(Title from this pic).
So I wake up this morning to my mother firing the maid. It wasn’t pretty.When the young woman put forth her best “What did I do wrong?” face, my mother systematically listed out her set of faults, but none more than her unprofessionalism – mentioning she’ll be gone for only a day, and then not turning up for a week, and not answering her phone when she called to find out if anything was wrong. Consistently. And yet drawing her full salary for the month. What, money grows on trees? And the uncertainty of waiting for you to sweep and swab the house is too much for me; I’d rather just sweep and swab myself, which I can plan out better when I know for sure you won’t be coming. Good luck with everything in the future.
And over the past few months, a few friends and I have been going back and forth over this article in The Hindu about maids ‘slogging and slaving’, yet “getting a pittance”.
Now, I’ve been raised to consider everyone as an equal, including household help. Which for my family, meant that they would have to work as hard and smart as we do if they wanted to have a life like ours. No pity, no “aiyo paavam”. My mother’s aunt, a former schoolteacher, is responsible for many a literate housemaid and housemaid’s kids. My grandfather badgered many a housemaid to have small savings in the post office. And so on and so forth. Household help is not weak people to be helped. They are people to be empowered.
I don’t know where the hell the whole ‘helpless household help’ idea stems from. The maids who I’ve seen… both in my house as well as in many others – have been anything but. An extreme case was this lady who asked my grandfather for a hefty loan, and when he refused, said “Your children are all successful, you have enough for your retirement. And yet you say you don’t have money to give me? How cheap of you!”. Most of the rest, while not having as much of a sense of entitlement, have managed to educate their kids rather well, buy land and houses, and in another extreme case, made enough to buy a house that she lets out for Kannada film shootings. They’ve also managed to graduate to nanny positions [The reason I say ‘graduate’ is because you need to have a set of extremely good recos of being clean, trustworthy and professional before anyone entrusts their offspring in your hands, even if they are going to be around watching you like a hawk], or get permanent employment in schools as ayahs.
And how did they get there? They made best use of the middle-class environment they worked in. They had little to worry about their children [no necessity of finding a daycare when their kids were too young to go to school], as they could bring their kids to work with only positive consequences. Their employers were the sorts who give a lot of importance to education, and ensured that their kids stayed in school, and sometimes even received help with their studies. And working in houses meant all your work was over by afternoon, after which you could manage to have a family life. Unlike slogging for hours together in a garment factory.
They made sure they got to work on time, didn’t take inordinately long leaves to visit their hometown, and ensuring they got in a reliable replacement whenever they did go for their sister’s wedding. They weren’t completely unsloppy – if you’re swabbing a dozen houses every single day, it’s hard to be consistent, especially when the home you’re cleaning is not yours – but they were less sloppier than the rest of the competition.
They ensured that they put away money in banks, away from the hands of drunk husbands or greedy relatives. They didn’t stand around and gossip or fester family intrigues, even if they worked in Malashree’s house (where the temptation to gossip would be insanely high). They made sure they didn’t blow away all their earnings on a visit to their hometown. They made sure they didn’t have too many debts.
They made sure their behaviour was in line with middle-class morality. After all, who wants to employ a woman who has three children with different fathers, one of whom she is not sure of? (true story). And they didn’t steal…. who’d want to hire a maid whose presence makes your best innerwear, trinkets and cutlery go missing?
It’s certainly not an easy task to do all of this. But then what is? The jobs my parents do isn’t easy for them either. Why, even the job(s) I have held haven’t been easy. There are software engineers who’ve spent exactly one week in a year with their folks back home. There are single mothers who sacrifice sleep to ensure they are a good employee as well as a good mother. There are nurses who disregard their own health to take care of their patients. There are women who put their marriages and kids on hold just so that they can educate their younger siblings. [All true stories]. So why should the life of a maidservant be any different?
Especially since if you are in the unskilled services business, where supply exceeds demand. Qualifications required to join the business are minimal. There is a deluge of people doing this as either a primary or secondary source of income. The only way you can distinguish yourself is through your performance. And the only way is to move upwards to the middle class is by doing those things that have helped the middle class become what they are – saving, living frugally, budgeting and emphasizing education.
And heck, you don’t even have any exclusive knowledge about your work. The women you work for know your job better than you do. Their roving eyes will spot any speck of dirt you have missed. They don’t hire you for status or because they don’t know to do the dishes or cook – who in the middle class can afford to blow a few hundred rupees on household help just like that. They hire you because they have day jobs, or because their hands are too full with children, or because they are too frequently unwell to do the sweeping and swabbing and cooking and cleaning themselves. Heck, they’d prefer it if they did all those jobs themselves; it’s too painful to keep yelling at someone else to do things the way you want them to be done.
The world is not divided into ‘Fortunates’ and ‘Unfortunates’. The more and more we view household help as people to be helped, the more and more we are hurting them by keeping them in a state of wanting help, and not helping themselves. This Mai-Baap sort of attitude only serves to reaffirm their beliefs of themselves being illiterate and stupid and unprofessional. It is only fair to consider them as just people doing a job with dignity, and expect them to behave so, while giving them the respect they deserve.
Like a conversation at hostel – A: “Hey, tell me if that lady comes… I want to ask her to sweep and mop my room” B: “Why don’t you do it yourself?” A: “I would… but my mom’s coming and I want it done professionally”.
And…. for more cheerful takes on the maid scene, check out Cynic’s posts. Here and Here. And the rest of her blog too… this lady sure does have an interesting perspective on things, and writes so swell too.