Thursday 5 July 2012

Upstairs Downstairs : The Thing About Staff

The thing I get asked about most is whether we have staff. This question was asked many times before we left the UK: "OOOOooh, will you be getting staff?" and whilst here, the other expat women ask me "so, do you have a maid?" Yes, they really do call female (and they are always female) household staff "MAIDS". Not "Housekeeper", not "Helper", not "Cleaner", or even "Staff"...but MAID.  How Victorian!

Well I have to tell you that the whole thing makes Mr Jules and I very uncomfortable.  Yes we do have a cleaner that works for 6 hours a week- pretty much the same as we would have in the UK (I have been told we pay her an extortionate amount at 6,000 rupees/ £70 a month!).  And yes we do have a driver, mostly because it's impossible to motor here unless you seriously know what you're doing and besides which, Mr Jules is not allowed to by his employer.  I feel vulgar telling you how much he gets paid so I won't. 

Having staff is definitely the norm for the burgeoning middle classes of India. Even an average office worker will have a 'maid' and and/or a cook, employed six days a week, 12 hours a day plus more as required. Apparently, I have been told, it is my DUTY to employ a maid and "get used to it". In a city of 18m inhabitants where 60% of dwellers live in a slum, us expats should hand out as many household jobs as possible and create meaningful employment.  'Those' who tell us this are probably right, however, I think Mr Jules and I can live with our two recruits as having fulfilled our 'duty'.

Oh yes and we pay the lovely ironing wallah at the bottom of the lane about 10p a shirt for pristine pressing services (a task that our cleaner could otherwise fulfil).  He comes up to the apartment to collect everything whenever we need him to and then delivers it all back within a few hours.  He lives in the same hut where he performs his ironing services (probably utilising the ironing board as his bed) and when he comes into the flat and looks out to sea from the sitting room whilst surveying our plush furnishings, it makes me incredibly uncomfortable.
The Ironing Wallah.  Always smilling and waving!

This pristine pile of ironing cost Rs 250 or about £3 (includes about 18 shirts and a duvet cover!)

In fact both our driver Karthik and our very efficient cleaner Reetha live in slums (if you ask where they live as I did this week, you get told and then you have to live with the knowledge and get used to it).  Reetha informs me that her husband is an alcoholic (a very common problem with male slum dwellers) and she is the one that has to go out to work to support him and their two children.  Heartwarmingly she has worked hard enough to push her children through university with her older daughter about to graduate with a degree in Hotel Management.  See - anything is possible in this city and that's why I am happy to pay her about three times the going rate.  Karthik lives with his mum and dad and has two younger siblings.  His English is pretty bad which can be a challenge when you need to get somewhere urgently but we are hoping he is about to take up our offer of paid English lessons.  One day we won't be here and with improved English skills he will be able to continue with better paid expat work.

Karthik with the car outside our apartment block.

From what I have seen, some Indians show very little respect for their staff.  This is bourne out of the caste system that still exists (unspoken) in India.  Mr Jules and I were having lunch in a fairly westernised establishment last weekend when a large family with their nanny/maid/whatever came in.  Mum, Dad, Grandparents, Uncles & Aunts and a couple of small children.  Mum had very short shorts on and was covered in blinging jewellery - she looked like a Bollywood star (or at least thought she did).  Anyway, they all sat down to eat around the table...but the poor Nanny!  She was just left standing nearby.  Not told to join them, not given a chair, not told to go away and come back after an hour.   She looked embarrassed and humiliated but of course probably very used to it.  Mr Jules and I cringed!

Our Hindu/English translation book really says it all.  There is a section called "Servants You May Need and Their Engagement" with some expressions one should learn in order to get the best out of said servants. To give you some examples (English Version):

"Are you honest?"
"Do you bathe daily?"
"Put my things away!"
"Have my shoes cleaned!"
"This egg is not boiled properly!!"
"This is filthy!!!"
"Carry out my orders!"
"Be smart and quick!"
"Keep your fingers off it!"

Get the general idea? - there is obviously also a certain tone of voice to be used with these phrases!  Mr Jules and I find this hilarious but really, it's incredibly tragic.  Whilst us Brits for the most  part got rid of our servants by the 1950s, India has a long way to go in learning to do things for itself around the home (but then when you can get a full time maid for an average 3000 rupees/£35 a month, why would you?)

A few phrases we need to learn so that we can treat our fellow human beings like sh*t

PS.  If we end up getting a maid, we will be sure to let you know!


  1. Oh dear, lots of having to get used to things this week for you!
    What a nice and thought-provoking blog post, made me think about something Mma Ramotswe (of nÂș1 ladies detectives) said and about a book I read a month or so ago (The Help).
    I like your quaint phrase book, well at least I hope it's quaint and isn't still required reading. There should be a little museum for unfortunate pamphlets like that, all the "housewives: how to make you husband happy" pamphlets could go there too :-)

    1. Hi Tree!
      Unfortunately the Hindu phrase book is not quaint and's current! isn't that sad?

      And yes there have been a few things that have also reminded me of the film The Help (see if you haven't already!). I recently overheard a group of expat ladies complaining about their maids (the ones that told me the price I was paying for our cleaner was extortionate). They were complaining that they had to explain everything three times as their maids don't speak English, that they had to be in the whole time to oversee them and then they were complaining about paying them 3,000 rupees/ £37 a month. Approximately the price of two bottles of their cheapest import French wine. Disgusting eh?

      Also all the cupboards and every single drawer in the flat AND the fridge door has a lock on it! If you are paying people such small wages than I am guessing the assumption is you will get stolen from. And the worst thing is that staff have their own toilets out in the stairwell. They are not supposed to use your own facilities....

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