When we were children, we lived in my professor father’s bungalow which had a large assortment of domestics from cooks and ayahs to malis and dhobis. But there was not even one day someone or the other was not on leave. It was understood that when they went to their village on two weeks’ leave, it would normally stretch to a month. Then father would get the inevitable telegram: Father Mother serious. And father knew that meant a week more.
The urban variations are not too different. When a professional contact of mine, who had been dodging a meeting for weeks, finally found himself cornered, he excused himself for the next day’s meeting by telling me his mother-in-law was suffering from brain haemorrhage. Genuinely concerned, I asked him if she was in Delhi. No, he said. So was he going where she was, I asked, still concerned. No he replied rather sheepishly, because in that case he found it difficult to explain why he could not meet me as planned.
And that reminds me of the most awful gaffe I once made. A distinguished Indian woman diplomat had treated me with much kindness when she was posted in a foreign country. On return to India she asked me to lunch. This was the first time in my life that I had mixed up an important date and turned up a day late. And that lady never forgave me. My frantic apologies and desperate efforts to invite her to lunch did not work. It seems if you stand up to an ambassador there is no way of being forgiven. I am not even recognised in passing anymore.
Of course, there are excuses and excuses when it concerns one’s domestic staff. One particular maid has had her mother dying at least once a month so that she can dash off to the village. When her mother miraculously revives and she comes back to work, I do not have the heart to punish her in anyway. Because I know that her husband beats her and that her sons use her earnings to buy their drinks. In fact, this is such a familiar pattern with elderly maids that something should be done to protect them when all that fuss is made about women’s rights.
Of course, the most charming excuses are those cooked up by children. One of the worst moments during my school days was the month I came fourth in class, instead of the expected first. The practice in our school was to hold a ‘Proclamation’ every month, where one’s results were announced. I was so ashamed having come fourth that I ran away home. When mother asked why I was early, I mumbled that I had a stomach ache. I gave the same excuse to the mother superior when I returned to school the next morning. It did not wash. The school was summoned once again and my marks were read out. I was in tears. Later, the mother superior told me, “It was done, dear, to teach you not to run away from defeat but face it bravely,” she said. It is a lesson which has stayed with me for life.