Book excerpt: Maid in India by Tripti Lahiri
An illuminating account of the complex relations between household help – often poor women from remote villages – and those they serve.
IN 2009, IN INDIA’S NORTHEAST, a woman agreed to send her oldest daughter to Delhi with a man full of promises. ‘Uncle’ was to take the girl far away from the machetes and the bows and arrows of the angry young men who roamed the villages around the relief camp where the family had landed after violence broke out in the area. He was to take her to safety.
That same year, a woman living in a bungalow near the sixteenth century fort, Purana Qila, a part of which now houses the Delhi zoo, was preparing for her first solo travel experience, to Australia. All her life she had scarcely passed a moment alone; it was a life spent first in the embrace of her own family, and then, after marriage, that of her husband’s. She wanted to know that she could do this.
Neither of them could have known it back then, but the paths of the woman in the leafy Delhi neighbourhood of Sunder Nagar and the woman in Assam would cross, dramatically, thanks to the gossamer networks that spiderweb across this dusty, sprawling capital, linking tycoons and refugees, politicians and orphans, India’s one per cent and her 99 per cent. In a wealthier country, the ways in which the lives of the impoverished and the affluent are enmeshed are often made invisible; in India, that intertwining is plain to see. We see each other at traffic lights, sometimes at school. Most often we see each other at home: our homes, that is, the homes of the one per cent, into which a significant slice of the 99 per cent enter as servants.
India has always had servants in some form or another — a casual glance at epics and rulebooks thousands of years old makes that clear — but once they swirled much more tightly around a particular point on the map. In that solar system they orbited a local zamindar or man of influence. Like called only to like: a family would have help from their district, if not their village. It was a relationship governed by the strict hierarchies of caste, tempered ever so slightly by the shared foundation of being born and reared on the same soil. Now help is unmoored from these confining and yet protective networks. And what was once a trickle has turned into a steady stream of women and men leaving their villages for the great unknown — usually one of India’s five largest cities, Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Bengaluru and Kolkata — set in motion by changes that began occurring more than two decades ago.
The government’s slightly looser hold on the economy in the 1980s, and especially after 1991, coupled with astonishing advances in communications meant there was suddenly an array of jobs and business opportunities that you didn’t have to be a swot to get. You could be a construction worker who lived, ate and shat in the rubble of the home you had just helped demolish; you could ferry little plastic bags of instant noodles and other snacks cooked in the searing heat of a street stall to a new type of office-goer, living too far from home and family to come bearing a packed tiffin for lunch; you could drive a taxicab or an autorickshaw to ferry a different kind of new worker — women — back and forth. As taxing as these new jobs were, they beat the most common alternative — a fall into the abyss signified by no job at all.
Together, these chances drew many more people to cities than in the past, and in neighbourhoods churning with migrants, new alliances formed and the universe expanded. A man from Uttar Pradesh married a woman from Jharkhand; two boys from Chhattisgarh and Bihar became the best of friends. And they might say to each other, why don’t we go into business? If you can get girls, I can find them places. Because suddenly, everybody who came into money was asking for girls — not red-light area type girls, though there was that too — but someone to come to their home to cook and clean, to fetch them glasses of water and play with their children.
These girls and women — freed from the families they leave behind, and yet restricted by the homes in which they reside as servants, at once powerless because of their age, gender, language and ethnicity and also powerful as the fulcrum on which an entire village family’s hopes rest—are the focus of this book. Although India (and labour organizations) include jobs mainly done by men — such as driving or serving as a watchman — in tallies of household help, the relationships these men have with their employers, performed for the most part in public, are fundamentally different from those that develop between women and their employers, unfolding as they do behind closed doors and away from the world.
Two-thirds of all domestic help employed by families are women and that share rises to 80 per cent if workers whose duties take place outside the house are excluded. That is almost the exact opposite of the state of affairs at the start of the twentieth century, when women supplied just a third of household help; until the 1970s or so, cooking and housekeeping, when done for pay, was largely the province of men. These days, it is one of the most common jobs that women do outside the home, at least in cities, where the most recent figures show domestic work absorbs more than 8 per cent of urban female workers, compared to less than 1 per cent of male workers.
