A few people have asked me to write about what it’s like to have servants. I haven’t the faintest; we don’t have any.
I’m being coy. We do have help. I just don’t like the word “servant.” It seems archaic and even dehumanizing, though I don’t think most people use it with that intent.
Whatever someone wants to call them, I’ve got some complicated feelings on this subject. India is a class- and caste-conscious country that’s different from what most average Americans know and understand. The issue of hired household help gets wrapped up in this context.
I largely keep my feelings about this subject to myself. Whenever I’ve made reference to this issue, even vaguely, the response from Indian and ex-pat friends alike is usually, “Yes, but it’s his/her job, and you have to think how far the money goes here. It’s not like in America.”
True enough. But do people in this category of service workers really have much of a choice what kind of job they do? Is the overall system of cheap labor for such workers something we should support? Do some well-off people have more help than they really need because it’s a status symbol?
Jobs, and who does what, are complicated here. Jobs are directly or indirectly linked to caste and most certainly class. While there’s improvement against caste discrimination, there are still unbelievable stories in the media everyday that hit on this, particularly in the more rural areas.
I’m no expert on these issues, so let me just describe how things are for us Curried Alaskans here in India.
First, some background on Brian and myself. Growing up in Juneau, my family never had a maid. Like a lot of kids from working families, my sisters and I helped my parents with daily chores like dishes, laundry, fetching wood for the stove, bringing in the groceries from the car, cleaning the cat litter box, and so on. My mom and dad owned a successful commercial art and printing company. We never wanted for anything, but having household help would have been unthinkable.
Brian was the son of a successful attorney in private practice in Washington, D.C. His mother stayed home to raise the five children, and they always had a maid, at least a couple days a week. So he has some familiarity with the family-maid relationship.
Within a day or so of our arrival in Pune, our doorbell started ringing. Do we want a maid, a cook, a nanny? Applicants for these jobs showed up at our front doorstep in person. All of them were women. As our home hadn’t been lived in for quite awhile, we were all slogging away through dirt and grime. A maid sounded pretty darn good, preferably one who spoke some English!
I had a couple false starts but soon hired Anjali, who also worked part-time for one of our neighbors and speaks fairly decent English. I liked the idea of part-time. It wouldn’t feel like such an invasion of privacy.
It was a similar, informal search for our driver. After our first month in Pune, trying to negotiate our way around via auto rickshaws and taxis, we put out the word that we wanted a driver at least a few days a week. The kids’ school, we’d discovered, was far across the city and they often had after-school activities or social events that meant missing the bus. Plus there was yoga, shopping trips and sightseeing.
The challenge with our situation was that the driver needed to have his own car. Most drivers arrive at the house of their boss via motorcycle or bike, and drive their boss’ car. We weren’t going to be here long enough to justify buying a car.
Enter Xavier, the brother of one of our neighbor’s drivers. He had his own little white Maruti van and was looking for a regular paycheck. After a couple week trial, Brian hired him six days a week, up to eight hours a day. Brian has his own ride to the Symbiosis campus each day (a “professor van” of sorts), so Xavier has been mainly for me and the kids.
Our part-time gardener came with the house, and the actual person doing the job has varied. The person works for some of the other neighbors in our society as well.
That’s it for the hired help at the Ripley O’Donoghue household in Paradise Society.
I’m guessing we’re on the low-end of properly staffed homes. Some people have live-in nannies, maids, a couple maids or even more. For independent, privacy nut Alaskans, what we have is plenty.
And to think at home we do everything ourselves! Add in shoveling snow, and all the accompanying chores of Alaska living, like hauling firewood and harvesting the garden, and the list of chores gets pretty long.
Our driver, maid and gardener are affordable because labor is, of course, dirt cheap in India by American standards. And here’s where my discomfort comes in; there’s a minimum wage of 115 rupees a day (a little over $2 US) for certain government jobs reserved for protected classes. Other than that, it’s basically a free for all.
In a country of 1.2 billion people, helping hands and bodies are abundant despite these low wages. Many of those helping hands are poor people. The system works for the elite and upper classes, so there’s little incentive to change. This is not so dissimilar to America, where the income gap between the very poor, middle class, upper class and the infamous “top 1 percent” has become shockingly wide in the last 20 years. It’s just that in our country, we only have 313 million people, so it’s a matter of scale. That and it’s easier to transcend between the classes, largely due to a comparatively strong public education system.
Rachel had only been in her private international school a few weeks when she came home and told me that kids were asking her if she was upper-middle class, rich or “super rich.”
“What did you tell them?” I asked, horrified that third graders would even have such a discussion.
“I told them that it doesn’t matter and to mind their own business,” she said.
That’s my girl.
This hypersensitivity to class, status and wealth feels strange to me. Alaska, and especially Fairbanks, is unpretentious compared to big cities in the U.S. People are judged based on accomplishments and gumption, not wealth or family name. What kind of car you drive or what neighborhood you live in might matter to a few people, but not many.
