Wherever I have lived, when a group of women converge, the topic somehow turns to domestic help.
Maids, mother-in-laws and the Zen of housework
It happens to me everywhere - from Dubai to Delhi, from Saudi Arabia to Singapore, from Bahrain to Bengal. Wherever I have lived, when a group of women converge, the topic somehow turns to domestic help. "My maid wants to go back home for her annual leave and my in-laws are coming over at the same time. I don't know what to do," someone will say and release the genie from the bottle.
The complaints, and occasional tales of woe, will come pouring out. "My maid broke my favourite teapot. The woman has butter hands. I don't know what to do. I think I have to fire her this time."
I have one bit of advice for all these women on multiple continents: chores. Try doing them yourself. You might be surprised.
A long time ago, when I lived in New York, the publishing world was agog over a book called Home Comforts: the art and science of keeping house. Its author, Cheryl Mendelson, is a Harvard Law School graduate who worked at several law firms before writing the book. The first line goes like this: "I am a working woman with a secret life: I keep home."
Based on two years of experiments with chores, I have come up with a few pointers for anyone who is inclined to, or is frustrated enough, to give this a shot.
First, do no harm. Realise your core competencies. If you have more buttery fingers than your maid, you had better leave the hand-washing of delicate china to her rather than break that heirloom serving bowl at first shot.
Two, splurge on tools. Let's face it: no matter how many times I say this, mopping a floor will never be as much fun as riding a roller coaster. The way to make chores bearable and indeed enjoyable is to buy the best equipment. These don't necessarily have to be the most expensive. For my floor cleaning, I have two tools. One is a micro-fibre swivel mop and the other is a steam-cleaner vacuum. The reason I was seduced by the steam-cleaning vacuum is that it promised to clean without any chemicals.
Having toddlers who ate off the floor, I thought that reducing the chemicals was a good idea. It was, as long as I lived in the United States and did all the cleaning myself. Once I moved to Singapore, my maid refused to believe that a floor could be clean without chemicals. No matter what I said, she preferred to mop with a bucket of water liberally doused with soap oil and assorted floor cleaners.
Make every step count. Once you get into the Zen of cleaning mode, you realise that what the monks said about living in the present applies just as well to cleaning. Every morning, while my daughters are getting ready for school, I am tidying up the bedrooms.
Whenever my kids yell for stuff - "Mom, where's my hairbrush?" - I go to search for it, and always come back with more than just the hairbrush. Wherever I look in the house these days, I always find stuff that I can pick up and put away - wilting flowers, errant toys and many others. Every location is a gold mine of objects that could use tidying.
Make phone conversations count. I do my best cleaning when I am on the phone. Unlike some friends, I am not a good multi-tasker. I cannot, for instance, write this piece while speaking on the phone to my mother. I can, however, do mechanical things. Whenever an old friend calls, or whenever I need to call my mother or mother-in-law, I know I am in for a long conversation.
So I get my tools ready, put on my headset and sweep the floor while talking. At the end of the call, I don't feel guilty or irritated about wasting so much time. Not only have I caught up, but I also have a clean floor in the process.
Lastly, know when to stop. The thing with chores is that they never end. Once you get into tidying and cleaning, you see flaws everywhere. The stained mirror in the bathroom demands attention, the cushions need straightening, papers and books need rearranging.
The whole thing can quickly spiral out of control so that you are spending more and more time tidying up. While chores can be a route to nirvana, they can also become a noose around your neck. At that stage, it's best to take a deep breath and simply walk away from that untidy bed or cluttered room. Make yourself a pot of tea, put up your feet and let the maids take over. Better yet, go to a spa.
Shoba Narayan is a journalist based in Bangalore and the author of Monsoon Diary