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Trying to be served

Servants are a regular part of Indian life, a way of providing employment to people who need it, building a home and getting every-day jobs done

Allan Llewellyn
Getty Images

Getty Images

Having a servant is something I can’t get used to. At the guest house in Bangalore I had a fabulous helper who would do anything I would ask – and when I didn’t make requests, he would do things anyway. Like making four delicious dinner dishes when my stomach could cope with only one. Or press the lift button, pick up the clothes I had dropped randomly to feel like home, fill me up with water or buy toiletries. And when I had a long day at the cricket and came back with tight shoulders, he noticed, insisting I have a massage. It was as good as his excellent cooking; I doubt I’ll taste better dosas, parathas or idlis over the next month.
In Australia I live in a do-it-yourself house. Asking a partner for a drink is okay, but only if the tone is right. Handing over a bundle of dirty shirts for an overnight turnaround, or sitting at the table waiting for food without at least pretending to offer help, is as fraught as waving an Australian flag in the cheap seats at Chinnaswamy.
Being a westerner in India means privileges are granted without merit and each time I visit, it’s uncomfortable. But trying to offer assistance gets a slightly offended look and a “pleeess, sir” that gently says “sit down and let me do my job”, which isn’t an unreasonable request. So I try to be served. Except I can’t help but sneak the dishes to the sink (Don’t worry, special friend, I haven’t used up my annual washing-up quota) or put some bread in the toaster. Or pour my own drink.
Servants are a regular part of Indian life, a way of providing employment to people who need it, building a home and getting every-day jobs done. I’ve been told three or four in a house is not unusual. They stay in a small room, or let themselves in with their key, and receive food and a tiny wage.
As the guest it’s like being in a hotel, except you get to know the person. It makes me more uncomfortable to place orders. I’ve practised my eight Hindi words with him – bas, shukria, which means “enough, thank you”, was my most-used phrase at meals. Even my expanding stomach could not fit in all of the fabulous food. So it was sad leaving him this morning. From now on I’m staying in hotels and will miss my live-in friend.
There are small things that remind me of family – and big things. Like a stadium full of people roaring “Dada, Dada”. In the daydream my two babies had arranged the chanting and sent over the scribbled signs: “Dada, we’ll miss you.” Five weeks is going to be a long time away from them. Of course the noise on the last day of the first Test was for the retiring Sourav Ganguly, but for a moment, to me, it wasn’t.
Being part of thousands of people shouting for a player is one of the best feelings as a sport watcher. I think I remember the “Thommo, Thommo” cries at the Gabba for the slinging of Jeff Thomson. If they aren’t my original thoughts, they have been told to me by fathers and friends, or heard on the television, so often that they have become mine.
The “Ooh Aah, Glenn McGrath” chorus at Perth during his final series in 2006-07 was skin tingling and the “Dada, Dada” was stirring in Bangalore, especially as Ganguly’s fielding, which was up to its usual standard, had been jeered earlier in the match. The subjects of the chants are special because they have allowed people to love them through their deeds.
I’ve always liked Ganguly – his Lord Snootiness, the awkward dance to avoid anything short and his superstar presence - from the moment I first heard him speak after India chased more than 300 to win a one-dayer at Lord’s in 2002. I like him so much that once the Dada daydream finished I didn’t even mind that they were chanting his name instead of the one my children call me.