A great sense of endurance runs in the veins of a city dweller in India who is immunized to the daily sights of distress. In spite the irrational outburst, the thick-skin, and the occasional cry, one finds the will to keep one’s goals alive. However, after surviving twenty -five years in Mumbai (and surviving is a reasonable word even for those of us who live here quite comfortably, knowing we may be killed by anything from air pollution to a pot hole), I can confidently say that one’s endurance is most tested when it comes to the domestic or the every day house hold help.
For those who haven’t experienced this side of life, this last bit may sound like a princess’s complaint from the cushions of her castle. But for those who live in the world of ‘being served’, definitely know better. Some of us expect a revolution. The simple truth is that domestic help today can subtly hold their employers to ransom. Yet, the ironic thing about modern living in India is that in spite all the latest electronic decorations added to its once modest kitchen, and despite all of them functioning most efficiently, people depend on at least one domestic help almost entirely. The nature of Indian cuisine, the habit of Indian dust, social entertainment and so much more, all make it impossible to run a house without additional help. Moreover, an entire segment of this social structure and economy has been built on hiring an extra pair of hands for generations, and it can’t be put away like a washed dish.
Given that household help can certainly add a touch of luxury to life, it is not without a constant reminder that the once warm and faithful domestic scene has changed the pattern its wings over time. When I was a child, Parvatibai would not let me leave the table without finishing my milk and even had a bedtime story ready if my parents were out. Personal involvement and a sense of belonging were a natural way to be. The joy of doing the work came before the thought of being paid for it. Not a very long time ago, there was space in this country’s air to breed morality and instil virtue. But the helpers that find their way into your apartment today are a very tired lot- the currents of life having worn them down. Debt and disease wax and wane unpleasantly in their life as effortlessly as the moon does in yours. They have no mental strength to take care of anyone else’s need but their own and so, they can’t be bothered being reliable. But sometimes it’s not easy to balance your own sympathy for them against their total lack of it for you.
Last year, I fired my house help of six years when he extended his annual vacation from 2 months to 6 months. Since it had sent my routine spiraling into orbit, I wanted to let him know that he had taken my kindness too far. I could not understand his carelessness without considering the possibility that perhaps he had come into some harm. But he ruled that out when I spoke to him one day over the phone after four months. And instead of explaining his behavior, he simply asked me to transfer money in his account because he had started building a house! I was stunned by his flat, matter-of-fact demand. No apology, no regret. And the inevitable thought of ‘after all that I do, how could he do this?’ occupied every square inch of me. I attributed his action to downright selfishness. So I told him I could do without him and to never return.
Quite immediately, I jumped into the world of ‘Good Housekeeping’ with full fervor. I decided to do everything by myself. And because I managed it, each day day just slipped through my fingers like sand, leaving nothing for myself on the palm of my hand. Even then, I called it my new life and ploughed away at home management. It kept me fit because I moved all day, and that became my biggest motivation. It’s true, people in countries with help at hand are an unfit bunch because they don’t move. And apart from the spring in my step due to continuous activity, I also took a more spiritual approach to my new life by finding fulfillment in simple things, because I did enjoy cooking, keeping the house clean, and looking after others. I thought I had simplified my life. Relying on oneself is a totally different freedom after all, I said, but it turned out that this isn’t always the case. For at the end of six months of good housekeeping and beyond, I felt as if I had been left out to dry on a string like a salted fish. All the juice of life had been sucked out of me. I had not traveled anywhere , or met anybody, done anything creative, or woken up without an alarm. My life became one chore after another.
Soon I found myself desperately wishing for the situation to change. I wanted my old chap to join, recollecting how good life was when he handled the household chores so smoothly. I didn’t care if my vitamin D levels dropped again by writing at my desk or being rooted in front of a canvas for hours. All I knew was that I needed another human being to help with the dog, the kitchen, the laundry, the insane dust.
And yet, I could not get myself to give the fellow an edge over me because I knew it would throw the balance totally off because he was a clever little businessman. I told myself that there was no choice but to align oneself with the times. Smart had to replace heart. So in order for him to not push me too far again, I called him and told him I was looking for some help and if he knew anyone, he could send the person to me. He knew well enough that this was another way of me calling him back on the job. Quite instantly, he said that he would do it himself. It’s been three months since that conversation, and things have really changed for everyone. Of course, he asked for a raise within the first 5 minutes, even though he was already well paid before.
The thing is, in countries like India where people have been served for generations, the expectations from the domestic help hasn’t changed with time. Today’s help is smart- they know what they want because they know what you want. But they leave their best at the door, until they are convinced they can bring it in. That’s why one needs to keep them happy. They are not as helpless as their employers think they are and neither are they stupid. Today’s help is exposed to the world through their multi-lingual phones and their u tube videos. They know everything, and they plan for their lives more astutely than you can ever imagine. But as long there’s trust, one should be grateful and even show it in small ways. So its important to treat some times to that pizza or pasta or Chinese food that shows up on television. It’s important to take care of all their needs, including education of their little children. It’s important to help them build a house in their village, because that is how they celebrate their sacrifice and success. It’s important to get them a high quality gift for a special occasion, but one preferably endorsed by a Bollywood star or a cricket star- a pair of shoes, a jacket, a tee. And finally, it’s very important to use the words please and thank you- they are aware of the respect it shows. Domestic help, in fact, should be valued greatly. They play a huge part they play in the enhancement of ourselves because they give us opportunity to become a better version of ourselves. It can be challenging, but at the end of the day, I can honestly say it’s worth it.