Two days before the New Year an Indian couple, now living in Singapore, visited my house. When I invited them in and said that there is no need to take off their shoes, the wife exclaimed that such luxury is possible only on a Friday. I could not really get her, till I learnt that in her house the help visits only on a Friday to clean and for rest of the week they have to be very careful about dirtying the floor. It got me thinking about the luxury of being served, of having a maid, a help, a dhobi and a chauffeur. In India, mostly, we do not realise the importance of these essential elements of our daily life.
In Kolkata, where I first set up my house independently after marriage, I was amazed to find that even housewives do not cook anymore. Neither do most people do their own laundry (despite having fully automatic washing machines at home!). Of course babies need ayahs to mind them and a driver is a must even for a small hatchback car. Very amusingly the term used to define the serving people is “Kaajer Lok”- the people who work. It is almost like that literally – they work and the rest pay. Kolkata is not alone. All Indian cities today have the same “can’t-survive-without-maid” trend. Not that it was very different in the previous generation. I can now understand how spoilt and feudal the Englishman must have felt during their stay in colonial India. They had power to keep an army of servants – and soon they made it a way of life.
One finds many versions of these server-served relationships in a typical urban setting today. There are full time maids/servants and part time ones. All in one – servant and specialised mali, dhobi, cook etc. They also join the families at different age groups. Some are teenagers. Some are women with families; others are single men who have families back in the villages. Sometimes entire family is in the business of serving in different capacities. Some live with the “master’s” family, others in the outhouse and some even independently on their own. Some eat with the family they work for, some don’t. But then there are many commonalities as well. They are expected to be obedient and quick, unquestioning and silent. They speak when spoken to. Their needs come at last in sleeping, eating and rest.
It is somewhere in our genes. We love to have people to lord over. If you are born in a certain affluent class – you expect the servility from these workers unquestioningly. Why only domestic helpers – even in hotels and trains, how many of us say “ thank you “ to those who serve or for that matter, even acknowledge their presence by a nod or smile. There is an underlying, unspoken acceptance of their inferiority in “class”. Sounds very feudal isn’t it? Many stories of exploitation of domestic help, inhuman treatment of children working as help must have crossed your mind. They are mostly true. The sad part is that somewhere in our heart, we also expect the children of these workers- inferior to our own. We kind of assume that as our children will replace us in professions, they will replace their parents. In India like most other such complex societies, we do not expect a certain section of society (read poor) to dream. To our convenience we would always like some people lesser privileged than us. We have a different yardstick to measure their Dos and Don’ts. The existence of servants in a house is taken as a status symbol. The new affluence is often recognised by the neighbourhood when an expensive full time maid is hired by the family.
In reality, we often rate the work done by them with a soap opera like evil Mom-in law. No amount of sincerity and hard work satisfies us (it’s a given ....we pay them money after all!) but an isolated case of negligence is worth quoting as often as possible. Oh yes, fascism starts at home.
But that is just one side of the story. There is a bright side of this relationship too. The side which often takes a comical turn . The side which found portrayal in the media and literature too .
In a typical middle class urban setting, maids are also big binding force. A colleague with whom I share my maid rightly claims that we are “maid-sisters”- persons who share the woes and stories of maids. Maids are also great company to many people living alone. They supply information and stories about neighbours free of cost. For many of us they are a mirror to the rest of the society. Their family life, their beliefs, their compulsions- there is so much to learn and compare. I have very fond memories of people who worked in our family in different capacities and became almost like family members. Many keep in touch even decades after the employer –employee relation was over. Some of the skilled gardeners in my parents’ house are responsible for my love for gardening. Some of the “family” recipes actually came from the cooks we had at different stations and are always credited to them. I had my driving lessons from my father’s chauffeur and my mom cannot complete one story about my childhood without mention of one or the other help she had at that time.
There have been many depictions in literature and movies of this servant- master relationships. Some comical and some bittersweet. Some even tragic. I still remember one short story titled Bahadur in our course syllabus is school. Bahadur is often the nickname of people from hills or Nepal coming to serve in the cities. The story tells about one such boy who was working faithfully in a family as domestic help till a false charge of theft leads to his expulsion. The story depicts the sad tale of unequal and often unfair relationship that exists between the two classes . It is still a relationship which largely depends on the benevolence of the master rather than a fair work contract .
Recently, my poor maid went through hell of a time because of her family and health problems. None of this ever made her even one inch less sincere in attending to her work. So much so that at times I had to warn her from overdoing her bit. Undoubtedly, it takes a superior heart to adopt an unknown family with such sincerity as she has adopted mine. These domestics practically run the show at home, especially in the metros where both husband and wife are in busy earning the family bread. Their world would go topsy-turvy if these servants The numerous maids who rear children of others with care and affection while the mothers go to work/ party are contributing much more to the society than we can measure in purely material terms. It is they who give us the taste of “home-made food”. Children often learn their language more from the maids and nannies than from the parents. It is because of these men and women that today’s young couple manage their newly set up homes. And yet we consider that we are the masters and mistresses of their fate!