Sunday, November 11, 2007

Diwali Baksheesh

For a festival of prosperity, Diwali leaves me real broke. It's not like I blow up my money on new clothes and firecrackers alone. What kills is the Diwali Baksheesh tradition of Mumbai.
I guess this requires an explanation - on Diwali, all workers in Mumbai are supposed to be given a gift, or 'baksheesh', in the spirit of the season. So you are supposed to pay an annual tip, of sorts, to every person who provides some service for you - be it your domestic help, your cook, your watchman, everyone.
As my Dabbawaala (a guy who delivered a dabba for 8 days exactly but now knows where my office is) puts it, "aap ko apni khushi se 100 rupees dena hai"
(You have to give 100 rupees out of your own volition).
In my building, like everything else, Diwali Baksheesh is also regulated. As a new entrant last year, I was given a briefing:
Domestic Help: Double the salary, salary plus new saree.
Watchmen: 50 rupees each
Gardener: 20 rupees.
Garbage lady: 20 rupees.
Municipality workers: 50 rupees (for five of them)
So the first year, I conscribed. Except that I used to get home too late to catch the day watchman, and by the time I left, he was usually missing. In any case I didn't like this guy, Sunil, he was also the letchy Secretary's snitch-in-chief. So I willingly spazzed out.
One morning Anita, the maid, comes in. She never asks me anything. She never passes any value judgments on what we do. Instead, she adopts a different tactic:
Instead of : "Who are these boys who keep coming over?"
She says : "The so-and-so's wife was asking me, this girl keeps getting these boys over. I said, I don't know. Anyway what's it to her?"
This time around, however, I was provoked:
"Sunil was saying that he hadn't gotten a Diwali bonus from you. He asked if you gave me. I didn't answer him, I said why are you asking me?"
"Really? Well, I haven't been able to locate him", I lied.
"Then he asked the garbage lady, and she said that you had paid her..."
I blanched at the idea that I was the subject of discussion over pan masala beedi exchange at the gate. It's disconcerting, how much of information your domestic help, watchman and garbage collector possess. What else do they discuss? The Seagram's Fuel Bottles that are placed outside our door every monday morning? The nocturnal visitors? The maroon satin underwear? How we changed our home pack to Durex ultra thins since last weekend?
"Well, I was just about to pay him," I said.
I saw the day watchman washing cars later that morning. He was a little balder than I remembered, and a little fatter. It had been some time since I bothered about him. I tapped him on the shoulder, gave him the money and saw his eyes light up.
Two days later, the Bai started off. "Sunil keeps disappearing, and then he says that you didn't pay him. I told him that you are so busy. Where will you go looking for him?"
"Uhh...", I was wildly confused.
"It doesn't help that he went on leave in between."
"He did, eh?"
"Yeah, and he sent that silly brother of his, Anil."
Oh crap. This was awful. I had become the victim of a identical twin plot. Argh!
I found Sunil, paid him his 50 bucks, and told him that I had also paid Anil. Nothing like a little sibling rivalry to spice up your Diwali.
This year, A and I decided to screw the system which was in place, for the reason which provoked most of our actions - spite. I thought the Society was being sweet in telling me the maximum rates of Diwali Bonus. They weren't. It was just a cover up for the Great Maharashtrian Brahmanical Stinginess.
Obviously. Now that I found out that Baksheesh was a debated and discussed subject amongst the menials, it was a prestige issue for the residents as well. Uniform Baksheesh reduced controversy. There would be no "He got a promotion but he still only gives 20 rupees" whispers. We also felt a little rebellious, especially after the good girlness we displayed on Diwali.
Heh Heh.
In case confronted, for the record, we have taken into consideration that since we are two women living alone with slightly unconventional habits, it would be nicer to have everyone nice to us. And come on. We end up tipping waiters more than a 100 at times. Finally, neither me nor A get a Diwali Bonus. We might as well to be bitchy.
So, the Bai got double salary and fireworks for the kids, the Watchmen got 100 bucks each, the Garbage lady got 50 bucks and clothing and shoes that are unsuitable for office wear anymore for her kids. Everyone's a winner.
Contrary to our ambitious plan, we got tired after using half our of stock of fireworks. Also, we realized that we are very old, we only had 'chakras' (spinning wheels) and anars (fountains), and missed out on atomic bombs in chakras, and the thing that lights up into a bouncing flubber ball. Not to mention the banshee sounding like fountain. After packing up, we went to have beer at Sea View, Juhu. Other than that, it was a largely traditional Diwali. We giggled as neighbours gave us guilty looks while passing by us doing a Rangoli. Would alcoholic philanderers celebrate Diwali in such a traditional fashion?
Excuse me while I flutter my eyelashes.

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