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December 10, 1997


No kidding! : Shobha De Child with houseboy

Some days ago, my blood ran cold. It was a smallish news item tucked away on page 16 that was responsible for my condition. The sort of news agency item I'd have normally skipped. It involved a 19-year-old British nanny and an eight-month-old American boy. She was accused of murder and here was a trial that had all of the US riveted.

Louise Woodward, the nanny, claimed she loved children and was not guilty of "shaking the baby" or "banging his head against the wall." She insisted that the infant (Matthew Eapen) was lying dead in the crib with a cranium fracture when she noticed something was wrong and summoned help.

Friends have testified that the nanny often cribbed about the two (Matthew has an older baby brother) "fussy, cranky brats" in her charge and wasn't too happy about her wages. Reason enough to kill an innocent, defenceless infant -- even inadvertantly?

Matthew's parents belong to the increasingly common double-income family units, even if they don't fall into the DINKs (double income no kids) category. They obviously earn enough between them to afford the services of a nanny.

One assumes Ms Woodward has had at least a high-school education and some previous experience taking care of young children (Matthew's brother is a two-year-old).
Think of the countless urban Indian couples who are compelled by circumstances to leave their kids at the mercy of illiterate bais from neighbouring slums?

These ayahs would not know how to dial for an ambulance in an emergency, summon a doctor for a major or minor wound or administer the right medicines in case their charges are running fevers. Some of these women do not know the first thing about personal hygiene. They rarely wash their hands with soap before feeding a child or preparing meals. Often, they leave infants for hours in a puddle of urine before bothering to change the nappy. With a television in nearly every home these days, not only do the bais sit in front of the idiot box for hours themselves, they often invite their entire families to share the experience while the owners are away.

Child with houseboy With full access to the flats and all its facilities, the bais make most of their opportunity at the cost of the defenceless children they've been hired to look after. Dubious characters stroll in and out of the apartment, help themselves to baby food if nothing else is available, steal supplies and romance the maid, while the bachcha wails away -- wet, hungry and perhaps in pain too.

Bais getting bugged with difficult, demanding kids is nothing new. I have seen a maid in our complex routinely striking a spastic child in the garden downstairs, for daring to disturb her gossip session with the other maids. I've seen bais gobbling up snacks meant for their wards, leaving toddlers dangerously close to swings and see-saws, flirting nonchalantly with boyfriends while kids in their care wander unobserved in busy car-parks, leaving children unattended in bazaars -- I mean, the horror stories never end.

Child going to school with the maid About the worst case of parental neglect and absolute callousness involved an adopted girl-child who was locked into her beautifully decorated nursery on the dot of eight every night and unlocked at eight the next morning. By the ayah, of course. This is done to suit the maid's duty hours which run from eight-to-eight. While the biological child in the family sleeps in the parents' room, this little girl has to spend the night in a cell (what else can one call it?). What happens, for instance, in case there is a short-circuit in her nursery? She'd be trapped inside the locked room with no escape -- the hum of the air conditioner in her parents' room muffling her cries for help. I am haunted by the possibility. And often feel tempted to talk to the parents who'll probably tell me to mind my own business.

There are innumerable such cases around us. Two income families are here to stay. I pity the parents who leave home each morning, leaving their children at the mercy of different hired help. There are examples galore of bais who'd give their lives for their babalog - but these are exceptions. Most don't give a damn. They are well aware of their "power" over the employers. "I quit" has become the two most dreaded words in a working mother's vocabulary. No bai, no leave, no job.

Child going to school With the breakdown of the joint family system, there is no real infrastructure now to assume the responsibility for child care. Career women often exclaim dramatically, "Honestly, I don't know what I'd have done without the ayah." Others insist, joking a little uneasily about the phenomenon, "Behind every successful woman is another woman - the maid." True enough. And lucky the corporate lady who finds a sensitive, surrogate mama to look after her little ones like they're her own. But what if a Louise Woodward walks into your home, impresses you with her sweet manners and efficient ways… and then bludgeons the kid to death for being "cranky and fussy"?? Am I being morbid? I don't think so. I'm being realistic. And it terrifies me.

Photographs: Jewella C Miranda

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