Are you being served? Would you like to be?
Articles like this one from the The New York Times explore a facet of life in India that most visitors from the West will surely notice, and anyone that lives here will have to confront to some degree – having servants, or “help”.
I still don’t even like writing or saying the word. A lot of that undoubtedly has to do with some kind of privileged-white-person, colonial-style guilt. Perhaps it is just something I am simply not used to, having grown up in a middle-class household in Australia.
Whatever reason you want to attach to it, generally speaking I feel uncomfortable with someone serving me unless they are working in a restaurant or a hotel for a decent wage.
This discomfort is one of the many ways in which I am different from upper-middle class and upper-class Indians – or even a lot of fellow expats, who seem to quite take to having help. It’s not uncommon for people that only live in a one bedroom flat in a big city to have a live-in servant who cooks and cleans for them – and sleeps in the lounge room.
Most everyone who can afford it will have someone who attends their house daily to clean (which I understand – you really do need to clean your floor nearly every day here, it’s so dusty) and, usually, do some cooking, washing or shopping. A lot of households will have a driver for each vehicle in the family, as well as at least one person to clean and do washing and one person to do the shopping and cooking.
This is often composed of a family – a man and his wife and any children – that live in the ‘servant’s quarters’ (read – single room) of the family home. The employer/family will usually pay for any children to go to school and for any necessary health care, and the employees will get one, perhaps two, holidays per year to go and see their family, who often live in some far-flung village.
Basically, the more money you have in India, the less you have to do yourself – if that’s the way you want it. At one of my friend’s houses, we can be hanging out in her room watching television and she will use the phone to call downstairs to get one of the staff to bring us up some water, or tea, or dessert, or even to call or go out to fetch whatever we wish. Call it luxury, or laziness, but money will get you an amazing standard of living here.
When I first moved to India I was working for a lowly-NGO salary and did not have to concern myself with household staff. I had a maid that came once per week to clean the floors and, much to the dismay or confusion of some people in my office, that was all that I would let her do. I told them I was perfectly capable of washing my own dishes and clothes and otherwise cleaning my house.
I quickly realised that my maid seemed to prefer it if I simply stayed out of her way and let her get on with it. So I would put my discomfort aside, let her in each Sunday morning and offer her a cup of tea or a cold drink, and then sit in bed reading. In my office, they did not follow the usual practice of having a boy to make tea, fetch lunches and do other small jobs. It never struck me as odd, or an imposition, that I had to get up and go to the kitchen to make my own cup of tea.
I have recently started working in a new office, however, and they do have a boy here who cleans the office each morning, makes everyone tea, will bring a bottle of water to your desk or cut up an apple for you. Heck, if you miss breakfast he will take 20 rupees and go and get you an omelet sandwich.
At first, I thought I would just accept my morning cup of chai and otherwise take care of myself. Then I started slipping….well, if Sanjay was going to get everyone else plates of Maggi noodles then he could grab me a diet coke as well. On the days I don’t bring lunch, Sanjay knows what all the cheap stalls around my office sell so I can ask him to go out and find me some rajma chawal or chhole kulcha. I step out of the office most times I want a snack, but sometimes the convenience is just too tempting.
I still can’t get completely comfortable or used to having someone around with a role like Sanjay’s. People in my office often comment when I make my own cup of tea, or go out to get lunch – “Sanjay will do that for you”. I say it’s fine, that I need to get outside, or that in Australia, most of us don’t have people to make us tea so I’m used to it.
But most of the Indian people I work with and interact with every day are university-educated and many have been overseas – so they know it’s not like this in other countries. So how do they try to explain it to me? Many simply don’t think about it - this is how things should be. Others tell me that it’s just the way it is, and shrug. Some explain that while we don’t have so many people in Australia, there are too many people in India so people need jobs like this, or whatever jobs they can get. Not that they, or their children, would ever do such a job.
In the end, I know I can’t change the way things are here – India is such a fundamentally unequal country in so many ways, I admit I wouldn’t even know where to begin. I certainly wouldn’t want to deprive Sanjay of a job, either. I feel much more comfortable now that I have managed, after two months, to get him to stop calling me “Ma’am” and to start calling me by my name, as we all call him. But it’s not like that is a benefit or really matters to him in any way.
In an ideal world, I would like him to be paid more, or perhaps have some kind of compulsory savings account (something like superannuation) so as he has some security later in life. As far as I can tell, people in these kind of roles will never get ahead because of a lack of education, or at least the kind of education that will help them get a better job that pays more. As for all the Sanjays of India, I’d like them all to be treated with more respect by the people that employ them.
And what do they want? I haven’t asked Sanjay, but my friend with a similar job in the last office I worked doesn’t want much – he wants enough money to feed and house his wife and two kids, to buy meat on special occasions, and for his son to learn English so as he can go to university one day and fulfill his ambition of becoming a Chartered Accountant.
To this end, he sacrifices a lot to get his son English tutoring – that his daughter does not receive. Like most parents, he just wants his children to have a better life than he has – and probably a life where someone calls them “Sir” or “Ma’am” instead of the other way around.
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