by Stephen Evans Jordan
Just before lunch, Stanley Wong asked me, “Who’s that shabby little man waving at you?”
I looked up from my desk. “Raju—he’s my gardener.”
I was expecting Raju and waved back as he came up the circular stairs from the banking hall to the second-floor lending area. The receptionist directed Raju to a seating arrangement where he took a magazine from the coffee table and disappeared into the wings of a Chippendale chair.
Stanley’s desk was across from mine, and he rolled his chair toward me, “You had servants in Jakarta, didn’t you?”
I had been working in the bank’s Singapore branch for six weeks. Stanley and I, both Assistant Managers, hadn’t decided if we liked each other and maintained a cautious relationship that was neither hostile nor friendly.
“Yes, but Indonesian servants are a lot different than servants here.”
“I see,” Stanley said with a thin smile. “But a servant of mine wouldn’t dare to come into the bank to see me. If they did, they’d promptly be fired. But your gardener saunters in here like he’s an important customer. What’s going on?”
“Ah, Raju has a problem with his job description.”
“Job description? You and I have job descriptions. Raju is a gardener. Gardeners garden; that’s it.”
“It’s not that easy…”
Stanley interrupted, “Let me guess: Raju refused to do something your wife asked him to do?”
“Ah, well, actually, yes.”
Stanley started to leave for a lunch appointment and said, “You tell Raju to bloody well do what your wife says, or he’s sacked; that’s it. Don’t negotiate with your gardener.” Stanley waited for my reply.
“You’re in charge, don’t forget it.”
I nodded again.
After Stanley left, I went up to the reception area, shook hands with Raju and motioned him back to my desk.
My wife, Emily, and I were conflicted about servants. We were in our early thirties and felt somewhat ridiculous paying people older than we were to care for the garden and do the housework. When I was told of my transfer to Asia, we imagined the efficient British butlers and maids from the movies. But the reality was far different; English was our servants’ second or third language, and misunderstandings were common. The amah (Chinese for “maid”) was bossy and argued with us. Although Raju was distant, he knew his trade; our garden was exquisite— jewels of white and purple orchids set around a velvet lawn of emerald green. After initial adjustments, we had settled into a give-and-take relationship that worked reasonably well until that morning.
A Tamil, Raju’s forefathers must have come from southern India generations earlier to work the British rubber plantations and tin mines in Malaya. Tamils were considered feisty—many thought from the scorching food they ate. But that morning Raju was composure itself and chatted about the early morning rain as we walked back to my desk.
Raju always dressed the same: black baggy shorts known as Bombay bloomers, a white T-shirt, a brimless hat, and the ubiquitous blue Bata plastic sandals with his heels hanging over the backs. I guessed that he was in his fifties. Less than five feet tall, his gleaming teeth contrasted with his coal-black skin and crimson lips from chewing betel nut. Raju worked at our house a couple of days a week to deal with the encroaching orchids that would take over a garden if they weren’t hacked into submission. Thanks to him, our house was full of orchids.
He sat across from my desk, and I said, “Cigarette?” He smiled, took a Marlboro from my cigarette box and lit it from the lighter I handed him. “Coffee, tea, or juice?” I asked.
“Juice, no ice.”
The bank had an amah who prepared and served beverages. I called her while Raju smoked and surveyed the crowded banking hall below with detached aplomb. When I hung up, he said, “American cigarettes too sweet. The best are Tiga Limas. (“Three Fives” were British cigarettes.)
With an earnest smile, “The windows?”
“Mim told me to clean windows. I do garden, not windows. Mim was angry and yelled at me.” Mim was the term of address for the lady of the house; men were usually called “Mister.” That Raju spoke to me with no form of address was a matter of pride or cheek—I couldn’t decide which.
Emily had phoned after the confrontation that had gone the way Raju had described, except for one thing: Raju had told her that he would see me that afternoon and sort everything out. Emily was livid and wondered how I’d do the sorting. Without the faintest idea, I told her that I would handle it. For some reason, that made her even angrier. She told me that whatever Raju and I decided would not involve her cleaning so much as a smudge from the windows.
I said, “Raju, what do you think we should do about the windows?” I had learned the inclusive “we” from a negotiations seminar; the idea was to shape a challenge that “we” could resolve. I continued, “The windows get dirty from the rain. How are we going to clean them?”
Raju wasn’t buying my inclusion gambit and said, “Mim Zimmerman had same problem; Mister Zimmerman fix everything.”
Raju shrugged his shoulders. Perhaps to his way of thinking, after our man-to-man discussion, I would go home and tell Emily to do the windows. Asking, let alone telling, her to do the windows was out of the question. Asking our amah was unthinkable; amahs never worked outside.
