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You Travel To India To Find Yourself

Subject: This is a story about Ramita, whom I worked for as a nanny. While I worked for her, her personality was split between warm and inviting, and neurotic and furious. Because I worked in her home, I was in a unique position to witness both sides of her. I didn’t understand what motivated her behavior, and it took me a while to realize, that like her, I also behaved with a double identity. *Note* The names in this story have been changed.

Angle: I discovered my own character flaws in understanding Ramita’s. I want to explore why people might act opposite to what one would think they would act, and how oblivious a person can be to their own behavior. I also want to explore how a person can be trapped in a role, even though it has nothing to do with who they really are, and how agonizing that entrapment can be.

Profile: 

Ramita was already exceptional at faking it, but in India, her polite facade was a steel wall, impenetrable, perfectly constructed on her face.  She tiptoed into the dining room past her aunt, and cousins. We’d just got off a plane from New York City, and I was starving and disoriented. Steaming plates of food wafted under my nose, the cooks and servants circled the table, dishing rice and lamb onto everyone’s plates. I was just about to take my first glorious bite when I felt a small tap on my shoulder, and a hushed “Excuse me”. Her aunt gave her a sweet smile. Ramita looked warm and comforting from the untrained eye, but I knew what was really going on. She was like a sweaty teapot, about to blow her top.

She shuffled me into the bedroom, and shut the door tight behind us. Nikhil, her two-year-old son, sat on the edge of the queen four-poster bed, balling his eyes out. His twisted face was covered in raw, pink baby wrinkles around his eyes and lips. Tears streamed down the sides of his mouth. Then, in a chain reaction, Ramita’s eyes welled up, too. She blubbered out a few words.

“I don’t know why they think this is some kind of ‘cultural experience’ for you, but it isn’t. You are a nanny, you are here to work, not eat a nice meal. And now he’s crying. What do you think my family thinks of him?”

She grabbed his shoulders as he screamed, bubbles of snot trickled out of his nose. “Did you hear that, Nikhil? Everyone here is judging you right now, and you are making them think very poorly of you and us.”

She left me alone to take care of him as she stomped back to the dining table to take my place. A servant promptly swept in behind her, delivering a fresh cup of tea. She curled her freshly manicured nails around the handle of the cup, and leaned back in her chair. Her smile stretched from ear to ear.

 

I had only been working for her for a few months, but she needed me to join her on this trip, because her husband couldn’t take the time off of work. He wasn’t around much. He was a banker, and usually worked sixteen hour days. Ramita was a lawyer, but she had left her job at a big corporate firm to be a stay at home mom. When I told my friends this, they often retorted “Wow, she has a full time nanny, and she doesn’t work? How much lazier can you get?” The situation seemed odd to me, too, and as I spent day after day with her helicoptering by my side, I became obsessed with this mystery. Why wasn’t she doing more with her life?

Oftentimes, while I was sitting on the floor, drawing pictures with Nikhil, Ramita would march in the room, telling me about some terrible crisis with the florist, or the gardener, or the caterer. She’d tell me how much she hated all the galas and charity balls she had to attend. She’d complain about getting spa manicures (“I mean, it’s just work, it’s boring, but it has to get done.”) Was she rubbing her wealth in my face? But I felt there was some other kind of irrational motivation going on, and no matter what kind of anger she displayed, she always insisted she wasn’t that kind of woman. Once she told me, “People treat me with disrespect because I’m nice. I’m really, really nice. I know I may not seem like it. But I am.”

Since I was barely scraping by in New York, sharing a two bedroom apartment with four people, and working twelve hour days in Ramita’s penthouse, it was hard for me to relate to her constant discontent. But this anxiety-ridden, pathetic Ramita only revealed herself to me when no one else was around. In public, she was perfectly poised, flawless, the life of the party. She had many other friends her age, mothers with children the same age as Nikhil. In conversation, they all behaved in the same peculiar way. They spoke to each other as if they were reading a script. Their plastic lips repeated “It’s so great to see you!” back and forth, their giggles seemed synthetic, robotic. It felt nice in the way a Starbucks feels nice - clean, light music, perfectly behaved baristas, cute Italian words decorating the counter, a faint smell of Lysol and sweat. I must admit, I was just as good at faking it as the rest of those women, always in agreeance with them, like a lap dog, laying at their feet.

