This morning I woke up to a chemical spill masquerading as breakfast. A small square tinfoil tower sat on the kitchen bench in a slowly spreading pool of neon yellow liquid.
I peeled back the foil cautiously, wondering what legitimately edible food item could be leaking such toxic coloured grease. Eight cold, fried sandwiches stared back at me, dripping tears of oil. My appetite punched squarely in the face I left the kitchen.
Waking up to meals that make me wish I could take all my sustenance in pill form has become a fairly regular occurrence since I moved into my DDA flat in South Delhi.
It all started when my flatmate went almost an entire week without eating because she could not be bothered cooking for herself when I was out, which was often. After nearly fainting one day and spending an afternoon horizontal on her bed with her legs trembling, she decided our maid Rani should cook for us.
First let me explain my feelings towards Rani. Having grown up in Australia, I have never lived in a house with a maid before. I always cooked and cleaned up after myself or put up with my own mess until the dust made breathing hazardous. I was fine with that.
When Rani came into my life I felt immensely grateful. I’ve never enjoyed cleaning and I’m naturally messy. I also suffer from ‘lazy cleaner’ guilt – on the days that I skip vacuuming under things, the hidden dust shifts as if through osmosis into the back of my mind until I deal with it. Rani made all these annoying, adult responsibilities melt away.
At the same time I felt awkward. I knew we were paying Rani for her labour but I couldn’t get over the fact that she was doing the ‘gross housework’. The work that involved touching half-eaten food that has been cemented onto dishes, scrubbing out horrifying unidentifiable stains from shorts and picking knotted clumps of hair out of the drain.
In my experience, only someone who truly loves you and can hold back their dry retching long enough will do this work for you: your mother.
So I saw Rani as a kind of hired mother. Then she started cooking for us.
We quickly realised the skills that enabled Rani to clean our entire flat in five minutes, sweeping like lightening and wringing wet clothes like an arm wrestling champion on speed, did not translate well in the kitchen.
She cooked daal, vegetables and rice in 15 minutes flat, glossing over the slap-dash job with surplus quantities of oil and salt.
She also always seemed to cook four hours before we wanted to eat, meaning by the time we got to the dish it had grown a thick congealed skin and was being methodically stolen crumb by crumb by a steady trail of ants.
Even so, at the beginning I found it difficult to let these meals go to waste. I once polished off cold leftover curry that consisted almost entirely of onions, for breakfast. After several oily breakfasts and the inevitable hours of regret in the aftermath, I gave up and began making my own meals on the side.
But I can never bring myself to complain. After all, who can criticise their (pseudo) mother’s food without feeling like a hormonal devil teen?
And the glimpses of Rani’s life that I get to see make me all the more willing to let the whole inedible food issue slide.
She works well over 12 hours a day for five different households.
She rushes because the only way to cook five breakfasts in five different kitchens before 8am is to do it like the 100m sprint at the Olympics.
My flatmate on the other hand, from Punjab and well used to maids and cooks and drivers, is more than happy to tell Rani in detail what she doesn’t like about her cooking, amid threats of hiring someone else.
So far, it hasn’t seemed to change things greatly.
The toxic sandwich stacks will most likely keep greeting me when I wake up in the morning, but honestly I don’t really mind. As long as Rani’s cleaning up after me like my mother once did I’m happy to eat what I can and do what any good kid does with that which I can’t stomach: artfully hide it in the rubbish so she’s none the wiser.