Do you remember those Hindi movies of yore, in which the domestic help was always called ‘Ramu’ – or perhaps ‘Ramu Kaka’ if he was a tad older. This man would run the entire household for his ‘Bibiji’, filling in as cleaner, cook, gardener, housekeeper and general factotum. But the family he served never saw him as a ‘servant’. Instead, they regarded him as one of the family (hence the honorific ‘Kaka’) and a valued member of the household.
But ‘Ramu Kaka’ wasn’t just a fictional character. Ramu Kakas existed in real life as well, attached to families for generations on end, serving father, son and then grandson, until they were finally pensioned off to the villages they came from, and their own sons and grandsons took their place.
Those days are long gone, of course. Now, rare is the family that can boast of a ‘family retainer’ who thinks nothing of devoting his/her entire life to serving one particular household. These days, you consider yourself lucky if you can persuade your domestic help to stick with you for a couple of years, not a couple of generations. And those familial ties that were created by long years of service have disappeared entirely.
These days our relationship with our domestic help is strictly transactional. We agree to pay a certain amount of money for certain services performed over a certain number of hours. The arrangement lasts only as long as both parties are happy with it. And that is as far as this social contract goes.
There is no special bonding over cooking breakfast or cutting the vegetables for lunch. There is no gossip exchanged as you watch the saas-bahu soaps in the evening. In fact, women who work outside the home hardly ever even meet the women who help run their houses. They just hand over a copy of the key and hope for the best.
I was reminded of this last week as I began reading a collection of short stories by Renee Ranchan, titled To Each With Love. In one of the stories, The Fiefdom, Ranchan writes about the torturous relationship between a ‘Memsahib’ (or ‘Ma’am’, as she is deferentially called) and her ‘maid’. How a relationship that begins with the ‘Memsahib’ wielding all the power gradually transforms into one in which the ‘maid’ is in control. So much so, that the lady of the house even willingly turns a blind eye to her domestic help’s pilfering, so dependent is she on her services.
As I read the story, which takes a rather dark turn halfway through – I won’t tell you more; you can read it for yourself and find out – it suddenly occurred to me that ours will probably be the last generation that can tell these stories. By the time our daughters and nieces are grown up and running their own homes, they will be lucky if they manage to score any domestic help at all.
Things are already changing in the big cities. Young women, who even a decade ago would enter domestic service as a matter of course, now have several other options that they can exercise. They can work in beauty salons and spas, if not as operators then as cleaners. They can be hired as sales staff in the retail sector. They can become attendants at petrol pumps. If they learn how to drive, they can aspire to become Uber or Ola taxi drivers. And if they know how to read and write and speak a smattering of English, the possibilities are endless.
It’s not surprising, then, that the domestic help sector in the metros is now populated by young women from less developed areas like Jharkhand or Orissa, most of whom arrive in the big city with one single objective: to make enough money to put together a respectable dowry so that they can go back in a few years time, marry and live happily ever after. In the long run, they want to raise their own families; helping you raise yours is just a short-term objective, the means to an end.
So, it’s only a matter of time before the supply from these areas can no longer meet our insatiable demand for domestic help.
And if you ask me, that is a good thing. It is about time that we spoilt middle-class folk learnt to look after ourselves.
I mean, how hard can it be? Everyone in the West seems to manage fine. Even those who are relatively well-off are perfectly happy cleaning up after themselves. They cook their own meals, wash their own dishes, clean their own toilets, make their own beds, do their own laundry and even iron their own clothes.
So, why can’t we do the same? We now have the same labour-saving devices these folks rely on: dishwashers, washing machines, vacuum cleaners and what have you. All we lack is the will to look after ourselves because it is so much easier to dump all those nasty chores on someone else less fortunate than us whom we pay to do all our dirty work.
Well, that option may not be available to most of us for much longer. So, let’s get acquainted with the many attachments that come with a vacuum cleaner and learn to stack a dishwasher the right way. It’s time to learn to deal with our ‘maid-less’ futures, one laundry-load at a time.
From HT Brunch, January 15, 2017
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