Maid In India

(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.

About wanderlust

just your average books-and-music person who wants to change the world.
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6 Responses to Maid In India

  1. Tuna Fish says:

    Yeah! So, once we got our house maid a brand new sewing machine and taught her sewing lessons! And what does she do? Goes and sells it for half the price the next month! Bah!

  2. Aravind says:

    Expecting professional work from someone who is uneducated, has grown up in the not-so-great environs of a slum, often in uncivilized (or less civilized) surroundings, does not understand economics as you and I do, might be a bit unreasonable. I have seen the maids in my own home, and I completely can relate to the points you are making. Their unprofessionalism is frustrating surely. And the troubles our mothers go through as a result are painful.

    But note that these are people who are doing the work they do not because they like it, but because they are forced into it. Ask any maid, and I am sure they’d rather be doing something else (of course, sometimes these include ridiculously ambitious things). But their situation, their history only allows them to do this. Put yourself into a situation where you are doing something you don’t want to do, something that is tedious, and I am sure your attitude becomes “do enough to pretend like work is being done”. I know educated people who do this — because people of all interests are ending up in engineering and software for the want of money. I can think of situations where I myself have done this — where I took shortcuts to get done with courses I was not interested in. I will be surprised to see you say you haven’t done that! It is only natural then that people, including the uneducated and unprofessional maids, do this.

    Now add to these the fact that there is pressure on you — whether it is because you have to feed your family, or have abusive husband, or any of the innumerable other things that can work against you. In fact, most of these maids give a lot of importance to the education of their kids. This is for the sole reason that the last thing they want to see is their kids trapped by similar situations that boxed them into the menial work they do. This is the reason why they want their kids to study well. If they were like you and me happy with the job on hand and eagerly looking forward for the next day’s work, they would obviously be professional. And this is the reason why they are really unfortunate. Not because they are humanly incapable of doing what we can do. But because their past confines them.

    Of course there are those who do well, who have the mental strength to see themselves beyond the work they start off with, graduating into other, more responsible, less menial work. But to expect that from everyone is unfair, is being insensitive. And yes, there are those who abuse our well-meaning gestures. But aren’t there such people amongst us educated, skilled, privileged?

    I agree that the last thing a handicapped (in any way) person wants is sympathy and pity. I agree that by treating them as people to be helped one might pamper them. But can you really think of the maids as people doing their job with dignity? Do they really have that sense of ownership of their work? I doubt that many maids would understand what that even means.

    Unfortunately, not many people have the time to teach them the professionalism, the rigour, the dignity of work, because the reason for having them work is that people don’t have time to be doing these jobs themselves. We want people who are trained to do these jobs, even if they are “unskilled”. But there is no one who does that. This is why SHGs and other NGOs working for their upliftment must be encouraged. And then there are those cases where the maids are even abused by the household where they work.

    Another thing is that the job of a maid is, arguably, subhuman in India. How many families treat the maid as a subordinate only at home? How many socialize publicly? How many go to movies or eat-outs once in a while? Compare that with other jobs. If you do these, don’t you think they would respond better? Don’t you think the average maid would try harder to do her work better? I am not saying people expect the submissiveness everywhere, but that is how these maids are, and people don’t do anything. How many people ask their maid to call them by their name? How many object to “Ammavre” or “Buddhyavre”? How then can you expect work ethics from these people?

    • wanderlust says:

      ok, there are two issues here. one is of people being in slums, and another of people who are forced into being maids. these are not always overlapping.
      the women i’ve seen are the sorts who’ve migrated from their villages (where they have land holdings that will make you catch your breath). these people are actually ‘forced’ to be maids… considering that in their village, they are the ones who dole out salaries to household/farm help. these folks normally have an attitude problem and don’t like being told what to do. [an interesting thing is these people simply REFUSE to get caste certificates and opt for reservations… when you ask why, they say “esht olle jaati namdu, SC antaralla, thu..”]
      the ones in slums however…. for them, being a maid is a leg-up. it’s an escape. they get some money in hand.

      for you and i, housework might be tedious and boring, but that same assumption might not be valid for someone with little education and work experience. or for a houseproud person like my mother.
      going by the ‘slum’ argument, since these people don’t really have access to a world of opportunities, working in a big house should probably be a motivation! especially since they probably also get breakfast, and get to gossip.

      yes, dedication and professionalism comes from going to a good school and having a good upbringing. but that’s not the only way people go from wasting away to being professional. it can also be learnt from experience, and imitating peers.
      and wasting away can also come from other factors… for starters, a lot of us have ‘procrastination issues’. i will admit i certainly did. i didn’t get out of it by whining about my past confining me (though i did have grounds to do that), but by focusing on the here and now.
      it’s not fair to expect less out of people and say they ‘can’t’ do something just because they come from a different background. at max, you can be understanding to their faults.

      what’s the way to deal with household help when they don’t perform well? my neighbour will say “naalak bigidre ella sari hogatte”. their house is spick and span. because they get these young girls from villages who have nowhere to go, and beat them senseless if they don’t clean the place to the lady’s satisfaction. (major horror story this… i’ll not go into details).
      considering that the majority of us are not abusive housewives, we show a marked preference for help who are less of a trouble to supervise. those are the ones who get their kids’ school fees paid, a new saree every diwali, and various other perks.
      there’s nothing else you can do for the ones who are not professional. you can try impressing on them the importance of being professional, but you know what they say about horses and rivers.

      oh and there is this oft-quoted bit of research – when children in a bihar school were segregated into groups of ‘lowercaste’ and ‘uppercaste’, the ones who were ‘lowercaste’ performed worse than when they were all treated equally. so taking their background into consideration might not be the best thing to do.

      i wouldn’t measure subhuman-ness by those criteria…. because then a lot of teachers and employers can also be painted with the same brush.
      the reason people maintain a ‘distance’ with their subordinates is not because of any perceived superiority or inferiority. some people think over-familiarity just leads to their being taken advantage of.
      if i meet my teacher on the street, i’d still say “hi, prof. tomlinson’… or if i met my former division head, i’d still say ‘hello, mr. misra’. their awesomeness makes me perform well, not my calling them by first name. on the other hand, there are some folks i refer to by first name, but who act as a major demotivator in my work. familiarity has nothing to do with anything.
      in a similar way, a lot of people wonder about if teachers were more friendly with students, if they would perform better. i guess there opinion is still divided on ‘yes, my students understand math better if i explain it in context of cricket’ and ‘no, my students make fun of me because i make lame jokes in class’ (the latter is a true story. much fun came of it.).

      most people in urban areas are brought up in an environment with much stress on ‘equality’, be it in school or at home. abuse of household help has less to do nowadays with perceived inferiority-superiority and more to do with sick sadistic minds. if someone’s abusing their maid now, chances are high they are beating their wife and kids or playing mindgames with their subordinates at office.

  3. A Cynic in Wonderland says:

    You know, strangely enough was going to write yet another domestic help post – in my case, I seem to be the one getting regularly harassed by them when i came across this. I suspect both sides exist – the ones who do illtreat the help and the others who treat them very well. Its symptomatic of the kind of family one comes from I suppose. There are cases where abuse exists of wives, of kids, and help would be vulnerable easy targets.

    (Also was very surprised and flattered to see my posts plugged in the end. thank you verr muchly!)

    • wanderlust says:

      ah yes, it’s people like us who get routinely harassed by household help. we are nice enough to be taken advantage of and not that nice that we say the harassment is symptomatic of their bad conditions and brush it off.

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