Our Sri Lankan house helper, Rani, has become a major presence in our home in just the few hours she is here. There is no question as to how much in charge she thinks she is. That would be, pretty much completely in charge. I have to be quite sneaky and savvy to get my way.
First Rani told me that a kitchen without wooden spoons is no good. (I purchased these spoons.)
Then she patiently explained to me that the knives we have are no good for cutting up chicken. (This I knew. They were a super cheap stopgap measure until we get some nice ones.)
Repeatedly she has chided me for not resealing the coffee bag carefully. If the aroma goes quick, no good. (I make the coffee at 4 am, I protest!)
I have learned as a survival measure to clean out the refrigerator and pantry when she's not around so as to not get scolded for waste: this is no good, too much waste madam why you do this?
However, I know to save all bread and non-spicy meats for the birds and cats by her home. If she should find such items in our garbage (dust bin or rubbish bin, here) I quake to think of what her judgement might be. I think she would have no compunction about going through our garbage since she also sniffs the clothing hanging in the closets to make sure we don't re-wear anything without laundering.
Rani has told me with scorn of other "fired" mistresses who did just this, or worse, tried to direct her cleaning powers. Rani does what Rani wants to do, and the way she wants to do it. This works just fine for me, most of the time. A few times I have expressed a preference, gently and subserviently, and we have remained a happy home.
I was very pleased one day when Rani started to lecture me on how people from other countries might be good or bad, and that it does no good to assume that someone from Pakistan is bad, since that's just a silly way to think.
I managed not to look anything but entirely serious when she told me this, though I might have indulged in a private smile and patted myself on the back later.
The other day Rani noticed that Thomas is left handed and began to correct him to use his right hand.
"Oh, no Rani," I told her, "it's OK with me if he's left handed."
Then I threw in the kicker: "I know that's not the Arab way, but it is just fine."
Rani is a Christian, and a Sri Lankan, no worries that she would try to make Thomas do something "Arab".
I also have my ace in the hole: Sir. (Mike to the rest of us).
I have made sure to strongly imply that Sir is He Who Must Be Pleased. I supposedly make absolutely no decisions without consulting Sir. Sir's supposed word is law. However, I also go out of my way to establish that Sir neither beats nor screams at Madam. Rani asked several times during her first weeks with us as to the character of Sir on these points, and I have assured her that he is both fair and kind, and that he works too hard.
As a mistress I think I'm not too tough to take. I make sure she doesn't have to spend her time tidying up when she gets here; rather I get everything out of her way, and make her tea and some sort of sweet. She keeps telling me that we're such good friends to her, that it's nice not to be yelled at, and though that may be manipulation on her part, I have certainly seen women treating their maids in a deplorable manner in the stores.
Rani, for all her strong personality, is genuinely grateful to us. She gives us gifts of plants that she's grown herself from clippings lifted from the neighbors and parks, and is great with the kids, though they don't listen to her one iota and Thomas has her completely wrapped around his little finger.
Her situation here is one of powerlessness on many levels. She has few rights, depends on others for housing and transportation, and works very, very hard. She works six days a week, and ends her day by reading the bible for hours and prays in the early hours of the morning. She loves to sing with her choir, to gossip (though she fancies herself above it, another source of amusement for me), and to tell stories of Sri Lanka.
I was amazed to discover she'd never heard the Kipling story of the mongoose Rikki Tikki Tavi and we pulled up the Chuck Jones animated version on YouTube for her. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0qhBxv7r5gg ) She had lots of stories to tell about cobras after that one!
I try to help her out by taking her and her friend Mali on short errands that they need to do, and the other night she asked if I would mind taking her to the grocery store on the way home to mail a birthday card to her adult son.
No problem at all, I said.
When we got there she said "Madam, my hand, you help me. My hand has only 10 dirhams and the stamps may be more than 10 dirhams, my hand has only 10, you pay?"
I gave her another 10 Dhs bill, and she went off with Mali to buy stamps. Soon she came back, looking distressed. "They have no stamps, maybe Monday." she said.
I was buying milk and eggs anyway, so I asked my cashier if he had any stamps, and gleefully bought ten 5 Dhs stamps, not knowing how much it might cost and figuring I could use the others.
Coming out into the dark where Rani and Mali were waiting, I waved the stamps to their delight. Rani had mistakenly asked for Sri Lankan stamps instead of UAE stamps "Madam, I am too much crazy!" she said, shaking her head. Mali took the stamps and began to separate the margins from the sides. Rani was hugging me and laughing at herself, and then we both turned back to Mali, just as she put the card into the postbox. (The first one I've seen here, incidently!)
Where are the rest of the stamps? I asked Mali.
"On the card Madam, I have mailed this card Madam," she said proudly.
In her zealous desire to be helpful she'd put all 50 dirham worth of stamps on the envelope.
I haven't the faintest clue as to how much it costs to mail a card to Sri Lanka, but I bet it doesn't cost $13. 61.
"Mali!" I blurted, "That was 50 dirhams worth of stamps!"
Poor Mali. She and Rani both looked horrified at the waste. We looked at the postbox, as inpenetratable as it should be, and I burst out laughing. Mali and Rani looked at each other and tentatively tried on small smiles for size. Never mind, I told them, never mind.
Then both women clapped their hands to their cheeks, eyes huge in the darkness.
Don't tell Sir! They exclaimed.