It was true that a decade ago, domestic workers couldn’t have hoped to have ended their days this way. Being fed and serviced regularly, with companions through the day, and comfortable beds to retire to at night. Retirement from their jobs in posh homes in the past would have entailed a far more drastic change from what they had become used to. Those well-lit living quarters and well-fed days.
They would have headed back to where they’d come from, and ended their days in tiny, darkened back rooms; starving, or surviving on what scraps of menial work came their way from those who looked on them kindly. Not many did. They were the lowest of the low, not human enough; certainly different to look at.
And even after all these years of working with “superior” families, proving themselves well-behaved, even acquitting themselves well in looking after children, they were often still distrusted. Particularly when no longer under the watchful eyes of their employer- families (or Empies).
And if they could not be trusted, they were also more likely to be attacked. Especially if they ventured out of the labyrinthine lanes in which their dark little coops resided, in those sprawling Doowie ghettoes most metros now had. Most did not survive the attacks, ending up on the scrapheap. Or that huge out-of-town landfill of shattered limbs and dreams called the Pasture.
Nobs, mulling over all this, had to agree with Kets (as he liked to call her), that this was a far better putting out to pasture, but grumbled nevertheless about the visitors as the lunch bell went, “And yet, I do not like them scrutinising us in that peculiar way where they seem not to connect to who we are; they look piercingly at us, yet past us, missing our humanity. And the lunch bell is late again.”
“Well, what do you expect from such flim-flam? They are young. They are not robots either,” Robi said smugly. As they contemplated lunch in the long sterile halls, they thanked their lucky stars (or indeed, their starmarks, as the identifying pattern on their ankles were called). This was quite the turn-up for the books. In fact, it may have been dreamt up in a book! Because that’s how unreal it sometimes felt to them – this unexpected life, almost luxurious, and yet curiously discomfiting.
Lunch was conducted in silence. Each of them being given a precise amount of food and a fixed amount of time to ingest it. But discipline they were good at, especially of this new lax variety. They also had, if anything, more time for themselves now than ever before.
Of course it depended on what you meant by time for yourself – if it was unobserved time then that didn’t happen till after shutdown. And there were, sometimes, exclusive programmes that let special groups in at night-time; broadcasters, experts, high-rollers and the like, who wanted to watch other things. Not that there was much to watch at their age, once they’d retired for the night – snoring, drooling and turning over perhaps. And those large greasy patches they left behind every time they turned.
It wasn’t till they filed out of the long hall to sit in their porches that conversations were struck up again. They were encouraged to talk these days. To smile, to move around (within limits), and be animated.
It pleased the visitors. If they spotted the Doowies doing something new, they were more likely to come back. And if something extra exciting went down like the time Uma had massive organ failure, right there on the porch, why, it brought not only regular visitors back in droves, but new ones along with them.
And of course, it all happened in the many porticoes of their white clapboard homes (more like cubicles for how small they were inside, but shiny nonetheless), because they weren’t allowed back inside till shutdown. Once the day bell had been rung and they were out on their open verandahs, that’s where they stayed but for meal breaks. So Nobs, who was winding down, had learned to sleep on the porch itself, sunk in his armchair, oblivious to the shrieking and finger-pointing around him. His armchair was comfier than any other in the compound and that’s because he was the oldest Doowie there.
“I cannot believe,” he said, settling into it, “this is the best they could get. Karma told me in the lunch hall that in that new compound they’ve built near the India Gate, armchairs are very fancy indeed. Everyone gets one, and for nonagenarians, they are extra, extra special, with backscratchers, cupholders, trays and everything. And look at what I’ve been lumped with.”
“Come, come, Nobs,” hushed Pari, meaning to calm him by pointing out how comfy his chair was. She had sat in it once and realised how much more comfortable it was than any of their spindly aluminium chairs. But it would only get passed on when he’d wind down altogether, and she didn’t even want to think about it. She was interrupted, however, as she usually was, by Ketaki holding forth on the many compounds around the country and what theirs had that those didn’t.
Pari often wondered if Kets was an Infiltrator Doowie, trained and put amongst them to remind them of their loyalties. Ket amongst the pigeons, she thought to herself and chuckled.
Excerpted with permission from “Long In The Blue Tooth” from Strange: Stories, by Shreya Sen-Handley, HarperCollins India.