How’d you handle that freak snowstorm in September of 1992, when all the trees fell over the powerlines in Fairbanks and you were without electricity for two weeks? Did you fix your snowmachine, split that stack of wood, keep 30 sleddogs happy, and keep the cabin, wife and kiddos warm during that two-week 40 below spell?
How’d you fare in the Equinox Marathon this year? How big did you say that zucchini/moose/cabbage/pumpkin/halibut/salmon was?
People don’t care about your class, and caste doesn’t exist. Education tends to be a dividing line, true. But also how full your woodshed is, how often you get out and use your boat, your prowess with a fishing line—those things matter to most Alaskans.
After going back to work full-time following Rachel’s birth, I checked into having a maid service come once a week to our house in Fairbanks. When I learned the outrageous price and that he/she wouldn’t do dishes or laundry, I chucked the idea…what’s the point? Besides, it’s good for the kids to chip in. And they do, like many American families.
Here in India, kids of our “class” (whatever that is) mostly don’t from what I’ve seen. This isn’t because they are lazy or spoiled; there’s a long cultural acceptance of maids doing such work.
I once walked out in front of our house with a pitcher of water and began watering some plants. The manager of our complex happened to see me. He came over immediately and asked if our gardener was doing a bad job.
“Oh no, he’s doing fine, I just thought the plants looked thirsty,” I said, somewhat apologetically. The manager shook his head. “No madam, you should not do. I’ll talk to the gardener.”
Needless to say, I haven’t watered the plants since.
In Alaska, our house has what I like to call that cozy, lived-in look.
OK, the bathrooms get cleaned A) rarely or B) as often as I can guilt trip one of the teenagers into doing the job, for $10 a pop. The boys help with dinner dishes, gather up trash to take to the dump, vacuum now and then and take care of their own pets. I don’t touch their rooms, but I do a TON of laundry, cook and clean. Brian and I, out of habit, make our bed each morning but the kids don’t, and I don’t make them unless we have company.
Here, the kids don’t make their beds either, but they arrive home to find them perfectly fresh and smooth. Dirty clothes are picked up magically, soggy bathroom towels are hung to dry and dirty cups and glasses—poof—gone. Books straightened, clean clothes put away, desks tidied.
I’m not sure that all this service is a good thing. Expecting others to wait on you is so..so..un-Alaskan! We are a do-it-yourself kind of people. To make sure the children don’t slack off completely, we still have the boys clear the table and trade off on the dinner dishes each night.
We have the opposite of a lived-in look here. As temporary renters, we have no pets and few possessions. The four bathrooms get cleaned twice a week; all the floors are mopped at least twice a week. The kitchen floor and marble staircase are swept and mopped every day, except the weekends, when Anjali is gone. Anjali has cleaned the fridge at least four times already (this chore gets done rarely to never at home, unless something gross spilled). She’s also thoroughly cleaned out the kitchen cupboards several times, washed the walls, windows, window screens, the fans…you get the idea.
This might make it sound like our house in Pune is squeaky clean. But in India, the dust situation is a constant battle. Anjali will mop and dust and within a few hours, there’s a thin layer of dust coating everything. I’m glad our kitchen counters are made of dark marble. I often mop and dust on Sundays because of the buildup.
We don’t have a cook on purpose. To me, the kitchen is the heart of the home, even a rented one. Besides, I like to cook. Most days.
Here’s the stark reality about all this pampering. Anjali is paid accordingly to what other maids in Paradise Society receive, but it amounts to a pittance in U.S. dollars. For 12.5 hours a week, we pay her 3000 rupees, or $58 U.S., a month. Such a small amount!
For a time, Anjali didn’t have a home and instead stayed with different relatives. She’s my age (47), has two daughters, two sons and three grandchildren. She recently was able to save up for her own flat, which has just one main room, a kitchen and a bathroom. She has no furniture. She is the sole wage earner in her family, as her husband doesn’t work. She works longer hours for her afternoon employer. Her pay probably totals around 10000 rupees a month.
There’s no margin for error with this kind of budget. Her mother was recently sick in the hospital, and needed 2000 rupees just for the medicine. Anjali asked. I gave. I have a mother, too.
Money does go a long way here in India for people like us. Vegetables, fruits and many staples are quite inexpensive. Services are cheap. The other day, I had a tailor hem three t-shirts and take in two store-bought kurtas (tunics) that were too large. The grand total was 250 rupees, or about $5 U.S. I had another tailor stitch a beautiful salwar kameez suit from scratch—pants and kurta—for only $8. All of the work has been of high quality. While this is of obvious benefit to me, I can’t help but wonder about the people doing the work. How on earth do they earn enough money to survive? And these goods and services aren’t cheap for someone like Anjali, living on 10000 rupees a month.
