Maid in India

TRUE HELP

Maid in India

Most urban homes would turn chaotic without the maid and the cook. Sangeeta Praveen extols the virtues of the domestic help

Recently, when a family tragically lost their young daughter who was living alone in a bustling city, the first person who flew in to be with the family in their hour of grief was their cook.

He had been working for this family for many years and had seen the young girl grow from a naughty little kid to a self assured and confident professional. He didn’t think twice before booking a flight ticket, which cost two-and-a-half months of his salary! While the family dealt with the formalities of death in the city their daughter had lived in, the cook took over the functioning of the entire kitchen without a murmur. He helped in the only way he knew — by being there for them.

The domestic help is the lifeline for most urban Indian households. If she does not  come in to work on any given day, it is disaster management time in the half a dozen  homes she works in. Tempers rise, and so does stress, work increases and chances of having a heart attack doubles! And yet, the domestic help in India still remain exploited,  underpaid and overworked. There are no laws guaranteeing them minimum wages, overtime pay or reasonable working hours.

Vidya works as a cook in seven houses. Fortunately for her, all the seven houses are in the same housing complex. However, unfortunately for her,  she lives in the outskirts of the city and has to travel 60 kms one way to reach her place of work. To start work at 7 am, she leaves home at 5:30 am. She works continuously through the day, and reaches home at 9 pm after a tiring commute. Once she returns home, she has to cook and clean for her own family comprising of a mother-in-law, a husband who refuses to work and children. She says, in a matter of fact manner, that she cannot remember the last time she got more than four hours of sleep in a  night.

Bright dreams

She dreams of a better life for her two daughters and works doubly hard to ensure that they receive a good education. She knows that education is the only way her daughters can escape the same grind that her life has become. She lost her 11-year-old son last Christmas in a road accident and had to take off from work for 10 days to grieve. She returned 10 days later and found that two households had replaced her without a second thought. She accepts it stoically, just as she accepts everything else in her life.
The only bright spot in her life is that her daughters study hard.

More than forty years ago, a domestic help remained loyal to the family he or she worked for. There was no concept of working in multiple households and sometimes, it even became a hereditary occupation, wherein children took over from their parents when they were old enough. In those days, the gap between the haves and the have-nots was huge and  there was a clear class demarcation between the employers and the help. It was almost a mild form of slavery combined with a resigned form of acceptance.

But today, this gap between the two sections has reduced and a domestic help knows that he or she can dream of a brighter future for his or her kids. There are a lot of households, where the mind sets of the employers also have changed. Says Savita, “My mother believes if she does not keep a hawk’s eye, her maid will laze around, or worse, steal. She berates me constantly for not keeping a closer watch on my maid. No matter how many times I remind her that I’ve not even lost a spoon in the decade my maid has been with me, she refuses to understand my concept of treating my domestic help as my equal.”

So, while we are shocked when we read about nannies sedating babies and then renting them out for begging, let us also remember that these are the exceptions rather than the rule.

Arijeet, has had the same driver for the last five years. Three years ago, he found out that the driver and his two kids were HIV+. Arijeet says, “The day my driver found out about his health status, he came home,  cried and offered to leave. My wife and I told him to shake himself out of his self pity and continue to work. Both of us read up a lot on his condition and took him and his children to a  doctor and today, we pay for his medicines.
He does not talk about his medical condition to his peers, and neither do we. We are not entirely sure how our friends would react to him if they got to know about his HIV+ status, so we just prefer to keep quiet. Today, he is an integral part of our family and sometimes we even forget that he is HIV+, because he leads a normal life thanks to the medication and a wholesome diet.”

Malini narrates a shocking incident  regarding her domestic help , which over the years, she admits, has taken on a more humorous note. “I used to work for an MNC and I had a live-in help – a 19 year old girl. One particularly busy day at work, I received a call from her saying that she had locked herself out of my home and had no way of entering it. I was angry and frustrated but there was no way out other than go all the way home and give her my set of  house keys. Imagine my horror when I reached home and found her wearing my clothes. On further questioning, I found out that she had a boyfriend, and she regularly called him home after we all left for work. She dressed up for him in my clothes, and then folded them neatly and put them back in my cupboard before I returned!” But she hastens to add that she has not changed her opinion of domestic help based on this one incident. She says that her respect for these women is very  high because they live a hard life and they work harder still.

These days, we don’t bat an eyelid when we hear of our domestic help purchasing a TV or a refrigerator. While this signifies a positive shift in economic status, India still has a long way to go in understanding the term ‘dignity of labour’. It is only when we are large-hearted enough to share a meal with our domestic help and allow them to use our washrooms, can we say we’ve truly understood the term.

Treat them well...

-  Remember that they are human and treat them with respect

-  Don’t assume they are stealing as soon as you discover something missing

-  If your maid takes off citing reasons of health, it’s probably the truth

-  Treat them like you would your extended family. Correct them when required, gently and firmly.

-  If your cook has made something delicious, tell her so

-  The maid also has to balance her work and family.  Sometimes, her biggest worry may be something as small as a hundred rupees. Talk to her and discover the many little ways in which you can make her life a little easier

However, do this if you’re suspicious

- Pay attention — notice changes in behaviour.  Be alert if your instinct is telling you that something is not quite right. If a domestic help who is normally mild and respectful, suddenly starts behaving surly or insolently, then it’s time to worry.

- Sometimes leave a small amount of money lying around. Be conscious of the amount and check a little later.

- If something goes missing, ask them if they know where it is but do not accuse without any proof

- Change your routine suddenly without giving the help prior intimation

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