Maid in India

Having a maid in India is considered commonplace. It is one of the few luxuries that Indians living abroad often have to miss out on. Of course, some of us NRI junta do opt for household helpers, paying them by the hour, but there is no denying that we miss the all-rounder bai who we were so used to back home in India. However, like everything else is modern India, the maid culture too has undergone sea change. With every visit to my hometown in India, I am more and more convinced that the bai is comparable to a shaadi ka ladoo –  jo khaye who bhi pachtaye aur joh na khaye who bhi pachtaye. This essentially means: damned if you do (in this case hiring a bai) and damned if you don’t. Cheesy as it sounds, it’s true.

There was a time when maids in India were extensions of the family. They stuck to serving one household for years and were more than happy with their salary and everyday meals. Back then we used to call them ayahs or aimas and there was no embarrassment surrounding the terminology. In fact the meaning of ayah is “a nursemaid who looks after children”. What can be so bad about that? But today we refrain from using such terms and have instead moved to more politically correct ones such as “helper” or “domestic help”. Sadly, the change in terminology has brought about a concurrent change in attitude amongst the bai log. Here is a quick look at what has changed over the years.

One is enough versus No one can serve just one

In the days of yore maids often served one household; at best two. I remember our ayah who used to click the gate open at 6:00 am and left only at 5:00 pm. It doesn’t mean that she was slogging all through the day. Rather, she went about the household chores at a leisurely pace; chit chatted (with us the kids, with mom, with the neighbor’s maid, with the dhobi and basically all and sundry) in between and took tea-breaks as well a lunch break. Compare that with today’s maid who rushes into the house as if there were a hurricane at her heels and rushes out like she has a train to catch. The ‘stick to one house’ mantra has changed into ‘visit as many households as you can’. Before you can even realize it, she has one leg out of the door. I understand that maids are not insular from the woes of inflation, but that doesn’t call for flitting from house to house and hurried name sake cleaning.

No chore is unwelcome versus only few chores are welcome

I remember ayah used to faithfully wash the aangan every morning and draw beautiful kolam designs with rice flour not because it was part of her household duties but because she wanted to. When mum used to occasionally run out of an ingredient or vegetable, ayah would readily agree to walk up to the store and get it for her. When grandma had aching muscles, ayah never cringed from massaging her legs. The plea for extra help when guests were arriving or when festivals were round the corner was never turned down. Try asking the modern day avatar of a maid if she can throw in a helping hand occasionally and you will be met with a taut reply which more often than not is a flat refusal or a vague non-committal response peppered with muttering and accompanied with a change of facial expression. It would make you wonder why you had to belittle yourself by asking in the first place.

Steadfast loyalty versus highly volatile loyalty

Twenty years back, maids were loyal to their employers and hardly would you come across a maid switching loyalties for the greed of a few extra bucks. Our maid found comfort in knowing that we would tide her through moments of difficulty. In fact, ayah used to seek financial advice from my mom. Mom even helped her open a savings bank account so she could safeguard her hard-earned money from her drunkard son and greedy son-in-law. The call from other houses in the neighborhood was usually turned down and what’s more, we were even informed about the attempts made to poach our maid. Note that by letting out these secrets, the intention of our maid was not to suggest that she was in demand or that we should consider raising her salary. But today, maids find the lure of a hundred bucks too irresistible an offer to pass up. There is no telling when a maid will up and leave today. Loyalty is short-lived to merely a few days. Some leave within a few days of joining while some cleverly wait until pay-day. Once the monthly salary is in hand, the other hand goes up to wave goodbye. No question of helping find a replacement, no apologies, no regret for the inconvenience caused; nothing. The equation is simple. If you are willing to match the offer, she may consider sticking around. No guarantee period though. It’s almost like attending an auction where the highest bidder wins the maid for the month, only to be rebutted by a repeat auction in the subsequent month. You can be sure of the disloyalty quotient going up exactly when you have guests arriving or a family function or sick kids or ailing grandparents. It’s understandable that everyone aspires for a higher salary but sometimes maids don’t realize that they are being penny wise, pound foolish.

Negotiable salaries versus fixed rate pay

As an employer, it is natural for you to have the upper hand while deciding things such benefits (free meals, days off, etc.) and compensation. That was the case circa 1980 or 1990 even. Tune in to 2011 and you will find a stark reversal. Maids do the interviewing and fixing of pay while employers flounder under scrutiny. Some commonly asked interview questions that employers need to brace themselves for are:

  • How many members in the family?
  • Do you a washing machine?
  • Have you bought a mop-stick?
  • How many rooms in the house?
  • How often do you mop?

It is common for the maid to undertake a tour of the house to assess how ridiculously high she can go while quoting her non-negotiable salary. Five hundred to six hundred rupees is the standard norm for each piece of work. Terms and conditions apply. Fine print: No miscellaneous chores will be entertained; timing is subject to change; paid leave will be taken without any notice; no obligation to answer the employer or keep the employer informed of any leave of absence; mood swings to be tolerated; frequent threats of leaving will be made; and last but not the least no questions to be asked. As an employer you can attempt to negotiate (be prepared to lose a little bit of self-respect in the process) or meekly comply or simply let go and wait for another one to come by.

Sigh. Such are the vagaries of India’s maid culture. We crib about them, we dedicate an entire post on our blogs to them; yet we cannot do without them. Let’s face it, household work is an unappealing and thankless job. Idiosyncrasies aside, the maid is our only saving grace. So put up with the eccentricities or clean up your own mess. Well, looks like most households in India would much rather put up with the bai than deal with her permanent absence.

Note: The situations described above are true and drawn from my real-life experiences. At the same time, I have the utmost respect for helpers and maids. I appreciate their efforts in making our lives easier and I’m sure they have their own stories to tell. I guess it depends on which side of the bridge you are standing on. The intention of this post is not to make any generalizations, put down a service sector, or hurt anyone’s feelings. 

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2 Comments

  1. August 28, 2012 at 9:17 pm

    I have had similar experiences with maids. Can’t live with them, can’t live without them… 😦

  2. shalini said,

    February 25, 2012 at 1:33 am

    So true, Preeti, so true. Times really have changed. I too remember the days when our maid servant stayed with us for 18 years, leaving only because she was quite old by then. Loyalty to one household is a thing of the past.

    In Bombay, all the maids change jobs right after Diwali, since they get their one month’s bonus salary for Diwali! After that, the big dance starts again!


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