There is something disarming about my cleaner - like the way he came back into the apartment after he had left the other day, smiling unselfconsciously and saying, "Sir, can I have money, sir?" I noted the somewhat singsong fluidity of his voice, one of my favourite things about him: the sort of pleasure he takes in stringing words together, almost always smiling as he does so but never in a fake or sycophantic way. "Because yesterday," he went on, "I sent the money home to family," he laughed, "and now there is nothing left to go home. I send to family every so often." Stepping into the lift, apparently, he had realised he did not have the taxi fare. But what was beautiful about it was the way he felt he could demand what he needed, even though he was not due to be paid, simply and unprofessionally - like a friend asking a simple favour.
Senthil, as my cleaner is called, really is a friend. The "th" in his name is that peculiar Sanskrit consonant, somewhere between a "d" and a "t", which I have learnt to approximate when I call out to him. I am sure I don't get it right, but he understands what I'm saying. Phonetic barriers notwithstanding, at least he has enough English for us to communicate, extensively where we need to, which is not unheard of between Senthil and me. Regardless of what it is that we say to each other, it remains reassuring not to have to key into that limiting, pidgin Arabic spoken by many expatriates from the Indian subcontinent in Abu Dhabi, and which inevitably brings the conversation to an abrupt close. Senthil has been here 16 years - I am sure he speaks some Arabic - but, unlike the average Abu Dhabi taxi driver, he is sufficiently urbane and multilingual not to use "Battani", as the abridged dialect is sometimes derogatorily referred to by Arabs. He speaks Hindi and English as well as Tamil, and is familiar with all sorts of cultures and people.
Senthil is hard-working and conscientious. Back at the hotel apartment - where I first met him - he was the most sociable of maybe three very likeable bell boys, and I was all too happy when he offered to continue helping me when it was time to move out. I used to depend on Senthil not only for transporting the laundry and answering queries about daily life in Abu Dhabi, tasks he still performs to my delight, but also to help clean up - over and above the regular service. An overweight man with the mannerisms of a true Indian, Senthil is a Tamil from Madras, but on his ridiculously small salary, he cannot afford to bring his family here. "School fees are very high," he said that day by way of an explanation. "My son, sir," he added, "he is now in sixth standard." Is it hard to be away? "A little, sir," he said, "but it is fine."