The steady upward curve in the numbers of people employed as servants in India since the start of the new millennium isn’t the continuation of a long-standing trajectory, it’s the reversal of one. Despite the conventional wisdom among the Indian elite that ‘everyone’ has servants (and has always had them), the practice of having help actually began dwindling in twentieth-century India, just as it had in America and Britain from around the 1950s onwards.
…In India, the large numbers of help in the early twentieth century were at least partly due to the presence of British colonial officials who employed large numbers of help, especially in the pre-1911 capital of Calcutta (the British, in turn, claim to have been inspired by the Mughals). …
…After World War II, which was followed in just two years by India’s independence from Britain, and the division of the subcontinent into two nations, the number of people working in domestic service in India waned dramatically due to the end of the Raj, war economies, and the reversals of fortune many families experienced at Partition. Nearly seven decades after Independence, refugees on either side of the border and their descendants reminisce about how they fled to safety with just the clothes on their back, leaving behind large homes and servants (we never have heard what happened to the servants). After Independence, the number continued to decline, as if India, in the first years of becoming a new nation, was making good on the promises of self-abnegation that were such a large part of the freedom movement shaped by Mahatma Gandhi. If Britain saw the numbers of servants drop from 250,000 in 1951 to 32,000 two decades later, during the same period, the number of servants in India shrank by half, to less than 700,000. In 1971, India had about a quarter of the number of servants recorded in the Census of 1911.
But a quite different pattern has emerged since the socialist-era 1970s. In the past two decades, the keeping of servants has experienced resurgence, even as the word itself has been excised from vocabularies. In this, too, India is part of a larger phenomenon, an alteration taking place simultaneously in many parts of the world. According to international labour groups, as of 2010, there were more than 50 million such workers globally, an increase of nearly 20 million from 1995, most of this made up of women. There are now more than 40 million female domestic workers globally. By default, this means that the number of families able to employ domestic help has surged too. And yet, as we embrace an institution we can only enjoy thanks to the presence of inequality, we shy away from calling the people we hire servants, reaching for more egalitarian words by which to discuss the people who handle our cooking, cleaning and children while we do other kinds of work.
…India’s newly affluent benefit from the huge disparities that divide India by importing rural tribal women to the city as ‘helpers’, ‘childminders’ and ‘housekeepers’. At Delhi’s elite Gymkhana Club, a sign that barred ‘maids and ayahs’ from setting foot in the front lawns was replaced, sometime in 2015, with one with the words ‘personal attendants’. They are still barred, of course, but much more politely.
For much of India’s independence, only a very tiny share of people could afford to have servants. But in the last two decades, Indians who are experiencing, at long last, a new level of prosperity are increasingly able to hire people to aid in carrying out the astonishing amount of housework that life in India seems to entail at any income level. In the decade after liberalization in 1991, the number of maids, drivers and nannies in India doubled. Their ranks doubled again in the decade that followed. Particularly for the growing numbers of women who work in urban India, ‘work-life balance’, depends increasingly on having help.
As their fortunes soar, the rich and rising classes of Indians have had to work hard to keep the India of poverty and privation at bay. They live in bubbles composed of beautifully kept bungalows to which they invite their friends, or they go on outings to malls in air-conditioned cars whose windows glide up, creating a hermetic seal at the touch of a button. But to live this beautiful life, affluent Indians must invite the other India into their homes, to clean those bungalows, drive those air-conditioned cars, and keep their children away during those long soirees.
And so the poorest districts of West Bengal have emissaries stationed at Gurgaon condos with names like Western Heights and Central Park; the Maoist areas of Jharkhand’s Gumla and Khunti districts have dispatched ambassadors to the diplomatic and bureaucratic circles of the capital; and a young woman running from Assam’s many conflicts can sometimes find, unexpectedly, a safe harbour in a well-appointed bungalow in the heart of Delhi.
