A young man

Manjula Padmanabhan | Updated on September 06, 2019 Published on September 06, 2019

There’s a big change in the household: We have a new cook. He used to work for a friend. When that friend left to settle in Mumbai, his “person” came to us. He began working for us a couple of weeks ago.

“What to do about The Problem?” Bins wants to know, when I get back from my southern trek. We’ve already discussed it at length: A name to know him by. “Not ‘servant’,” says Bins. “No one has servants these days. Brrrr!” He shudders with distaste. We’ve already tried “cook” but it sounds wrong. “He’s too inexperienced for the title,” I agree. “And ‘domestic helper’ sounds absurd.” Butler, valet and man-servant, eeek! All awful and utterly inappropriate. I tell Bins that some people in Delhi have taken to calling those who work in their homes as “the help”. He looks puzzled. “Why? I mean, they’re not helping, they’re working! All by themselves! So how can they be ‘helpers’?”

The problem is not merely one of definition. It’s also the young man’s name. Obviously, he has his own name. And we use that when we call out to him or speak to him. But we need a private version to use when we refer to him between ourselves. Something friendly enough that he won’t mind if he finds out and yet different enough from his real name so that he doesn’t know we’re talking about him. When I explain this to a friend, she says, “But why d’you need such a thing?” Her point is, it won’t bother him to know that we may be talking about him. And also, even if he does get bothered, so what?

Umm. Because it does matter to me, what he thinks and feels. He’s very young, after all. Maybe 20. From the hills. He seems genuinely soft-spoken and somehow... dare I say this?... innocent. At first glance he looks no different to the other fellows on the street. He has the kind of hairstyle that I call The Hedgehog Cut: Shaved on all three sides and the remaining hair sticking straight up on top. But he’s very neat. Wears tee-shirts, jeans and sandals. Changes every day. Doesn’t dash about in a hectic way. Doesn’t smoke or (to the best of our knowledge) drink. His stove-side repertoire is small because he has little training as a cook. Yet he learns fast, he can follow recipes and he goes online, on his phone, to study YouTube videos. The kitchen is so tidy we tiptoe about, unwilling to disturb the order.

“What about ‘Bambi’?” I say to Bins. “Yuck!” Bins grimaces. “He’s not a baby deer! More like a cat,” he says. Small, silent, clean. “Sylvester?” I say, from Tom & Jerry. “Too long!” snarls Bins “Too cartoony.” We cannot agree on anything. “How about ‘Sylvie’?” I say. Bins shakes his head, looking glum. So, for the moment, it’s just “...uhhh...” and head-tilt. The Person In The Kitchen. The Not-Cook. The Meal-maker. The Young Man.

Manjula Padmanabhan, author and artist, writes of her life in the fictional town of Elsewhere, US, in this weekly column

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Published on September 06, 2019
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