These People: A Consideration of Those Who Serve Us

For how long can the middle class in India take the servitude of others for granted?

I lost my innocence regarding the entitled exploitation of a vast army of people employed to serve at a pittance in my native India only after I got married and moved to the United States. Back home, everyone except the servants themselves, has a servant or two or three, some permanent, some part time. Here in America, I found, they were conspicuous by their absence. They were missing here, like India, like one’s relatives, like the smell of spiced cooking emanating from homes, or the noise of throngs jostling on streets rattled by traffic, and unattended refuse attended by starving cows and the poor who make a living from recycling trash. Here I found myself mostly by myself, except for a just minted husband with whom I was ensconced in a whistle clean gadget-infested, odourless apartment. The incalculable loss of family, food, country and servants, native aromas, all in one fell swoop and in that order, was overwhelming.

When I finally came to, acceptance of altered life swiftly followed: Breakfast would not be on the table, nor lunch, nor dinner, the clothes not washed, bathrooms not cleaned, rooms not swept. None of these would occur thanks to virtually unseen hands. Now I, the stay-at-home housewife, had to do everything, albeit with begrudging help from my working husband on weekends. Worse still, there was no sympathy to be had regarding this tragedy as everyone was in the same situation and seemed to go about it quite normally. I pulled myself together and got on with it, consoling myself with the feeble thought that I was free of the angst brought on by the servants’ days off. Back home, this meant staring at a pile of dirty dishes, uncooked meals, and, God Forbid, in the Land Still of Heat and Dust, undusted and un-mopped floors and furniture.

These impromptu disappearances of servants are a regular hazard in the life of an Indian middle class householder but we refuse to recognise their source, these people, live without spouse or children for months on end, just to be able to provide for them. Consequently, with few enforced legal rights, ingenuous means to take time off from relentless employment flourish. This can take the form of “French Leave,” when these people arrange for a “bad news” phone call and head for their village of origin half a country across. Once there, they might plead four funerals and a wedding, knowing we their employers, thoroughly dependent, will acquiesce in their delayed return.

But, frequent as they are, these sudden abandonments always leave us boiling over with righteous indignation and we call each other on cellphones and say no matter what you do for these people, they only think about themselves at the end of the day. We feel that a salary that barely keeps the wolf from their family door, perhaps meals, and hand-me-downs that a society of conspicuous consumerism creates, a sort of altruistic trash removal, is hugely generous. For all this we pat ourselves on the back, and fulminate that they have had the temerity to take time off, but the perpetual emotional chasm that these people endure, causes about as much empathy in us as for a vacuum cleaner on the blink. Other than these sporadic lapses, these people almost never call in sick, living examples of the cliché, “I can’t afford to be ill.”

Household labour, faceless as always. File photo of Motihari Mission house, India, ca. 1906. Credit: Wikimedia

If there are any meaningful labour laws governing domestic help in India, they are universally honoured only in breach. Child labor activism has recently resulted in some awareness, but violations are rarely prosecuted for many reasons, the main one being pervasiveness of the problem. Moreover, these people hardly ever give birth in a hospital so there are no certificates, the absence of documents suits us and it suits the parents of the minor. Face it, life is hard and many children do many little cash flow machines make.

India has flown headlong into the hi-tech age, but for its illiterate masses trapped in domestic servitude the basic tenets that followed the Industrial Age never happened. Unionised factory or other office labor conditions are different from those that exist for the vast invisible workforce employed by every Indian home that can, and their serfdom is only a shade better than what it was.

When absconding servants do show up, they are taken back if only because they have not yet shown a desire to dismember the employer/mistress one fine morning in a botched robbery. Thanks to stories about this in the press, some precautions have come into play, such as references. However, the recent requirement of identity cards or paper references for domestic employment is a farce, forged documents being a cottage industry in India. In any case, such incidents are extremely rare if you go by percentages, a testament to the fortitude of the servants who carry on, with any outrage un-expressed.

Today India’s aspirational middle class prospers hugely from modern science, state of the art banking and engineering, while incongruously enjoying antediluvian entitlement of feudal proportions, extracting comfort for pennies on the dollar from servants. During the “Upstairs Downstairs” Edwardian days, Britain reportedly had the greatest servant to master ratio. I have a suspicion that India can claim that honour now.