As in the US military, it is possible to follow a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy, it’s possible to remain carefully unaware of exactly how this person who has come to be at your service represents oh-so-many failures on the part of the Indian state over oh-so-many decades. But many times, despite all efforts to the contrary, that wall is breached and the other India and its problems spill forth into these beautiful homes, setting in train a series of collisions that can create something ugly—or something precious.
PREETI CHAUHAN, A DIMINUTIVE JAT girl, has never known the luxury of having a maid. Her students sometimes bump into her as she wipes down her front steps, on her hands and knees, in her lower middleclass neighbourhood in a farming village called Chakkarpur that has been swallowed up by the urban sprawl of Gurgaon. Just twenty three, Preeti graduated from a college in Haryana with a political science degree. She considered other jobs, in retail at local malls, but didn’t find them appealing. In 2014, when we meet, she is responsible for assessing the table-laying and other skills of new recruits to The Maids’ Company, and teaching them how to win over a new madam.
Chakkarpur’s streets are dotted with sari and bartan shops and child care centres and nursery schools. At the ‘convent’ nursery school on one of its main streets, a group of men is often clustered just outside smoking hookahs. The neighbourhood’s walls are dotted with ‘to-let’ signs. Here and there, snuggled between the taller tenements, large one and two-storey bungalows with gardens accommodate the landlords who put up those signs, and whose gates have nameplates that almost always bear the surname ‘Yadav’. The Maids’ Company runs its classes out of a house rented in the area, an easy walk from where many of their maids live.
At a morning session in January that I observed Preeti lead, a new recruit has just finished laying a table and it is almost entirely wrong. The plates are okay. They are in the centre of each tablemat, as they should be. But the spoon and fork have been placed at a rakish angle on the plates. The glasses are on the right, but in India, no matter your class, you eat rotis with your hands, so they should have been on the left, to be clasped with the clean hand, no matter what the Lonely Planet might tell travellers to India about hand taboos. This would not do.
The upper-middle-class Indian household, according to Preeti’s warnings, appears to be presided over by a capricious and whimsical creature, prone to flying off the handle, known as ma’am, or sometimes madam. As Preeti proceeds with the course, asking her somewhat timid pupils how ma’am is likely to react to such-and-such faux pas, it begins to seem to me that madam is a close relative of the Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland, but of a considerably weaker constitution.
‘Is this how you used to lay the table in your previous home?’ Preeti asks a quiet, slim woman named Ohabun, who is Bengali. She then shows the woman how she ought to have done it: the bowl for dal and a spoon should go to the right of the plate, while the fork and glass should be placed to the left. Indian food is oily, she points out, and if your employer picks up a glass with a greasy hand, she may break it. The implicit warning is that even if sir or madam drop the glass all by themselves, you will still be blamed for putting it in the wrong place.
Knives are only used at breakfast and are laid on the table with the sharp side facing in. All the forks should be the same, not from different sets, as should all the plates and glasses. Don’t mix steel and glass glasses, she tells the women. Nor should a worker take four trips between the kitchen and the dining room when she can load everything onto a tray and bring it over to set the table at each mealtime. Such a lethargic approach will irritate madam, for sure. (Sahib, it is understood, has already left for office.) And, finally, never ever let your fingers touch the inside surface of the bowl or plate—always handle them from the outside — so madam, who is frail and much more prone to illness than you are, doesn’t pick up your germs and fall ill.
The women, mostly Bengali and Bihari migrants to Chakkarpur, take this all in seriously and quietly. Their world is just one of many economically disparate worlds clustered around M. G. Road, the main thoroughfare along which the metro from Delhi to Gurgaon runs. There is a certain symmetry to the development of this part of Gurgaon, and lives of its residents. The men and women who have flocked here often work in and around the malls and gated communities built by India’s biggest real estate developers — DLF, Unitech, Sahara. In the evening they go home to tenements built by the farmers who have lived here for centuries. The developers got their capital from loans and investors and down payments; the farmers got their capital by selling their farmland to the developers.