In India, I knew that my smile had to stay unbreakable, no matter what exhaustion or frustration I felt. I was too far from home, and I had no idea what I’d do if anything went awry. I couldn’t risk it. A few days into our trip, we drove to Ramita’s grandmother’s apartment in a small city called Guntur. I realized I had to pee in the middle of our drive. We still had another four hours before we’d arrive. I twisted my legs on top of each other to hide my discomfort, until finally, I decided to ask Ramita if we could make a stop. She said it wouldn’t work, because all of the bathrooms were too primitive. It wasn’t even a possibility. Finally, I asked the driver to pull over, and I peed in a ditch on the side of the road. It wasn’t the first time I’d done that, I really wasn’t ashamed. The driver and Ramita seemed horrified, though. While I squatted, I looked through the grass to see men pissing in the ditch not far from me. It was the thing to do, I didn’t see what the big deal was. When I hopped back in the car, the driver told me, “Do not share this with anyone, I could be fired.” That seemed preposterous to me, but I nodded along, and kept his promise.

Once we arrived at the apartment, I unpacked and got settled for the long weeks ahead of me. Over time, I got used to being caged inside of Ramita’s grandmother’s house with a toddler that refused to sleep. I became as efficient as possible at surviving. I barely had breaks, and what little time off I had, I used to sleep, or I gulped Cardamom tea to stay awake. Most days, Ramita preferred to take long visits to the gold jeweler, so she actually wasn’t around much too complain. It actually felt peaceful.

The best days in Guntur were temple days. We sat in a room full of candles, our hands stuffed with flowers that we tossed at chanting priests. They, in turn, threw rice at our heads. I liked it, because it reminded me that I was, in fact, in India. I had no idea what we were doing, but it felt right, and like usual, I just followed along. One day, it was an important holiday, so we drove up to the temple in our private SUV. The line into the building must’ve been a mile long. People stood barefoot, old women, babies crying. Ramita and our group skipped ahead of all of them. I asked her grandmother what the holiday was about.

“Oh, it’s too complicated to explain,” she said, we continued into the room where happy priests threw more rice on us. I sighed, then smiled along with the rest of the crowd.

As our trip winded down, we headed back to her aunt’s house to spend our last night there before we flew home. We got home late, and I immediately took Nikhil to have a bath. Nikhil and I took turns dumping cups of water on his head. He wasn’t very quick about it, but he loved doing it himself. He took cup after sloppy cup of water out of a bucket, and dribbled it down his soft hair. Ramita swung the door open, I braced myself.

“It’s so late, why isn’t he in bed?!”

Ramita was a stickler about his schedule.

“Stop playing games with him!” she screamed, “Just dump the water on his head, and take him to bed.”

He started crying, and I felt bad about dumping a bucket of water on him in the middle of our game.

“Just dump it on his head! Stop wasting time!” she cried. He looked at me with big teary eyes. I threw the water over his head.

He instantly started screaming, crying like a wet cat.

“Nikhil you’re going to wake everyone up, what are you thinking?” she panicked. The old Ramita I knew and feared had returned.

As if it couldn’t feel more uncomfortable, we all shared a bed that night. Nikhil slept in between us. I laid as close to the far edge of the bed as possible. Ramita, laid against the other edge.

“Leah, I’m sorry I snapped at you tonight,” she whimpered.

It was the first time she’d ever apologized to me. I was shocked, but I was excited that we might finally be able to have a heart to heart. I might finally be able to understand why she treated me like this.

But then she continued, “It’s just, sometimes you waste a lot of time when you don’t need to, Leah. I know you can’t handle very much, and I do my best to work around that.”

I stayed silent, like a little girl, accepting my reprimand. Of course, I thought. Did I really think she could muster more than that? I actually felt pity for her. She worked so hard to keep up appearances, and it only made her feel worse. I wish I could have snapped her out of it, I wish I could have shook the robot that was Ramita until all the pieces she’d built up around her broke and fell. She was nothing but a shell. But she was trapped. She had an absent husband, she had a child. She didn’t have a job. She’d gone too far before she realized she wasn’t going the direction she wanted to go at all. I, on the other hand, was young enough to leave, and it suddenly occurred to me that I didn’t have to play this game anymore. I didn’t have to be whatever Ramita expected me to be. For the first time on the trip, I fell asleep like a rock.

Once we returned home, escaping was easy. I showed up at work, finally ready to be honest.

“The way you’re treating me is wrong,” I told her.

But that started in her a thunderstorm of angry words. They poured hard on top of me, and I waited for her to run out of breath. Finally, a quiet moment came, and I looked her in they eye. “I don’t have to be here,” I said.

And with that, I ran to the elevator, shoving my feet in my shoes. As the elevator door started to close, I caught a glimpse of her, tears dripping out of the corner of her eyes. “So that’s it, you’re leaving me? You’re leaving me at the moment I need you the most?”

“Yes,” I replied, and I never looked back.

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