We finished our cigarettes; I tried again, “We’ll see what can be done.”
“Talk to Mister Zimmerman.”
“I will, yes.”
Raju stood up and said, “You do proper thing; I know.”
Fred Zimmerman, the bank manager, came out of his office and pointed at his watch and motioned that his driver was bringing the car around. I walked Raju down the stairs, out of the bank, and toward the trees where he had locked his bicycle. In the front basket were his tools: a parang (“long knife” in Malay) for the orchids, pruning knives, clippers and a folding saw. After we said goodbye, Raju mounted his bicycle; I watched him peddle off when Fred Zimmerman was driven up in his car. An important customer had invited Fred and me to lunch that might close a deal we had been negotiating.
In the car, Fred said, “What’s up with Raju?”
“Raju and Emily argued this morning; he won’t do the windows and neither will she. She’s furious.” The windows in Fred’s home seemed clean enough; I was about to ask him who cleaned them.
But Fred’s mind was on business and he said, “Let’s go over the points we’re going to make.”
Fred once told me that a successful banker was a high-wire artist who balanced between his customers’ wishes and senior management’s imperatives. Fred was an excellent banker; he never failed to accommodate a customer, and the bank’s senior management respected him. The meeting and lunch were long; we left late that afternoon after the customer had agreed to our proposal.
Fred was expansive from the wine at lunch, “So you need some help with Raju.” He told his driver to take us to the American Club. I liked it when Fred took me under his wing.
At the bar, Fred said, “Years ago, Raju was hired as the gardener for the expatriate staff houses. There were three houses back then; there are probably twenty now. When Raju and Marion argued about the windows, I told Raju that he was my servant and would do as I said—period, full stop. Well, that’s when Raju set me straight: he isn’t my servant or yours. He’s a bank employee; so I don’t tell him what to do.”
“I’m a bank employee, and you tell me what to do.”
“Well, for one thing, you’re not in a union; Raju is.”
When Emily and I moved into our home, Raju showed up and announced that he was the gardener and was to be paid monthly. That was fine, and we thought Raju’s services were inexpensive. I said, “So the money I pay Raju is on top of what the bank pays him?”
“I’m afraid that’s right,” Fred said.
“Does anyone else in the bank know about his arrangements?”
“Don’t know, don’t care. I do know that Raju will keep his job until he retires. He’s an excellent gardener and sticks to his guns.”
“Who does your windows?”
“Ah, I do,” Fred said. “When Marion is out at her bridge club, I hose down the windows. I tell Marion that Raju did them.”
“Do your other servants know that?”
“Yes, but they won’t tell Marion. They laugh behind my back, but there are other considerations…”
“Not arguing with Marion?”
“What if Raju tells Marion he didn’t do the windows?”
“Since their argument, Marion and Raju don’t speak. And I’m sure Raju knows what’s going on.” He finished his drink. “Who the hell am I kidding? Marion knows too. It’s one of those things we don’t discuss. The Chinese call it keeping face.”
“What do the other bank expatriates do about Raju?”
“Don’t know and haven’t asked. I wanted to save you some embarrassment. Ah, what I’ve just told you goes no further?”
“Right, I’ll take a hose to the windows like you do.”
“How long have you and Emily been married?”
“Ah, you’re catching on. Another drink?”
Years after Fred and I had left Singapore, I was working for another bank and passed Fred on the street in San Francisco. Fred offered to buy me a drink; we reminisced about our Asian days. We were about to leave when Fred said, “When I tell people about Asia, they inevitably ask about the servants. At times I really miss them; other times, not at all.”
Fred laughed. “The damnedest thing happened the day we left Singapore. Saying goodbye to the servants was emotional after all the years. All of us were choked up, but Raju fell to pieces—for such a stoic, that really surprised me. He hugged Marion and said he’d admired her. Incredible, since Marion and Raju had ignored each other.”
I said, “Pretty much the same thing happened when we were leaving. Raju got weepy saying goodbye to Emily and essentially ignored me.”
“Raju respected Marion and Emily for not backing down,” Fred said.
“He must have thought that you and I were absolute weenies.”
“Have you told Emily about the windows?”
“Do you think she knows?”
“I’m sure she does,” I said.
“One for the road?” Fred said.
Fred raised his glass, “To Raju.”
“And to keeping face.”
“And to keeping face.”
Editor’s Note on Raju:
Raju is not the first story by Stephen Jordan that Eastlit have published. His other work is listed below:
- A Complete Overhaul featured in Eastlit March 2014.