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Yes, I am being served

Oindrila Mukherjee

Updated: June 11, 2012, 12:52 PM IST
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Friday was a typical weekday morning at my parents' home in Gurgaon where I'm staying. First, a guy came to fix the printer. Then another guy came to fix the wireless. Then two guys came to look at one of the ACs. Mid-morning, a sweeper dropped in to clean the bathrooms. Finally, someone came over to check out one of the doors that's apparently got a broken hinge. Luckily, I didn't have to open any door to let the stream of people in because Sunny, my parents' live-in maid, did that in between her other chores.

This weekend I cooked dinner for some old friends. Had to make a grocery list. Then made a few phone calls to get most of the items delivered and sent Sunny with the rest of the list to the shop downstairs.

I can't count how many times I've seen a Facebook status by a friend whining about 'servants' being absent. Long distance conversations with my mother often focus on the subject too. I hear that face to face conversations among women here are not much different.

When a maid plays hooky (apparently very frequently) or suddenly leaves to join a neighbor who's promised to pay a bit more, or goes away to her village for a brief holiday and fails to return (either because she got married or some mysterious reason), the household falls in disarray. The chores fall on the shoulders of the woman of the house. When working, such women find it hard to juggle their jobs and home requirements. But even when not working, home makers feel crippled by the burden of laundry or cooking. Sometimes, there's a backup maid, but even that (one helper instead of two now) throws people into fits of panic.

People reading this from India know exactly what I'm talking about. What would most of them do without a maid? What do I do without a maid? Oh, just the usual. Laundry, vacuuming, groceries, cooking, cleaning, and that worst chore of all. One of my friends once remarked, after hearing of my list of household duties, "What? You have to do all the ironing too?"

I cannot deny the great pleasure in a cup of tea magically appearing before you when you want it. When you're rushing to get to work in the morning, it's nice not to have to spend those few extra minutes making your bed or your breakfast. After a long hard day of work, washing dishes can be a burden. Even cooking, for those who truly enjoy it, becomes much easier when you have someone to help you with the prep and do the cleaning up after.

This is the only sort of life I've ever known in India. Most of the time when I lived here, through high school and college, my family also had a driver to chauffeur us all around to our various destinations. A driver of course is perceived as a necessity by upper middle class folk in big cities. A friend of mine, who was quite stressed out about her driver absconding for a few days on my last visit to Delhi, remarked, "It's not just being driven around. Our driver does so many errands for us, picks up the kids from school and so on. When he's not there, I have to do all that."

To most of my American friends, this sounds like something Marie Antoinette would say. Spoilt, snobby, rich Indians. Except that even lower middle class Indians have a part-time maid to come in and help with the dishes.

We're not just talking domestic help here. Every time we go to a shop in Gurgaon, to buy fruit or groceries, someone from the shop carries all the stuff back to our car. Porters and coolies appear out of nowhere. As soon as I entered the duty free shop at the airport the other night, someone showed up at my side to help guide me through the goods in the store. In petrol pumps car owners never have to fill their own petrol. At parking lots, there's always a man at the ticket booth to hand you your ticket.

Keep in mind, dear American friends, that households in India (unless you're super rich) don't have dishwashers or clothes dryers. Dishes must be washed by hand, and they're all pretty greased up from Indian food. Clothes must be hung on the clothesline to dry. Vacuum cleaners are rare, and floors must be swept and mopped, not an easy task given the dust that swirls around all year. Consider also that central airconditioning is not a feature in people's homes. Window units in the main rooms don't cool the kitchen or bathrooms, places where cleaning and cooking get done. Try spending an hour scrubbing dishes in 90 degree weather every day. Not fun. As for chauffeurs, when I was growing up, my family and many others I knew had a single car and without a driver only one person in the family (i.e. usually the man) would have used it most of the time. Unlike in the States where every adult in most families has his or her own car.

The bottom line is that middle class Indians don't hire domestic workers because they're mean. They do so because for a combination of reasons they have grown dependent on them. Life without a domestic worker for most of them would be like living in American suburbs without a car. Yes, that hard!

There's another reason they hire help. Because they can. And herein of course lies the moral problem.

It's become impossible for me to listen to someone whine about their missing help or even to watch Sunny go about her work without a pang of guilt. Machines are expensive in the developing world, people are not. The reason we in America can't afford help is because it costs too much for most of us. I do know a few who hire a cleaning lady once a week for a charge of around $ 50 to $ 75 each time (about two to three hours' work.) That's $200 to $300 a month. Not surprisingly perhaps, most of the people I know there who have a cleaning lady are... Indians.

Compare this with salaries here. For a live in (full time) maid in and around Delhi, the pay starts at Rs 5000. A driver here would charge upwards of Rs 10,000. No sweat for the richie rich, but it's becoming increasingly harder for middle class folks to afford help. Which, while cause for lament to many homemakers who now have to take care of their kids all by themselves, means that the very poor who are forced to clean other peoples' crap now refuse to work for less than, say, one-twentieth of their employers' monthly income. This, my helpless friends, is progress.

The rise of the agencies that now claim to look after domestic workers' interests and act as go-betweens for them and employers, charge annual service fees of Rs 25000 to Rs 35000. At first when I learned of this system, I was pleased because it meant protection of workers' rights. Inevitably of course, it's turned into a money-making scheme for individual domestic worker-turned entrepreneurs, raising the question of how much workers are actually benefitting from it.

The disparity between the lifestyles of the help and their employers, i.e. us, is something most Indians take for granted. As did I for the longest time. But it becomes harder to do that after ten years of cleaning your own toilet bowl and, sigh, ironing your own clothes. They often sleep on the floor, eat different food from different plates, have no air conditioning, and of course speak little or no English, the big cultural marker. If there have been a few changes in the past decade, it's always a matter of concern for their employers. On my last few visits to India, I have heard people remark with much rolling of the eyes, how these days even "they" all have cell phones. Oh horror.

Before I begin to sound completely holier than thou, let me confess that since my arrival in India about 10 days ago, I've enjoyed the morning cup of tea that's handed to me. I've called out for Sunny to fetch me a glass of water. I've left dishes on the table for her to clear up. Not having to do daily chores frees you up to do other things, makes you more productive, especially in the debilitating heat of summer in India. By no means am I suggesting that everyone dismiss their help. If that unthinkable step were taken, it would deprive millions of their livelihood.

But what's disturbing is the almost total lack of self-reflection here in India about what is a complicated situation. Educated Indians cheerfully use the term 'servant' without questioning its problematic nature. The first reaction of many people when there hear of my chores in the US is to proclaim that they will never live there, but few ever try to analyze the labour economics that causes this distinction between the developed and developing worlds. Even those employers who claim to be very generous are only patronizing. I was rereading Mark Tully's 1988 book of essays, 'No Full Stops in India' the other day, where he launches his account of the country with the story of his 'servant', Ram Chunder. It's meant to be an endearing portrait but in that way that children or those less worldly than us are endearing. Ram Chunder is, at best, a caricature.

As inflation continues to balloon in India, the cost of labour will also steadily continue to rise. Gradually, live-in workers will be a luxury only the wealthy can afford. The rest will have to make do with part timers. The hours will get shorter and shorter. Until one day, not too far into the future, middle class folk will have to do all their chores themselves. My friends better check the settings on their irons. Or, do like many of my American friends do. Don't bother with ironing. A few creases never killed anyone.

First Published: June 11, 2012, 12:52 PM IST

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