Memories of servitude

I had never given the issue any thought until I came to the US, specifically, it was a visit to Monticello that brought out the sharp contrast with this aspect of my earlier life. We were on a guided tour of the historic homestead, designed by Thomas Jefferson himself, and after going through his elegantly furnished main house we went on to an outer building, one of the slave quarters. In this case it was a large single- room dwelling, sparse but spacious, neatly ordered with rude beds placed in two dorm like rows. I was struck by the embarrassment of the guide as he explained the various basic objects in the room, the life the slaves lived, the little free time they were granted, and that they were all lined up in such close residential proximity. The visitors followed him silently, even more mortified at the lack of privacy and privation. A palpable air of guilt and discomfort at the past loomed over us, but my mind raced ahead by a couple of centuries, to present-day India – to Maya.

Maya, my mother’s servant and her family of seven, including her husband and children from toddler to teen, all lived together in one small room in a tenement housing the servants of the middle class homes they served. One of Maya’s teenage sons got a neighbour’s daughter pregnant and had to marry her to prevent being lynched by the other residents of the compound so, naturally, after nuptials, the newly-weds moved in with Maya as well. The extended family now shared a 10 x 12 space, no beds, and a communal latrine and outdoor faucet installed in the courtyard by the landlord.

I often wondered, crudely, I might confess, how, between working in three other homes besides ours, cooking for her children and drunkard husband, Maya had the energy or desire for concupiscence in that busy room. How did she deal with successful and unsuccessful pregnancies, rearing survivors on breast milk (considering the out of sight price of baby formula) and undauntedly produce five children one after the other? I thought of Maya’s frame, more like a cage covered with skin than a body, fine bones and ribs clear as daylight, her marvellous face and large brown eyes, and inexplicably thick lustrous hair in a large, perfectly rolled, but economical bun that proudly stood on its own without the indulgence of pins.

Representative image of Colaba slum, Mumbai, home to domestic workers. Credit: BBC World Service/Flickr CC-BY-NC 2.0

Maya came in smiling every morning, looking spic and span, despite all the odds. In our house she was treated with dignity, given a breakfast of tea and bread and then lunch, most of which she tucked away inconspicuously in a corner of her sari end for her children. There was also the occasional tip from visiting relatives, and tons of outgrown hand me downs, many from America, which I am sure she bartered or sold as they were at such a premium in the market. Maya would be called upon off and on to oil massage someone’s head and she obliged at once, bantering all the while, her workaday hands strong and deft. She considered herself lucky, and her cohorts agreed. After all she had a husband, good or bad or useless, she had her kids, a daughter-in-law with the next generation on the way, and she had three jobs; in any event, whatever she suffered inside she did not bring it to her job. The fact that we ate mutton in one week that was worth more than all she got for her sweeping and mopping and dusting and laundering in a month did not arise in our minds. Perhaps Maya did not allow that comparison to enter her mind either, denial was a good strategy for existence for us and for her, it kept the boat steady. She was not technically a slave, and that may have made all the difference, but to me the visit to Monticello showed the shallowness of that conceit. I came away with the conclusion that slavery may have gone with the wind in the US but its essence was alive and well in India.

Here in the US I could only dream of hot oil massages administered in the back garden. The cooking range, washing machine, dishwasher, and vacuum cleaner were my new best friends, and I learned to love un-ironed clothes. I looked longingly at saris –  but they required a societal structure to be authentically worn that did not exist here. Forty odd years later I don’t give it a thought.

Eventually I had to hire household help so I could attend to my work, but only did so after having familiarised myself with an entirely new set of rules of engagement. One of these was that I could not say servant without nauseating others, and the other that the tasks of hired help are clear-cut – this is their trade, this is not who they are. It’s a purely transactional relationship, and you cannot ask one of the Busy Bee Maids to drop the vacuum immediately to attend to Granny who is clamouring for tea or a back rub, or run out and fetch some fresh coriander or eggs from the grocery down the street. Time is money is something I only learned after I came to America, and has to do with the value of labour, a commodity not overflowing on the streets here, and the dignity accorded to people of all professions who earn their bread by the sweat of their brow, and who do not generally consider anyone to have been born superior to another.

