What do most Indian middle-class women worry about the most? The answer was brought home to me during a social occasion soon after my move from the United States to India.
On a visit to a friend, I found myself in a room with seven other women, all strangers to each other. Our hostess had stepped out for a minute, and we had exhausted the topic of who lived where. There was an awkward silence until one woman turned to another.
“How is the maid-situation in your area?” she asked.
It was like a conversation bomb had exploded. Within minutes, there was a fierce discussion going on. The trials and tribulations endured trying to find good help, the average wage, the rightful wage, the chores to be done, the wage to chore correlation, the perks to be given, what could and could not be expected …. We were so involved that our hostess felt left out when she returned until she figured out the topic of conversation. Then she joined right in, and we had a regular heart-to-heart.
Having lived in the United States for several years, I was not prepared for this scenario. Not having the luxury of maid there, I compensated by not doing the cleaning and dishwashing every day. I am a person who lives and lets live, so the dust bunnies who had taken up residence in my home were assured of untroubled existences. They could form, grow, and have families in peace. Some even went on to transform into dust tigers. Vacuuming once a week was as much as I wanted to do, and no act of God could get me to do otherwise. We rarely had guests, so dusting was a sporadic event.
Dishwashing was another chore that I hated, but never did do much of. Some people are Sunday church-goers, I was a Sunday cook; that is, I did the week’s cooking on Sunday, and we lived off it through the week. This meant that, by the time Sunday night rolled around, every dish I owned was in the sink. Once they were done, I didn’t have to worry the rest of the week.
Once our plans of moving to India were finalized, I spared a thought to the domestic help factor. And I took some firm decisions. Firstly, and most importantly, I would not hire any domestic help. Getting some poor woman to do my chores was not fair, and would be a cop-out for me. After all, I was not going to be working outside the home. Surely household chores would not take more than an hour? Moreover, I needed the exercise. Why join a gym when I could work out while working in? I spoke to my husband about my decision.
“I’m going to look after my own home. After all, how hard can it be?”
The poor man was up to his eyebrows in figuring out the logistics of how to ship all my junk without sinking the container ship. He merely stared at me, nodded and said, “Whatever!”
Then we moved.
At the start, I was very proactive—sweeping and swabbing, and doing dishes regularly. But the rot set in pretty soon.
The first chore to suffer was the dishwashing. There was a lot more cooking going on since there were more guests coming and going, and cooking naturally meant more dishes. And there was no way I could leave used dishes in the sink, because they tended to grow live things if left for to marinate for a day. I soon found myself in a quandary.
First off, there was no Ms. Whirlpool to assist me. Next, while living in Montana, I had a sink in which you could have bathed an adult elephant, trunk and all. In my dinky apartment in India, once you put two snack plates in the sink, you couldn’t squeeze a teaspoon in. So the dishwashing had to be done in a little nook beside the kitchen, sitting on a little stool. I was also transiting from electric burners to gas burners, and burnt offerings were the order of the day. I have always loved listening to golden oldies in Hindi and Tamil while doing dishes, but let me tell you, even Mohammed Rafi and S.P. Balasubramaniam didn’t sound the same when I was scrubbing my epidermis off.
There was also another problem.
“I’m tingling,” I said one day.
“But it’s only 9 a.m., and I’m across the room,” remarked my spouse.
Giving him a special look that women reserve for their dense husbands, I deigned to explain.
“It’s my hands. Could it be that I’m allergic to something?”
It turned out that I was allergic, and it was to the dish soap. This gave me the perfect excuse to back out of the corner into which I had painted myself without loss of face. I eventually found a dish soap that didn’t make me itch, but the foundation of change had already been laid.
As for sweeping, I tried to do it weekly like in Montana, but that didn’t work at all. Here, dust accumulates even as you are sweeping and dusting. Miss a day, and you are leaving footprints around the house. As for the bathrooms, the sadistic builder who finished them had chosen white floor tiles. A fortnight into the move, I was putting out inquiries for domestic help. And a whole new world opened up to me.
Most middle-class women employ women to come in for an hour or two to do the basic cleaning—sweeping, swabbing the floor and washing dishes. There is a lot more parity in these situations, and the relationships between the employers and employees are often symbiotic. And this is where the comedy occurs.
