Review: Maid in India by Tripti Lahiri

Maid in India examines our attitudes to domestic attendants and offers acute insights into how the privileged home and, by extension, Indian society functions
A maid playing with children in her care in Gurgaon, in March 2014. (Representational picture)(Praveen Kumar/Hindustan Times)
A maid playing with children in her care in Gurgaon, in March 2014. (Representational picture)(Praveen Kumar/Hindustan Times)
Updated on Jun 09, 2017 09:12 PM IST
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Hindustan Times | By

Leena Pitrus loaded the washing machine, cut vegetables for the itinerant cook, supervised the cleaning lady, made evening snacks for the kids, did the washing up after dinner, made tea in the morning for ‘sahib’ and generally made sure I didn’t have a nervous breakdown. She did this for two years until, one day, she announced she was getting married to her long time boyfriend and left for her village, a day’s journey onward from Darjeeling. As a going away present I gave her a tea set. “You can serve your guests chai when they come home,” I said in my most idiotic memsahib manner. As I bang away on this keyboard perhaps someone is sitting on a mud floor in a remote Adivasi village in the eastern Himalayas sipping tea in a genteel fashion from those bone china cups. I learnt years later that the marriage never happened. “Leena mental system ho gayi. She wanders around at night shouting at people,” a girl from the same village, who works for a friend, announced.

I thought of Leena a great deal while reading Tripti Lahiri’s Maid in India, which grapples with many of the questions that plague self-aware upper middle class working women while offering acute insights into how the privileged home and, by extension, Indian society functions. Aided by her insider-outsider perspective – the book reveals that her family, based in Delhi, is affluent but enlightened, and her attitudes have been further moulded by a liberal education in the un-feudal US – Lahiri studies our fears, examines our abiding status anxiety, and unmasks our hypocrisies.

Her clear-sightedness is evident in the book’s introduction:

“In any case, when it comes to domestic help, many progressive people have a blind spot. Professors who study and critique feudalism and the serfdom of rural peasants, underpay and overwork those very rural peasants when they hire them in the city as maids; feminists who are fighting the patriarchy nitpick and circumscribe the autonomy of their maids… “

There’s a keen recognition of the unwritten rules that govern interactions between master and servant, memsahib and those identified as social ‘inferiors’, the lady of the house and the maid/cook/nanny:

“Borders between countries are marked out by fences and guards, but borders between classes are marked out by where you may sit, where you may go to the bathroom, and where and with whom you may eat.”

Though, in my daydreams, I am now the liberator who lifts her out of her slough of despond, I haven’t gone in search of Leena. I have no idea if her mountain village is the idyllic community of my imagination or the lush but hopeless landscape that Lahiri traverses in Jharkhand, West Bengal, Varanasi as she tracks down relatives of domestic workers with horrific stories – the bitten cauliflower-eared child, the middle-aged woman assaulted to death by a politician’s wife, the girl who preferred to live in conditions of near-slavery instead of returning with her mother to her impoverished village. Thankfully, there are stories of upward mobility too, of Sonal, whose intelligence has helped him negotiate the ways of privileged ‘liberal India’ with its undertow of snobbery, of Vijia whose small chit fund enterprise has helped her build a four-storey home for her family and set up a grocery store, of Lovely Khan who is determined to leave housework behind and get a white-collar job.

These are the stories that one expects from an excellent reporter, which Lahiri clearly is. What sets the book apart, though, are her sharp observations that sometimes lead the ostensibly privileged reader to a better understanding of her own life and its frustrations:

A maid who works in flats in a housing complex in suburban Mumbai (Representational picture). (Pramod Dethe/Hindustan Times)
A maid who works in flats in a housing complex in suburban Mumbai (Representational picture). (Pramod Dethe/Hindustan Times)

“More women, at least in urban India, are experiencing the freedom to study further and to work outside the home… The number of women in cities of working age increased some 40 per cent between 2001 and 2011, while the numbers of those women who were employed increased by over 70 per cent during the same decade. And it is this development, even more than the greater general prosperity that is driving the urban demand for maids and nannies. Because for Indian men to work or lead full lives outside the home, paid domestic help was never a requirement… Men, regardless of caste of class, have always had a servant – a woman who was, literally, one of the family.”

As with the best feminist writing, Maid in India pushes the reader to confront truths concealed by her own conditioning:

“Just as work outside the home in India has traditionally been marked by a caste system that put one group of people permanently at the service of others, within the family too, there is a caste system. Men being Brahmins in their own homes, regardless of their caste, are naturally excluded from any work at all. The work is done by women, but not by all the women in a household equally. And this is where the sharp rivalries between women begin…”

Lahiri is superb on the power dynamic that plays out while a journalist is “in the field”: “Interviewing the poor is just so much easier. Whether it is the courtesy generally accorded to a visitor just about anywhere in India, or the deference accorded to people recognizable as being ‘sahib log’ , as journalists often are, when you turn up at the doorstep of a poor family and see to ask about their lives, they don’t tell you to get lost… When interviewing those higher up the food chain, though, we kow-tow, beseech their handlers, we agree to terms and conditions…“

Tripti Lahiri (Picture courtesy Aleph)
Tripti Lahiri (Picture courtesy Aleph)

Good non-fiction leads the reader to a deeper understanding of the larger forces at play, of the unspoken and the unarticulated but nevertheless real, and of her own context, behaviour and prejudices. Maid in India is shot through with liberal guilt, with some hand-wringing about belonging to the haves. When Lahiri recounts meeting a woman who attempts to instill a sense of the dignity of labour in the upper class folk to whom she supplies trained maids, she writes:
“Later, we become friends ourselves. But all I know at that point is that she is stylish and lives in a beautifully designed house, in a nicer part of town, a combination that invariably prejudices me against people I don’t know very well.”
Lahiri is too intelligent to fall into the blind patterns of those progressives she calls out for their insensitivity in the introduction – the Marxists who underpay their maids, the feminists who oppress their helpers – and pretend to be forerunners of the revolution. Constantly watchful of her own actions and reactions, she manages miraculously to be at once both judgemental and understanding of ‘madams’. She ponders about the shortcomings of our legal system that hasn’t succeeded in addressing the abuse of domestic workers, and recognizes the quirks of and the many ways in which the fabric of Indian society is shot through with skeins of inequality.

Read m ore: Book excerpt: Maid in India by Tripti Lahiri

Here she is on childhood:

“Childhood – as in a protected, cared-for period of life reserved for play and study – is a luxury the upper class can afford, not the poor.”

And on preference when it comes to live-in servants:

“Many Indians also seem to be convinced that a belief in Jesus Christ leads to better housekeeping.”

Watch: In conversation with Tripti Lahiri, author of Maid in India

Maid in India is an excellent book, one that holds up an unblemished mirror to our bourgeois lives with their cruelties, little and large.

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Monday, July 04, 2022