According to a recent government report, about 60 percent of Indians in the rural areas live on only 35 rupees per day. The same percentage of Indians in the cities lives on only 66 rupees a day. (Remember, 100 rupees equals about $2 U.S. dollars). I don’t know if these figures are accurate to the rupee, but I have seen my share of slums and shanties, as well as beggars on the street, many with babies on their hips. To someone like that, we are very rich.
I know we have poor people in America and Alaska, too. I regularly give to the Food Bank and Rescue Mission in Fairbanks. But the poverty one sees in India nearly everywhere is heartbreaking. Locals have warned me it’s a racket for many beggars, that money given won’t go for food–it’ll go for liquor or drugs. Maybe that’s true. I have given out biscuits now and then but mostly I do what others do–I look away.
An average trip to the U.S.-type grocery store here in Pune, Dorabjee’s, sets me back maybe 4000 rupees. That’s only $73 U.S. at the current exchange rate. For us, it’s far less than I spend at a typical trip to Fred Meyer’s in Fairbanks. And yet my cart is plenty full. One can be extravagant. For instance, a box of imported Cheerios costs $10 at Dorabjee’s.
Needless to say, I don’t buy Cheerios.
Driving Miss Kate
I’m fully aware, when I walk out of Dorabjee’s and Xavier loads my groceries into his car, of how greedy I must appear. How rich, spoiled and privileged. Bring on the guilt again.
Drivers, however, are higher up on the food chain and therefore command a much higher salary than a maid. Xavier works up to eight hours a day, six days a week. For this we pay him 6500 rupees, or $120 USD, per week. That’s only $500 a month! Out of this money, he pays for all the petrol. For out-of-town trips, we pay him more, depending on the length of trip, plus all parking fees and tolls.
Xavier speaks excellent English and has worked for foreigners for years. His father was a carpenter for an Army agency, as well as a driver. His three brothers are drivers. His entire family—his mother, father, brothers and their wives and children and his own wife and two children—all live in the same modest home along a row of homes near the railroad tracks of a neighborhood about a half-hour away from ours. I’ve visited his house, and while humble by our standards, it’s clean and homey. The hospitality shown to me by his family was gracious.
If we don’t have a full day’s worth of driving, we send Xavier home early. Some days he only works a few hours. I figure it must be a nice break for him, as many bosses aren’t so easy. When a thief broke the window of his car and the repair was 2500 rupees, we paid for it. When he needed an advance on his salary, we agreed. I’m sure many other employers treat their personal staff with kindness and consideration as well. But I have seen some who don’t.
One day Anjali asked me, “Mam, you take me to Alaska with you when you go back?” She was smiling, laughing a little bit, and I’m pretty sure she was kidding.
I try to imagine Anjali in one of her sarees, sweeping our house in Goldstream Valley with a grass broom. It just doesn’t work, even in my imagination. For starters, there’s no bus and no rickshaw—how would she get to our house? “You wouldn’t like Alaska, Anjali,” I told her. “It’s really, really cold.”
One time I mentioned to Xavier that I missed being able to drive myself around, no offense to him and his profession. “You drive in Alaska, mam?” he asked, shocked.
Always an Outsider
One thing I’ve found, being a foreigner in a developing country that struggles to provide basic services to its huge population, is that things are never simple or straightforward. Regardless of the hardships, the people I’ve met take so many difficulties in stride. Patience is abundant in India.
For foreigners, it’s no piece of cake to even get the proper permission to live here. It took us 10 visits to the Foreign Registry Office (and two separate bribes) just to get our required residential permits! Don’t get me started on how hard it was to procure SIM cards for mobile phones.
On a personal level, so many ordinary things can be difficult for a foreigner who doesn’t speak Hindi, from ordering a taxi, or arranging a multiple-city trip to buying railway and concert tickets. Misunderstandings are frequent. A market vendor will triple the price for something, just because we’re Westerners and the assumption is we’re rich. I’ll try to mail a package and, unbelievably, the lady at India Post will tell me it can’t be mailed at her station…try another.
One author describes India, for a foreigner, as the “Country of No.” He was born here, left for 20 years, and came back. He was Indian!
I don’t think the “Country of No” label accurately describes the kindness and hospitality I’ve experienced, but we have done a fair amount of adjusting and adapting in the eight months we’ve lived here so far. Even so, the crowds, insane traffic, pollution and hustle and bustle are hard to take. The heat pounds down, the flies buzz and the dust flies. The power goes off and there’s a water shortage. The clerk can’t take our credit card because the phones just went down. On and on it goes.
How does this relate to the household help?
The bottom line: it’s truly helpful to have these valued employees. They can translate Hindi into English, run routine errands, pick up children at friend’s houses across the city and run to the corner store for that one forgotten item.
They make things easier in a country where life sometimes isn’t easy, even for the privileged. For that, I’ll give up some privacy and set aside my guilt. Besides, it’s only two more months. There will be plenty of driving around, beds to make and toilets to clean when we get home!