08 May 2011

Household help

Following on the theme of my last post, having household help is very common in India. Every middle-class household has at least a maid who comes to do chores like sweeping, washing the floors and laundry. Some also have cooks, nannies and drivers. I know some households that have more staff working in their house than family members!

Of course for foreigners, it’s a huge luxury to have household help. I have an aunt who’s fascinated by this. Every time I see her, she asks me the same questions:
“So you’re not allowed to work in India?”
“But you have a lady who comes to do the cleaning?”
“And you take your laundry to get ironed by a man in the street?” (She’s surprised that this is a man’s job!)
“And who does the cooking? You? Well at least you do something!”

She’s also surprised that my household help comes three times a week – which is a bare minimum in India – but for my aunt it seems excessive. “Why so often?!” she asks. I try to explain to her how dusty it gets, especially in the summer. By the afternoon I can already see a thin layer of dust that’s settled on the tile floor. That’s why most people get their floors swept and washed every single day.

Savitri has worked for us for the past four years. I feel very lucky to have her. It’s not easy to find good household help. “It’s easier to find a good husband than a good maid,” seems to be a popular saying here.

Indeed a lot of my friends complain endlessly about their maids. “She’s gone to her village for a week. How will I manage?” is a common complaint. When I tell them that in the ‘West’ women manage the cooking, cleaning, kids and a full-time job, they look amazed. “Ayoo! Poor things! How do they cope with no help?”

I also hear all kinds of stories. When a friend got a new maid, her sugar supply started mysteriously disappearing. Another asked for a loan and then disappeared. (A common occurrence.) Another became more and more demanding, continuously asking for raises and ultimately a scooter!

Savitri has never been to school but she speaks four languages fluently: Kannada, Telugu, Tamil and Hindi. She’s always pleasant and cheerful and rarely misses work. If she doesn’t show up, I know it’s because of a good reason. The next time she’ll tell me why she couldn’t come: because she had fever, or because her grandchildren were visiting. She didn’t show up for two days last week but when she came on Saturday morning, she had some important news for me: her son is getting married. She seemed very happy and was wearing new gold earrings and had more green glass bangles on her wrists than usual. Her son is the last of her three children to get married.

When she finished her work this morning she told me that she won’t come for a week because of the wedding preparations. I sensed her excitement and happiness and know she’ll be busy preparing for this important event. But one week! Ayoo, how will I manage?!


Unknown said...

We too have a decent maid though our last one was not. She barely did any work, didn't clean the whole house and acted like it was too hard for her. The family only kept her on because she had been here so long and they knew she wasn't a thief. She retired a little while ago and the maid we have no seems decent. She cleans better and has a much better personality than the last one. I'm amazed she doesn't wear shoes though. I mean she has to realize how dirty she's getting. Maybe it's just my stubborn western ways but I would have to wear them lol.

Elizabeth Petrosian said...

Interesting, as always, Isabel! I imagine the widespread employing of household help is also good for the economy. Gosh, how I'd love to have someone come and clean my house, sigh.... ;)

Samy Ben Rabah said...

I heard a lady saying about her maid: "she has been working for us for ages, she's totally useless !" but she's proabably totally lost when her maid is not around.
Poor maids, not getting the recognition they deserve...

kc said...

What would we do without these wonderful people ! My maid comes every morning with a lovely smile on her face!She is a single mother of two boys and is just barely managing to support herself and them with her two jobs!And yet, she smiles!! I learn a lot from her and her joyful attitude to Life!

Anonymous said...

As always, you have wonderful topics here. I grew up in Bangalore having always household help at home whose number equalled the house members sometimes. Being pampered that way, when I moved to the west 16 years ago I was agast that I had to tend to each and every chore. Now, I feel this is the best way since you are in total control of things and not left in a lurch when the help doesn't show up etc. I guess each side has its pros and cons :).

shubha said...

When we moved to Bangalore after having lived in US for 11 years,it was initially very difficult for me to dump vessels in the sink and walk away,or just sit and watch the maid sweeping the floor.
I could not get myself to tell her to do the chores.
But I quickly got used to it:)

Scrumps said...

Is that her in the photo? She looks so young! :)

Isabel said...

Yes there are pros and cons either way, but mostly pros!

No scrumps, that's not her!

Anonymous said...

Not all families have help. My in-laws are upper-middle class and do all the cleaning, laundry and cooking themselves. For some reason, they prefer it that way.