I had never ever hired anyone before, and had to grope my way through the process. The maids in the apartment complex suggested their friends, and while this gave me something to work with, I couldn’t really trust their references. As for the interviews for the position, they were totally subjective. I based my evaluation of the future employee on how she looked and who brought her, and she based her evaluation of me on how much I would pay and how green I was.
The maid I ended up was a woman in her late 40s, and boy, she had me pegged from day one. She sounded very responsive—she agreed to do everything I wanted her to and promised to be on time everyday.
As it turned out, her punctuality was admirable. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the time we’d agreed upon. As for the chores, she did precisely what she wanted to do, when she felt like it, and told me off when I asked her to do her agreed-upon quota. In these ways, I suppose, she was too much like me for us to make a go of it. She would always be thrilled when I told her I was having guests: the day would amazingly just happen to coincide with her getting “sick,” or a “funeral in the family.” The first time I felt some sympathy, but after a few repetitions of the excuse, it got a tad predictable. She lasted a year, though, and taught me more than I ever wanted to know about managing domestic help.
While I was being worked upon by her, I discovered that the dynamics between the queen of the household and the housemaid is a very complex one. Each is dependent on the other to some extent, but will never acknowledge it. Their love-hate relationship resembles that of Roadrunner-Wile E. Coyote or a Bugs Bunny-Elmer Fudd and is almost clichéd. After all, it is only with help from the maid that the employer can manage to work outside the home. For her part, the maid needs the income. It is a relationship based on need and both parties resent it to some extent.
Quite often, it is the attendance problem. Picture this: you are committed to being somewhere at 9 a.m., but your maid who was due at 7 a.m. hasn’t turned up yet. You have to a) shrug it off, do the housework yourself, and be late, or, b) curse her, make a run for the bus, and find out at the office that you’re wearing mismatched sandals. I call these situations my “home gym days” because of the workout I get. From the maid’s perspective, though, she didn’t pray for her neighbor’s father-in-law to die the very morning you have an important meeting, and neither did she count on her son getting sick on the day you feel lousy. And if her mother-in-law drops by unexpectedly, she can hardly be expected to make dusting your furniture her first priority.
The one good outcome in these situations is that they lead to a lot of friendships being struck. Neighbors who would normally not care about each other take down contact numbers for help in precisely these situations.
Once again, there is a caveat here. Yes, friendships can be made this way, but they can be broken the same way too. The MGN, or Maids Gossip Network, is more efficient than Twitter, and if you sneeze once in the presence of your daily, you might get inquiries about your health from someone living on the next street. Add lying to the situation, and it gets hairy.
Without doubt, however, it is the perks that maids are entitled to that cause most conflict between them and their employers. One of the benefits includes providing a meal. This is a line in the sand that has to be drawn clearly during negotiations, or will end up causing a huge amount of trouble. To feed or not to feed, that is the question, and it is a subjective one. Some maids prefer cash, especially if you are an indifferent cook. After a week of eating mostly idlis and dosas at my house, my maid asked me if I didn’t know how to cook anything else. I was absolutely furious with her, not just because she was being impertinent, but also because she had put her finger on the spot, dammit!
Then, there is the question of raises, bonuses, and of giving new clothes during festivals. This is highly sensitive and needs to be handled with the diplomacy required to host a Taliban-RSS talk. Give too much, and you raise expectations for the next year, and make enemies of all the other employers in the zip code. Plus your maid starts thinking she is indispensable. Too little, and she becomes a free agent, ready to sign on to any other needy household and bid a cheerful namaste to your three-bedroom castle. By the time you re-wash the dishes, re-sweep the house, and re-do your bathrooms, you may be ready to quit working in your own home.
With these lessons under my belt, I am currently on my second maid. And even after these experiences, I won’t be going back to my old, maid-less state. Heck, for all the hassles that come with dealing with domestic divas, I at least get a no-fail icebreaker at parties!
Lakshmi Palecanda moved from Montana to Mysore and is still adjusting. She can be reached at Lakshmi.firstname.lastname@example.org