, at every stage in our lives.
And that a supportive husband, in-laws, parents, friends – these are the positive blessings in our lives.

And that women should not feel guilty about their choices.

Every day one fact stares us in the face – in this our homeland – the horror of crimes against women and children. No longer hidden away in dusty storerooms or barnyards, thrown into the depths of village wells or rivers, but right in our faces on national media. Can anyone, male or female, turn away from the horrific sight of those two young girls, hanging from a tree? Their hair tied in pigtails, thin young girls, dressed decently in traditional salwar-kameezes – yet to blossom into womanhood. Perhaps some macho types will shrug it off as what they deserved. Whether it is an honour killing for marrying out of caste, or for giving birth to girls (why is it still not public knowledge that it is the MALE chromosomes that determine the sex of a child?), whether it is for not receiving enough dowry or for answering back in justified distress or just to show a family that does not conform within a village what atrocities lie in store for its members… the list is endless. It is futile to even try to attempt to make those rapists pay for their heinous acts. Is there strength in numbers? Yes, when such crimes are committed. It gives those villains a sense of power, even to throw acid in someone’s face for having not accepted unwanted or uncalled for advances.

Is this who we are? A nation of listless citizens, not wanting to be involved in someone else’s tragedy?

Psychologists have long spoken about repressed adolescence in India. Most families are over-protective of their daughters yet may have sons who need to teach a fantasy-girlfriend a lesson like they do in the movies. But movies are mostly fictional but who will drill this fact into the heads of most of our people, no matter how much or how little they are educated?

No, it is not right to punch someone in the face for an insult, or eve-tease with whistles and cat-calls, even if a handsome hero or pretty heroine does it onscreen. No, it is not right to seek vengeance on a family over disputed land. Neither is it right to beat up the competition in winning the heroine’s heart or to rob banks and rich-guys, putting it simply, for the ‘better’ of the community in the village or chaawl or basti. Our TV serials are not helping either, with difficult sasumaas trying to interfere in a couple’s life and all sorts of unimaginable twists and tales.

Our rural and urban viewers are equally susceptible.

No, it is not right to admire vigilante justice or kangaroo courts that administer physical justice and humiliation, even if our film industry indulges in such fancy. But the public is fed up of the months, even years in courts, waiting for justice. In the meantime, the culprits are fed daily, allowed to exercise, meet visitors… until in the crime is often diffused by this sense of distance. This is inexcusable. Prompt justice is necessary for such heinous crimes. Laws need to be amended. We wait in anticipation for change.

But wait, does education not play a role on what is morally right and acceptable?

Can rape be defended on the grounds of meting punishment for an alleged grievance? This is the message that seems to be going out to the world.

Why are such subjects not introduced in national schools or adult literacy classes? We now have classes on agriculture beamed into rural community centres.

India must protect its own especially its young girls and boys, as boys are vulnerable too and not enough is spoken on their behalf.

Our children must be safe at school and their environment. CCTV cameras are all very professional but we must have responsible persons monitoring these visuals carefully not chatting and going to the canteen for chai whenever they wish to. Accountability is not a strong word in India. School managements must ensure safety for their pupils. One washroom attendant is not enough and background checks are very necessary, prior to hiring. Many international schools overseas insist on a mandatory police verification that is mentioned in advertisements for educators and non-teaching staff.

Then as parents, we need to keep our children safe at home. We cannot be suspicious all the time of relatives or friends, but need to question ourselves if they make our children uncomfortable. This may be just out of shyness too, but it is important not to overlook a child’s concern. I am not stating that every smile or pleasant exchange of words is sinister, but we need to prepare our children to grow up and fend for themselves in this unpredictable world.

Coming back to that particular Ladies Luncheon , “It is your turn, now, Jay”, I was startled out of my reverie over the past hour, smile sheepishly at no -one in particular to begin on the topic of Living Overseas and the other side of Domestic Servitude.

The recent outrage on Social Media over salaries paid to domestic helpers overseas by Indian government officials has a spate of ‘holier than thou’ undertones. While no-one is above the law and indeed, must respect the law of the land, let us look closer home.

Why do some of us get so upset when the maid fails to come, one day in a week or month?
Maybe she was tired, had caught a cold or was ill with fever, or perhaps her child was sick? Or maybe her husband ill-treated her and she had bruises on her face and did not want you to see them? Or maybe she lied.

