An edited version was published by South Asian Parent on 9th May 2011.
I grew up with a nanny. She wasn’t exactly hired help. In reality, she was my father’s mashi (mother’s sister). I called her dida (grandmother).
It did not start off as dida as my nanny. I was initially left at a crèche, but their callous ways of not having changed my nappy for hours horrified my parents into looking for other suitable caregivers. Many came in succession. There was this one woman who would tie me up to a table so that I wouldn’t crawl away. Let me tell you, that woman lost her job before she could blink and say “What the …?!”
Dida was a good option. She had taken care of my baba as a child. She loved spending time with me, despite my barbaric tantrums (another story for another day). My parents begged her to become my nanny.
So as the story goes, both my parents had demanding jobs. While my ma had an erratic schedule with her air hostess job at Indian Airlines (she would be gone for days, sometimes slipping away at 4 am in the morning for an early morning flight), my baba would toil away at an engineering firm in Calcutta until late in the evening. It was the late 80’s, and they wanted the best for their only child. I was often left alone with my dida and the maid servant.
For the most part, I was a happy child. I was a popular kid at school, and had friends in our apartment building to distract myself with. I was pampered. Fed the best of everything to maintain my health (I was an underweight child). If I ever threw a tantrum and refused to eat, the maid and dida would get scolded. When baba went away on long tours across the globe, he always brought me the best of chocolates and toys. I remember when even before the hand held video games came to India, I had one at my disposal.
Once my sister was born (I was nearly six), Ma decided to get flexible hours. She gave up flying and became a ground staff, to be able to spend more time at home with her new baby.
I remember being faintly resentful that she spent all her time with my sister, who couldn’t even talk yet. Sometimes, I wondered why she had not done this when I was younger. I was jealously possessive of my mother’s time. But don’t get me wrong. She was an awesome mother. She would make time to sit with me and have inane conversations about my day. She would make me study under her supervision, especially Bengali, which I faltered at. Sometimes, she lost her temper because I couldn’t remember simple spellings. She would feed me herself on her off-days, and sometimes, we would watch a video together. Those are my happiest memories.
The year I turned nine, baba was transferred to Dubai, and Ma decided to give up her job to come with us. Now, I always had Ma at home. When I woke up, it wasn’t the maid shaking me awake, but my mom. When I came home from school, there was a glass of sherbet waiting for me, made by ma. Life was what I had imagined it to be, having watched my friends and their housewife moms.
I wonder if as kids we ask too much of our parents. At nine, I did not know what a sacrifice it had been for my ma to give up her job. I had no idea how depressed she was in a new country, with no one to talk to. I suppose at some level, her guilt made her leave her job. I wonder if it would have been any different if she had always been a stay-at-home mom. I ask her often, why did you not spend more time with me when we were in Calcutta? Her answer never changes, “We wanted the best for you. Our jobs afforded a good life for you”. But why did you decide to change after my sister was born? She doesn’t answer that one. Instead, she deflects it by saying, “I am here now, naa?” I suppose I can understand that at some level. Yet, there are moments when I feel that I could have been happier with Ma by my side as a child. To have her croon me to sleep, as a baby.
Because isn’t that what parents are supposed to do? Especially mothers? Strangely, I never craved for my father’s time as much as I did hers, even though he was always busy or away as well. But my mother made up for than enough with her presence post age nine. I cannot remember not having my Ma around after moving to Dubai. Even now, she makes it a point to call me every day. I have to gently remind her that I am not a child anymore. But she prefers calling me to my sister. Or, so I would like to believe.
I don’t know if having had a nanny for the formative years of my life changed me for better or for worse. But I do know that if we had not left India when we did, I might have held a grudge all my life.
Photographs: Copyright Sanchari Sur