When our TVS-Whirlpool washing machine died of natural causes (not to be confused with motor vehicle accident, gunshot wound, or act of God), I wondered if it was time to call the irumbu karan in Bodi’s junk bazar. The little red lights on the plastic control panel would still blink, but the machine wouldn’t fill, chug, or spin. As a last resort, I dialed the Whirlpool phone number that I found on a faded receipt.
An electronic telephone lady informed me in both English and chaste Tamil that the number was not reachable.
I then found a number for Whirlpool Dindigul. A polite Tamil lady suggested that I contact the new Whirlpool Call Centre in Chennai.
I did so and reached a robot lady sporting a high heels Bombay British accent. She warmly explained that my call was valuable to her, thanked me for my patience, and told me to push ‘2’ for repairs. Seconds later, an earnest sounding Call Center man came on the line.
‘Thank you for choose Whirlpool how may I help to you?”
I described our ten-year old machine’s history of present illness. Within a minute, the man had located my name and our Ultra Sparkle’s serial number cum purchase details on his computer.
‘Sorry for inconvenience we’ll send a repairman right away 086 is your customer satisfaction number is there any other helps you require today?’
Three hours later, after the sweltering evening had engulfed our compound, a Whirlpool repairman motored up to our front door on his Bajaj.
The man wore a neat tan and brown shirt and khaki pants. He was in his mid twenties, confident and friendly. On his broad shoulders hung a backpack with a Whirlpool logo. Crickets and peepers punctuated the humid darkness. Faint strains of cinema music from Melachokkanathapuram drifted across the fields on welcome puffs of air.
The repairman greeted me in halting English and seemed relieved when I answered in Tamil. I brought him across the visha kolai weeds to the laundry room, an outhouse built under a spreading rain tree. Various geckoes, roaches, and other poochies had taken up residence in the little cubicle. The state of affairs didn’t seem to phase Muthupandi. He flipped the machine onto its side and unscrewed the panels. The washing chamber smelled of stale detergent and mildewing fluff.
Just before the 7:00 PM power cut, Muthupandi completed his assessment. As it was now totally dark, he turned on his cell phone so we could see. I went to the house for a flashlight, stomping the ground to warn away snakes. When I returned, Muthupandi was crouched behind the machine.
“See here? The rotor is plastered down with calcium scale from your hard water and the outflow valve is permanently stuck open. This means the washing drum can not fill and the switch that turns on the machine can not be triggered. Lucky for you, the motor didn’t burn out. Also a rat has chewed through some of the wires. Don’t worry, we can fix everything.”
“What about the outflow valve? How long will it take to get a new part?”
“No problem, I have brought all the necessary spares.”
I crushed a fat red cockroach that was scurrying across the cement floor. Sweat dripped down my chest as I held the light and watched Muthupandi replace the outflow valve. He then went to work descaling the rotor and washing chamber. I slapped a mosquito that had landed on my right cheek.
“You’re lucky to have this old machine,” he said. “It’s not fancy, but it’s the original TVS model that was popular when Whirlpool bought out the company. I shouldn’t tell you this, but all the newer models including the front-loading ones are constantly breaking down. These old fellows are the best suited to our tough Indian conditions.”
As he was wrapping electrical tape around a rat-chewed wire, a snake slithered nine inched from my toes. I jumped backwards, heart pounding. Muthupandi rushed out, grabbed a brick, and crushed the snake’s head. It writhed for a few minutes, triangular jaws biting the air. It was a saw-scaled viper, the kind that had killed one of our dogs. I shuddered, remembering that way our little Gopi had cried all night before dying, blood oozing from his ears and nose.
“I’m not supposed to kill snakes,” Muthupandi said. “Our clan worships Petchi, you know, Nagammal, the snake goddess. My brother plays with these creatures; picks them up with his bare hands. But not me. I’ve seen what a snake bite can do to a man.”
He pulled the ground wire through a round hole to the control panel and reattached it.
“Still, I don’t feel good about killing the viper, but the customer’s safety comes first. I’m a Whirlpool man.”
Muthupandi inspected the circuitry of the plastic control panel, then screwed it back in place.