How many of us feel that what we pay our domestic helpers is adequate? Inside a ‘society’ compound, salaries are usually on par. The younger generation is advised to pay the average salary so there is little room for discontent among the domestic workers.

Then, as they arrive for work, we make them remove their footwear, even in winter. True, in ancient times this was the norm and still is, in many South-East Asian societies. The inside of the house ought to remain clean and the dust from the streets should remain outside. However, we all walk in with our shoes on.

Then the constant drill begins: “do this properly, you never sweep under the chairs”, “dust properly”, “I can’t find something, you must have taken it” and on and on until the end of the working day (whenever that may be, after 12 hours maybe?)- tinnitus voices. We pile up dishes in the kitchen. We dump clothes in buckets. We leave the cleaning-up for the domestic helper.

Circumstance, not choice is what determines a person’s life of domestic servitude.

Woe betide the helper if she “answers” back. This is not acceptable, for as a domestic helper, she apparently must remain mute. She must not display friction or any emotion (tears are acceptable) that would upset the lady of the house, even the children.

Do we even think of sitting her down for five minutes, with a cup of tea and talking to her as a human being? Perhaps we do, but never seem to find the time to do so regularly. I do not think the topics would always revolve around money. Perhaps the dialogue would focus on the ups and downs that life imposes on each of us, in varying degrees. To listen is to help a person through her sorrows.

How many of us actually give our helpers money for healthcare, hospitalization or an amount as pension, when they too old to work? Yes, the odd paracetamol tablet is usually given out of a selfish motive, so that the helper recovers quickly (however temporary the relief) and completes all her chores.

What are average salaries in the cities of India? Do corporate executives who earn five times the amount government officials do, pay their domestic helpers five times extra?

And overseas?

Over the past three decades, I have usually hired local helpers for a few hours daily, or three times a week, depending on the country my husband was posted in and abiding by its laws. This is of utmost importance. I do not believe in signing a contract in India stating the monthly wage, while the minimum wage overseas is at variance.

Many countries insist employers pay monthly Social Security instalments for domestic helpers. This is checked prior to a person’s departure from the country and receipts from the Social Security office are required for the full tenure in the country.

For example, over twenty years ago, we paid the average salary of US 300/= per month to Rosa, our helper in a Central American country and forever breathed easy, as this was the ‘going rate’ locally, for all diplomatic families and included social security. However, this was far, far more than the allocated amount given to us in the foreign allowance. It was really difficult making ends meet those days, with three children, but we had to. And we were blessed with children who helped in our chores in many ways ….the two elder girls baby-sitting their brother, helping hang up the laundry…even raking autumn leaves when much younger. Or shovelling snow with their father…bless their hearts, and later, our son who is more than a decade younger than his sisters, setting up stages, recording patriotic songs, checking the loud speakers, creating power-points …memories and gratitude forever in our hearts . And, I often told friends in India, tongue in cheek – “Some of us mere ‘spouses’, look after residences, plan menus, cook, lay tables, wash dishes at times all for free!!!”

People do not understand what it takes to work for one’s country, for average salaries, especially so before the past decade, when the young generation in the corporate sector were making five times the amount in India!

It is a certain ‘bent of mind’!

The ‘wrong-doings’ by some in the ‘service’ is disheartening to the rest of us.

The media too, plays its part in highlighting certain issues that trigger a long-list of complaints in other areas that have remained dormant.

An Indian diplomat overseas is still your average Indian at home in Delhi.
It is that simple!

We need support from our own! Life overseas is not just a series of diplomatic parties, sipping champagne or apple juice, clutching crystal stems and wearing designer clothes! Life is often hard, as we live our personal lives too and miss our extended families, our friends and really do not have ‘shoulders’ to cry upon.

Published by Jayshree Misra Tripathi

Jayshree, as the eldest of five daughters, includes her maiden surname 'Misra' in her writing. She lived a nomadic life from 1986 till 2015, as the wife of a career foreign service officer in the Indian Civil Service. She has written from across three continents - as a freelance journalist, teacher and poet. Jayshree followed up her MA in English (Literature) from Delhi University (1978), with a Post Graduate Diploma in Human Rights Law from the National Law School of India University, Bengaluru (Distance Education programme, 2001). She has taught English Language and Literature, been an examiner in English for the Diploma of the International Baccalaureate Organisation and was their trained Consultant for the DP & CP. She worked briefly in the print media, in Delhi, during the mid-80s.

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