(Inspired by Eric Weiner’s article in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine.)

When my husband and I moved in together, we never discussed having a servant. It was just understood, somehow, that I was an American, perpetually uncomfortable in India, particularly when it came to patterns of social behavior I had no context for, and thus we would go without.

But Amma showed up, and she would not leave. She insisted that she cleaned for everyone in our building, then pulled a crude beedi from a fold in her sari and offered to sweep and wash our clothes for a penurious wage, by my estimation, but one Sumeet deemed “fair.” That day, we bought a broom, buckets, rags, and detergent, proudly imagining that she would be impressed by the new equipment.

Most mornings, she showed up by 10 a.m., a few hours later than she had originally promised; then again, she looked to me to be about 60, so I was happy she showed up at all. I consoled myself by concocting scenarios in which our paltry rupees allowed her to send her grandson to a good school or marry her daughter to a loving, solid man who appreciated the family’s work ethic. My husband tried to disenchant me of my delusions, explaining I should be no more sentimental about the situation than I would be about patronizing a 7-11.

I held onto them more or less until the day I found myself serving Amma tea and biscuits after I found her in our bedroom, cigarette hanging from her lips as she danced around the room with a mop; mortified, I retreated to the kitchen, washed a few mugs, and brewed some first flush Darjeeling, a recent addiction. When she emerged, I expected her to look chastised. Instead, she gladly accepted the steaming cup and explained, in rough Hinglish, that she needed to wash up. I shrugged, half because I didn’t really understand and half because I no longer cared.

Then I heard the rush of water in our hastily constructed shower — really just a few exposed pipes the trickled tepid streams into the concrete drain, but nonetheless one of the husband’s crowning feats of home improvement — and I snapped.

“Amma! Amma! Lao!”

She emerged, her waist-length hair smelling of my Sunsilk. I couldn’t remember anything but cursory phrases, shards of verbs I never learned to properly conjugate. I knew they didn’t make any sense, so I pointed at the door, infuriated, near tears. I remembered a scene from the first Christmas my brother brought his girlfriend home, a confrontation between my mother and the girlfriend about a prized bar of Japanese soap she had used without asking. I wanted to be a radical, I wanted to be on the side of the underdog — but I also wanted to maintain some private space, a peaceful reserve I didn’t have to share with people who thought my American citizenship meant I loved hot dogs and sex and money, people who wanted to know why anyone with a choice would choose Delhi, people who asked if I could get them visas or knew someone who could.

I thought I would never see Amma again, but she was back the next day. She brought a young boy, Bunty, who inherited her duties; later that week, she brought a bashfu girl in a sari who was trailed by a toddler of indeterminate sex. I started leaving for work earlier and learned how to make the flat look deserted so I wouldn’t have to carry out transactions in the economy of inequality, mumbling a language I didn’t speak, aping traditions I couldn’t acquire while trying to translate my own for the dusty, hardscrabble streets of the seven sprawling cities.

The last day we were in India, Amma brought my husband a rakhee and tied it around his wrist. Starting to tear up, I pulled him into the kitchen.

“What a lovely gesture!”

“Ayyo, you never learn, do you? She gives me a Rs 3 rakhee, and we buy her and her family new clothes as a thank you gift. This one…she’s as savvy as any BPO worker.”

“Don’t be so crass; she really cares about you!”

He rolled his eyes. As I retreated into the bedroom toting disordered sections of The Indian Express, I could hear them negotiating her severance pay: a few hundred rupees, any of the clothes I was planning to donate to charity, and household goods we weren’t going to ship across the Atlantic. It seemed a small price for escaping an ethically ambiguous situation, but my husband still insists we spoiled her.

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