“I make it a point never to worship other gods besides Petchiammal. Well, once I put a maala around my neck for Ayyappa and wore black and went barefoot for a month. As a punishment, my father’s chisel slipped and severed a tendon in his hand. Petchiammal did that. I’ve learned my lesson.”
“What community are you from?”
“We are Tamil Aasaaris. My father is a carpenter.”
“Did he teach you the trade too?”
He smiled. “Of course. I can make anything from wood.”
“Even washing machines?”
Muthupandi closed the back panel, replaced the rat grill, and righted the machine. The power came back on and with it, the light in our cubicle. I asked him how he had ended up with Whirlpool.
“My father didn’t want me to be a carpenter. He said that I can do better, so he sent me to Engineering College in Periyakulam. I have a DME, a Diploma in Mechanical Engineering.”
He turned on the water and began to test fill the machine.
“After graduation, I couldn’t get an engineering job, so I became a manager for ABT Parcel Service in Madurai for 17,000 rupees a month. Then I got married and moved back home. That’s when the Whirlpool opportunity arose.”
“Where do you live?”
“About 20 km from here in Uppukottai. I have a love marriage, you know. We met at the bus stop in Madurai and would talk every morning on the way to work. Her father is a real estate broker in a suburb. She’s from the Thevar community.”
“That must have caused a scandal.”
“It did, but my father’s a jolly type. He likes to be friends with his children, so he was cool. My mother was quite upset though, as was her brother, my Maamaa. ‘Our people don’t mix with Thevars! What you’re doing is wrong.’ I felt badly disrespecting him, but in the end, it’s not his life.”
Muthupandi hoisted up a blue plastic bucket of water and poured it into chamber. He mopped his forehead with a handkerchief as another bucket was filling.
“How about her family?”
“They were against the marriage too, but after a while, they looked at me and decided that character was more important than caste. Look, now that the machine is full, the wash cycle has started automatically. I told you the motor was fine.”
“Do you have any kids?”
“We do. A boy named Yuvaan Shankar. He’s a year and a half. I love being a father.”
“Are you going to teach him the skills of an Aasaari?”
“At least some basic wood working I suppose, but I want him to become a lawyer. Well maybe not a lawyer because they lie for a living. Perhaps a surgeon in America.”
“Is it hard for you, working as a repairman when you’re an engineer?”
He held up empty hands and smiled.
“I once was lined up for a high paying engineering job in Dubai. The broker had finished all the arrangements. But then my wife became pregnant and now with the kid and all… someday, perhaps. Or maybe I’ll get a chance to go to America. Life over there must be so much better. I wouldn’t mind earning enough to buy a car.”
The machine had now drained and began to spin. The rotating drum made a knocking sound as it rocked the machine.
“Over here we have a saying,” Muthupandi said. “‘If an Indian steps on a thorn, he blames the thorn. If a westerner steps on a thorn, he blames himself.’ People in the west work harder and accomplish so much more than we do.”
“There are plenty of people in America who blame every else for their problems, I can assure you. And lazy people too, like anywhere. How many hours did you put in today?”
“Well, I started at 9:00 and have been going straight. Had to ride all the way to Thevaram. I had already fixed 3 washing machines, 2 microwaves, and a fridge when the call center directed me to come here. I’ll get home around 9:00 PM for supper. A typical day.”
“Aren’t you exhausted?”
“All that, it’s no problem for me. I have a job to do.”
He closed the lid and wiped down the white enamel surface with a damp cloth.
“I’ll write up your bill. It comes to 1900 rupees, parts and labor included.”
After paying him, I watched as Muthupandi arranged his tools. He jotted down his personal cell number on the back of the visiting card and told me to call anytime.
“I hope you’re satisfied with my work. Some repairmen just go through the motions. When the repair doesn’t last, they blame the machine and try to convince the customer to buy a new one. Not me. Either do it right or don’t do it at all, that’s what I learned from my Whirlpool guru.”
“In English, we say a bad workman blames his tools.”
“Ha ha, in Tamil we have a better one: a bad dancer says the street is crooked.”
Muthupandi kick started his bike and waved as he drove off towards home.
I thought of little Yuvaan Shankar hugging his tired daddy’s knees at the doorstep.