… Preeti goes through these drills several times a week, she tells me. For her pupils, the homes they will work in are still dangerous mysteries, with their different rooms for different activities, specially designated places for things, multitudes of ornaments that have to be picked up and wiped and are likely to be both expensive and breakable. Underlying all of this is the sense that, while they are coming to these homes to clean, they are also possible purveyors of infection. ‘Madam’s house is always closed and when we touch anything of madam’s, our germs spread,’ says Preeti. ‘If madam touches those things, she will get sick easily. But if we drink tap water, our stomachs don’t even hurt.’
Preeti explains the necessity not only of being hygienic but of being seen to be hygienic. She suggests washing hands within eyeshot of ma’am and explains the importance of hand sanitizer in the modern Indian upper-class household. It’s practically the new Ganga jal, offering talismanic protection from the dirt and impurity of India: just a few drops takes it all away. Before touching madam’s things, the maids should wash their hands with antiseptic soap for ten seconds, or apply hand sanitizer. Some women have told the company they want the maid to apply hand sanitizer each time they put away their kids’ toys, or touch anything belonging to the child.
‘Now I’m going to assess you,’ Preeti tells Ohabun. ‘I’m thirsty, please fetch a glass of water.’ Ohabun gets a glass, rinses, wipes it and fills it with bottled filtered water—not tap—and then presents it on a tray. Preeti scrutinizes the glass closely and is pleased to see there are no water droplets on the outside of the glass. That would look sloppy.
‘It was all very good, but you made one mistake in the beginning,’ she says. ‘You went into the kitchen but you didn’t wash your hands. You didn’t, did you? That was a very big mistake.’
Then they proceed to examining her ironing skills. Ohabun sets the ironing board up against the wall and Chauhan corrects her. ‘We pull the ironing table away from the wall, otherwise that’s how you get scratches. And what will happen if you scratch something?’
‘Madam will slap me?’ says Ohabun, a little uncertainly.
‘No, no,’ says Chauhan hastily. ‘But you’ll definitely get an earful.’
Ohabun’s bangles jingle as she irons. Another supervisor present comments that madams often don’t like maids to wear bangles, irritated by the jingling and jangling that reminds them of an obtrusive presence in the house, even though that presence is there to help them. Chauhan agrees, saying that the bangles also hit against surfaces that are being dusted, sometimes leaving a mark. She advises against jingling anklets and low-cut tops as well, saying cleavage will show when squatting and mopping the floor. She tells the women to pull their hair tightly back in neat buns, with no loose strands at all, so there’s less chance of it shedding or ending up on something. Wearing hair loose and open is for madams. In any case, it’s best not to go to work looking so attractive both for the suspicions this may provoke at home, as well as the unwanted, even unsafe, attention it may attract on the way to or at work.
After Ohabun has cleaned the bedroom, Chauhan goes in to check her work and returns with a gotcha. There was a glass hidden behind the foot of one of the two beds, which Ohabun would have noticed if she swept or mopped thoroughly under the bed. ‘You missed this,’ she says, ‘Madams sometimes do this to check your work. Leave things in places that you will only see if you clean thoroughly.’ (Although the contemporary narrative holds that men are more relaxed and forgiving when it comes to housekeeping, it wasn’t always that way. One reformer, Abby Morton, writing in the late 1800s about the epidemic of housework that was sending many anxious housewives to New England mental asylums, had this to say about the role of men in that anxiety. ‘It is always what is not done that a man sees,’ she wrote. ‘If one chair-round escapes dusting, it is that chair-round which he particularly notices. In his mind then are two ideas; one is of the whole long day, the other of that infinitesimal undone duty. The remark visible on his countenance is this: “The whole day, and no time to dust a chair-round!”’)
It is that kind of man that Preeti invokes when she tries to make madam seem somewhat relatable, just another woman under someone else’s thumb like they are. She does that when trying to impress on the women why it’s so important for them to arrive at the same time every day, and the consequences for madam if they don’t. ‘If you don’t go on time, she will have all the same problems that you have at home,’ Preeti says, in a discussion on punctuality. ‘You tell me: if your husband isn’t able to leave for work on time, then doesn’t he scold you? He scolds you a lot, right? In the same way, won’t she get a scolding from her husband? She will.’
Maid in India; Stories of Opportunity and Inequality Inside our Homes
Rs 599, 314pp
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