It happened on the very first morning in our flat, and it would happen nearly every day thereafter. We put on our clothes, exited the bedroom, and silenced the ringing doorbell that had woken us by opening the front door and revealing a woman we didn’t know. She began shouting at us in a language we didn’t recognize.
She wore a faded mustard sari and had a big brass ring in her nose. She tugged her headscarf with a humility belied by her shouting as she mimed shapes we couldn’t discern and pointed emphatically out to the terrace.
“I’m sorry,” we told her. “We don’t understand.”
More shouting, waving, gesturing, and pointing, all punctuated by an sharp tug of her headscarf.
“I’m sorry!” We told her. “No Hindi!”
She paused and looked at us quizzically. “Something something?” she asked us in her language.
“No,” we said, relieved. “No Hindi.”
She threw her head back and laughed, and then she resumed her shouting, ignoring our protestations. Finally we gave up, exchanged a glance, and put looks of understanding on our faces. “Aha!” we said, smiling and nodding. “Haan, haan!”
She grinned with triumph and left. We shook our heads and closed the door.
We repeated the farce the next morning. Neither of us could wave or mime well enough to convince her that we didn’t speak her language. As the week progressed, she grew increasingly frustrated with our inability to comply with her plainly stated requests, and we grew increasingly frustrated with the scene at the door. We stopped answering the doorbell before noon, pulling the pillow over our heads and reaching for the earplugs to block the ringing, until a neighbor finally explained it: she was Sheila, a maid collectively employed by the building, and she was there for our garbage, which we were to leave for her on the terrace; and we were going to pay her 300 rupees a month, plus a bonus on Diwali, and she wasn’t going to let us forget it.
Sheila rang our doorbell every morning we didn’t leave a bag on the terrace for her, and always chattered away with no acknowledgment that we had no idea. We even practiced our Hindi lessons on her. “Hamlog hindi nahi safehajta hain,” we carefully told her in our laughable Hindi accent. “We don’t understand Hindi.”
“Nahi?” she cocked her head. But before we could rejoice at this communications breakthrough, she laughed, long and hard, and then continued her incomprehensible lecture.
It even happened on our very last day in the flat: “Something something something jao something?” she asked, stopping us on the stairs.
At least we recognized one word. “Haan, abhi hamlog jao,” we said. “Today we go.” She laughed and gave us a long speech. We like to think that she was telling us how nice it was to be part of our lives; but she was probably ordering us to do a better job of separating the paper rubbish in the next place we lived.