Perhaps this is the key. Millions of domestic workers soldier on in full view and plain sight in India. Oddly though, a common complaint heard across its cities is that unlike in the old days, people cannot easily find servants now, as these people, even if you do get lucky and recruit one, have become too demanding. Translated, this means that their emoluments have sky rocketed from tens to hundreds to thousands of rupees. This ignores the fact that the same has happened to their employers’ incomes, yet the gap has only widened.

A non-Indian might think, based on the way we treat and talk about our servants, that we think these people are children of a lesser god – an inferior species. What might make them really curious is how we yet expect godlike miracles from them: honesty, loyalty, self-control, predictability, asceticism, budgeting, contentment, lack of resentment and envy. Conversations in India, even in humane, educated, middle class and above circles, often go something like this:

The “servant problem” is caused by the defects of workers and has nothing to do with their being abused. What do these people expect? Surely not to be treated as equals, which they are not, and if we did do that, they would act worse than they already do, and work far less effectively if they are spoilt. They are always looking for ways to squeeze or steal your money and cheat. This is how these people are, they cannot help themselves. At the end of the day, they only look out for themselves, have no loyalty, and only care about the money.

When I say that that is true of most of us, and we all work to earn, eyes roll disappointedly at me for equating us and “them,” and coming home with cockamamie American ideas. I think they resent anyone trying to tear the veil of suspended disbelief, this is true even of the most humanitarian and liberal families, mine among them. Indians of privileged classes sustain the delusion that they are entitled to their employees’ selfless serfdom, and that the worse thing we can do is to give these people wrong ideas about themselves.

Domestic workers are organising themselves. Credit: National Platform for Domestic Workers Flickr/IDWF CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

There is a dread, in my opinion, among the haves that if the have nots may aspire to have the same kind of life as them, this would bring the whole house of cards down. The existing arrangement works only when the system essentially dehumanises the servant, otherwise it would not be possible to countenance this iniquity. The set-up expects the servants to stay with the employer for months, sometimes for years, whilst sending his or her entire miserable salary to a spouse and growing children miles away, and be hidden in out-of-sight sleeping quarters. The system works only if these people are not expected to have any biological or emotional needs, or essential worth, or God Forbid, ideas and ideology. Since they are regarded as not quite us, our rules do not apply to them. It makes life easier for us.

I guess you have to grow up with the structure to be able to ignore it, as with a physical defect, a compartmentalisation of the heart and the mind that becomes part of one’s existential nature. Like the slaveholders here in America, even one as erudite and humanitarian and eclectic as Jefferson, an aesthete by all accounts, whose concubine Sally Hemings bore him six children. But as has just been revealed, she slept in a room adjacent to his, though hers had a dirt floor and no windows. Even that intellectual icon of American values tolerated the object of his affections living in deeply inferior circumstances right next to him. He may have been cerebral, but she was at the end of the day below him, a slave. One is constrained to say that at least she had a room of her own.

So, what can be done about the servants in India? Not much, in my opinion. The causes are too deeply ingrained – poverty, class prejudice, the caste system, over population, hardened attitudes, the ability to get a job done for very little and too many people eager to do it, lack of respect for manual work in a class ridden society, a sense of entitlement among those who are comfortably off. Even I benefit from help in the form of an energetic lady who shows up every winter when I visit home. Her salary is a state secret between us, so as not to cause apoplectic seizures from adjacent households, but it is a pittance compared to what a monthly maid would cost me here in the US. So I am complicit in this game of benign exploitation. Short of a cataclysm it is hard to see how any of this can change in a hurry.

There is, however, a microscopic development I have noticed lately. Whereas the servants used to address employers with the subservient “sahib” and “memsahib”, now they call them uncle and aunty. It is a subtle way to raise their status closer to their masters and an expression of the powerful aspiration that runs through everyone in India. I have no idea when this change came about, but it is a universal term now, at least in the metropolitan areas.

Perhaps things will improve, perhaps the burgeoning Indian economy will eventually trickle down to the bottom. I am certain I will be long gone by then.

Sudha Koul is the author of The Tiger Ladies: A Memoir of Kashmir.