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Would you like some prejudices with tea?

Would you like some prejudices with tea?

A profound conversation with English-speaking, educated, middle-class women over lunch in Delhi.
Neha Dixit

There are things you do for some neighbours that you wouldn’t for others. A few days ago, I attended a lunch meeting at Mrs Lawrence’s house. It was her turn to organise the monthly meeting for some 15 middle-aged aunties from the nearby blocks of Vasant Kunj. Eight turned up dutifully. I was the ninth, the youngest and the newest entrant.

After a thorough round of interrogation, with questions ranging from how many children I have, why am I not seen on television if I am a journalist to why haven’t I joined any “kitty” till now and why don’t I look married, I was kind of relieved that lunch was finally over and tea was on its way.

One middle-aged aunty, who sells a local floor cleaner, had just left Mrs Lawrence’s house. The women in the room, almost immediately sat up, as the door shut.

“Who was she?” asked the woman in a yellow suit.

“Was she even invited for lunch?” questioned the woman with three distinct diamond rings.
Mrs Lawrence coolly replied, “No. She just came to sell something. She was panting and sweaty and could hardly speak. I thought since we were are all eating, she could eat as well too.”
“Oh. Okay,” the woman in a yellow suit said.
That was a downer, I could see.
“Had I known that she is a stranger, I would have never let you invite her in, Meena,” said the woman with a dark red lipstick and red nail paint.
“Women like her know how to hypnotise. Then run away with all that they can lay their hands on,” said the woman with freshly coloured burgundy hair with traces of it on her forehead.
Mrs Lawrence smiled without revealing her thoughts.
“Anyway, that floor cleaner was useless. You can clean the floor just by adding detergent to water and then brushing the floor with it. Don’t you ask your maid to do that? See, your floor tiles are so dirty. I haven’t seen such a dirty floor anywhere,” said the woman next to me, in a green sari, with an expression of concern. She then looks at me, as though I must add something, but is disappointed when I reveal only a weak smile.
Meanwhile, all eyes are transfixed on the floor, looking for filth and stains.
“Yeah, these tiles are old now, plus they are not even vitrified,” Mrs Lawrence explained.
“Don’t worry. I will send you this new maid. She charges more but is trained well. I’d rather pay more than see an unclean house,” replied the woman in a green sari.
[Everyone hmmms.]
“These maids, anyway, just refuse to bend down to sweep the floor. That is why I have given mine a broom so small, the ones you get in Fab India, that she has no option but to squat and clean,” Mrs Kandpal said, as she gets up to leave. She is on her way to attend a meeting at a school in south Delhi where she has taught for more than 20 years.
“The other day, when the RWA people were calling everyone to clean the colony on Gandhi Jayanti, I told them clearly, that they will have to find new garbage loaders or else I will raise it in the quarterly meeting. The bugger who comes to collect the garbage in the morning litters the entire staircase. And he stinks so much! Imagine! First thing, early in the morning!” said the woman with diamond rings.
The bell rings. Mrs Gokhale’s son, who is a biotechnology student at a private university, is home and needs the car keys.
As soon as he leaves, the woman in the yellow suit continued, “Yeah, I don’t know why these guys just don’t like to bathe? They are used to living with garbage around them. I had once gone to the Rangpuri Pahari slum to look for my maid’s house, when she did not come for five days in a row. Oh baba re! Not an inch to set my foot on.”
I am inclined to say something at this point, but I refrain. A little voice in my head tells me to sit tight, quietly observe and witness this charade of prejudices and political incorrectness.

“It is not like that in Colombo at all. The footpaths there are so clean, the roads spic-and-span. We were there just last week. Both Kandy and Colombo are so picturesque and our hotel, too good,” said Mrs Ram.

The woman with the red lipstick and nail polish agrees: “Yeah, foreign countries are so much better when it comes to cleanliness.”  The two Hindi-speaking women are, meanwhile, feeling left out, but they keep smiling and nodding, very much part of the conversation.

“Forget Sri Lanka, there are terrorists and wars there all the time. Our Kerala is no less beautiful. Clean beaches, nice paved lanes… There is clearly no garbage problem there. And no crime, of course,” appealed Mrs Gokhale.

A moment of silence follows.

“Still, the US is the best. My daughter does not want to come back at all. She says “mamma, everything is so first-class here. Everything on your doorstep. No naali, kachra, badboo’,” the woman with burgundy hair said.

Mrs Lawrence’s maid has started to serve chai now.

“But crime rate is very high there too. They have so many blacks! They come and snatch chains, loot and stab. My son lives in Maryland. They don’t step out in the evenings… Today there are so many blacks in Vasant Kunj also. It is so scary,” Mrs Lawrence said.

“Black matlab?” asked Mrs Sinha.

“Arrey, hapshi!” explained the woman with burgundy hair.

[Murmurs in the room.]

“I know. Bangalore is so much better that way. Very nice weather. We lived there for a couple of years. Never saw any blacks also,” said Mrs Ram, as she sipped her tea.

Mrs Gokhale added, “But the city is also expanding like Delhi. I don’t know why the government is not doing anything to stop people from coming to the big cities. The property rates have risen so much and it is getting so crowded.”

The peanut masala arrives.
“It is these Muslims who have babies after babies and increase the population,” said the woman with diamonds.
[My heartbeat begins to race.]
“No, no. That is not true,” said Mrs Ram. She continued, “All these people from Bengal, Bihar, Orissa…” she stops to turn around to check if Mrs Lawrence’s maid is not eavesdropping, “…and Bangladeshis. All these slums are full of them,” Mrs Sinha.

“Absolutely correct. They come to cities to work and have several wives. One in the gaon and one here and then have several kids here and there. That is why all the rapes and violence…”

[People in the room begin to go tch, tch, tch.]

“Don’t you know that all these maids are beaten by their husbands? That is why they are so indifferent and stubborn. You keep telling them things to do but they dismiss it like you never told them,” cribbed the woman in a yellow suit.

“Mini, say anything, it is people of this class that get the best sleep at night. They don’t have to worry about A/C or cooler. All they long for is the roadside khat!”

[Roars of laughter.]
The woman with diamonds now gets up and takes leave. Her daughter is leaving for SOAS, London, the next day.
Alas, the meeting is about to conclude. I too leave soon after, thinking to myself, never again.

+(Some names have been changed.)

Published in the DailyO on October 13, 2014
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