When I was home in London in October I got back to the most unpleasant thing in the fridge.
I’d forgotten to empty it before heading out to the airport and had asked Sudha, my maid, to do it, so that things didn’t get too disgusting while I was away.
Sadly, she didn’t do it immediately – mostly as she takes my being out the country, as reason to do nothing till the day before I come back – and by the time I returned it still wasn’t done so when I returned it was vile in there.
Inevitably, there had been a power cut and the fridge had become just a little hot cupboard replete with rotting vegetables. Gradually mould had formed. Then spores, then the spores had exploded as they seeded. There was ‘stuff’ spattered all over the inside of the fridge. It smelt rank. It looked worse.
Unpleasant, doesn’t even begin to cover it.
To be honest, there is only so much bleach can do. I try not to think about it or the fact that when I mentioned it on facebook, one of my pals said ‘I’d have burned the fridge…’ and I could only agree.
But I couldn’t be too upset about it, disgusting as it was.
Because despite being slack on fridge emptying – and the fact that ebola probably still lurks in more out of the way corners in there – the maid usually does eventually clean things out before I get back. So I don’t usually have to face something akin to the Somme done in mould in my fridge.
But this trip, while my fridge was ripening and then exploding with spore, something even more appalling happened to Sudha’s husband. He was killed very unexpectedly in a horrific car accident. And under the circumstances, that does rather trump my need to have the fridge emptied.
What happened, far as I can gather, started like this: they were messing about at home. They’ve been married for about 14 years. I guess this as she’s 28 and has a 14 year old daughter (insert sharp intake of breath here, yes a 14 year old child). They obviously loved each other and their two kids. He was late for his work as a driver that day, as he was insisting he kiss her before he left and she was busy making lunch for the children. They were giggling and messing about and eventually she kissed him and he got on his motorbike and drove off to work.
All well and good. Indian roads as we know are not good – and traffic rules don’t really apply as we would know them in the West. In particular trucks and heavy plant machinery does pretty much anything it wants.
And that, sadly, was the case here – a JCB digger driving down the road with its scoop up (god, alone knows why), and it decided to make a U-turn. With the scoop up, it couldn’t really see what was going on, and as it turned suddenly… Sudha’s husband simply got caught in the blind spot on the inside lane.
Here in the tale, language began to break down – she’s not great at spoken English and my Tamil is beyond limited – and oddly they don’t usually teach people the words for this sort of thing in foreign languages. But what I managed to understand is that in the sudden U-turn of the JCB, her husband was blindsided by the scoop. Her exact words were that the teeth of the scoop (and that took a while for us to translate between us), the teeth went ‘into his head and Madam, his brain came out’.
As you can imagine, we’re both crying by this point in the story. But unbelievably, it gets worse.
She’s called by someone from the accident site who uses her husband’s phone to call the number marked ‘home’. Sudha, of course, assumes it’s her husband and picks up all happy – after all they were messing about only 10 minutes before: him stealing kisses, her brushing him off. The kind stranger on the phone says ‘Madam you must come, very bad accident’ – she assumes it’s a joke and demands they put her husband on.
Then the story got very confused – she’s crying, I’m crying. English is not helping us. But she tells me she eventually realises there is a real issue and goes to the hospital. She told me she goes to the hospital and embraces him one last time. I’m not clear if he was alive or not at this point – I’m guessing not, as ‘brains coming out’ does not imply a lingering death.
But she saw him one last time and then retreated to the family home to tell her two children their father was dead.
She goes deep inside herself and doesn’t leave the house for two weeks. Her youngest daughter has a hole in her heart and Sudha herself has some painful gynaecological stuff going on. Don’t ask how I know this – the sighing and showing me of medical certificates every time she has to bend over means I’m aware of the issues.
But even major grief eventually lifts a tiny bit and she eventually goes to the police station to tell the authorities her husband has been unlawfully killed in an illegal traffic manoeuvre.
However, it transpires, that the day of the accident, which is now two weeks earlier, the owner of the JCB, a powerful man with many building sites, had gone straight to the police and reported the whole thing as her husband’s fault. He was reckless. It was his fault. And this rich builder, pays many bribes to the police. Worse the rich man is bribing policemen so quickly that this is even before Sudha’s husband has even reached the hospital.
Sudha has her work cut out to fight this patently unfair slander of her husband. And she deserves compensation, losing a husband is bad in any country, here it is even harder both financially and societally. Witnesses at the scene have come forward, a lawyer has been found, she is fighting for money for her children – particularly her sick younger daughter.
Now, obviously under the circumstances I can’t be too miffed about my fridge being mouldy. Sure she should have emptied it before all this happened, there were two weeks between me leaving and this awful accident – but it’s not exactly a priority now.
But what do you do to help? As a foreigner I take advice – a sum of money is advised (about two thirds of a month’s salary), not more as she will expect it often otherwise.
And here’s the rub. I want to help, but I really don’t want to be a charity. I’m often asked to pay school fees or pay for medical stuff, and I want to be kind – but I also don’t want to be taken as a complete fool. There’s a fine line from beneficence to simply being ripped off.
In this case I was travelling a lot those months and I continued to pay her as though she was working normally – when quite patently she wasn’t. In the three months I was away, she probably worked 3 days. Which for what I pay her, is ludicrous. I hugged her when I saw her, we both wept when she told me her tale (she knows I lost my own husband), and now… now I will have to employ her for the rest of my time in India.
After all, how on earth can I let her go now? She might be crap, but she has little in her life that’s going right. And she is an honest and kind person.
India can be cruel. Death young is not unusual here, but it is no less painful for the families for that.
I have often written about my maid and her useless cleaning – to read more trivial stuff about that – and not the awful pain of her husband’s death, please have a look at these lighter post here:
As ever, do please share your thoughts in the comments below.