A dash of Pepper…

…with a splash of Mint

Maid to order

Posted by Pepper on January 16, 2014

Mint and I thought long and hard before we employed a maid. Both of us are of the belief that domestic helpers in India are exploited. They are grossly underpaid and most of them have no paid leave. Well, we could give them days off with pay, but could we afford to give them a ‘decent’ salary? Our definition of ‘decent’ is definitely not in congruence with the regulated rate and pay scales offered to them in this country. What you pay them does not allow them to lead a struggle free life. In order to eliminate their struggles, their pay has to be enhanced by a huge margin. Only then can they lead a respectable life, like their counterparts in the West.

So if you can’t offer them a good pay, what do you do? Make do without them! But then, this is a circular argument. If you don’t hire them, somebody else will. And offer them something worse. Or maybe this is something we say to pacify ourselves and eradicate the guilt. With the kind of explosive population we have, unskilled labour has little value in India. And so, the sorry state of affairs continues..

I know a lot of people who jump up in offence when I say this. They refuse to accept their flaw – how can they be exploiters, they wonder? And then they launch into a tirade. Our maids are so inconsiderate, they say. We do so much for them, yet they take advantage of us. Yes, they do take advantage and  many of them are inconsiderate. But have you ever paused to think of how unfair this whole system is to them? We are so conditioned into thinking we are right, we hardly question their sorry state of being. Anyway, this is a never ending debate.

When we moved into our new home, we asked our neighbours about their domestic help. Yes, we did decide to have one. After all, despite our apprehensions, the harsh truth is that we enjoy their service. It is one of the advantages of living in India. I know I sound like a hypocrite, and perhaps I am. Oh well..

We decided to do our bit in our own way. We would hire a maid, and pay her as much as we could afford to. It didn’t have to match with the ‘prevailing rate’. And so, we welcomed Lakshmi. The moment her pay was fixed, we were confronted by our neighbours. “Why are you paying her so much and spoiling the building rates? Because of you, all of us will have to suffer”. Okay, great. So now you will resort to collective bargaining in order to rule over them? Do you see to what level they are controlled and exploited?

We ignored the neighbours and continued to support Lakshmi in the way we do. The problem is, she has very little regard for hygiene. Each time she did the dishes, I would find the utensils sticky and terribly stained. So I would wash them again, a second time. I’ve been embarrassed when I had guests who dropped in suddenly. When I stepped into the kitchen to serve them some coffee, I noticed all the mugs had stained rings of coffee. So I had to wash them hurriedly, only to have one of the guests enter the kitchen and ask me why I was washing dishes at that time!

I once caught her wiping our just washed utensils with the same piece of cloth she uses to wipe the sticky kitchen counter with. It almost gave me a heart attack. These things are simply not acceptable to me. So I redid the dishes after she left. Each time, Mint would ask me – Why don’t we replace her? What is the point if we have to redo most of the work she does?

That does make sense, but then, I’ve grown up with domestic help who stayed with us for 18 years. She worked in our home from the time I was born, and we only had to let go of her when we moved out of that house. She was family and I never looked at her in any other way. Sure, she made mistakes at times and messed up on many occasions, but we only reprimanded her gently, until she corrected herself. The thought of sacking her was unimaginable. That is the the environment I grew up in. So till date, I can’t wrap my head around the concept of hiring and firing maids.

Our struggle with Lakshmi continues. I try and tell her why hygiene matters, and why some of the things she does are unacceptable. She doesn’t always get it, but I can see how much she tries. And to me, that counts more than anything else. Also, I see that streak of concern in her. When I am ill, she will enlist all the homemade remedies she can think of. She will shout at me for taking my health lightly. She sighs and tidies up the place when the mess we create goes beyond her level of tolerance.

She took a day off on Pongal. She called me when I was at work and told me she had made idlis and vadas for us and wanted to come by in the evening to hand them over. I was touched, but I told her we wouldn’t be home until late. I could sense her disappointment. She told me she made them for us, especially. So I told her to leave them with the watchman. I would collect it on my way home. Satisfied with that arrangement, she hung up with an excited, “Tell me if you like them, okay?”

When I see the package she left behind for us with all that love, I know our decision to employ a helper, pick her and keep her with us was the right one. Had she not been there, I may have missed out on this love. Yes, when it comes to love, I find myself greedy. Because I do believe no matter how much love you have in your life, there is always space for some more. It is the best ingredient to sweeten your day. I wish we could do more for Lakshmi. I wish we could better her life. But for now, we will try and return all the love that she showers upon us.

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19 Responses to “Maid to order”

  1. R's Mom said

    My parents had the same househelp in Baroda for almost 20 years. BEfore that we were in the township and the househelp there used to come to our new house and stay with us once in 2 months for three days. When R was both, both the househelps were of immense help, keeping her entertained while I worked. They are still in touch with us despite my parents moving out of Baroda 2 years ago. And whenever my parents go there, they make it a point to meet both of them. They are like family to us.

    My story is completely different. I have had 3 househelps in 5 years, and yet none of them are worked out. Like your Laxmi, they have gone from bad to worse as far as hygiene is concerned. I dont tell the househelp anything. I just clean again, much to RD’s irritation. I dont want to sound like a horrible person always complaining. But no, my househelp here showers NO love on me, she infact, just finds ways and means to complain. I keep a very formal relationship with her unfortunately 😦

    • Pepper said

      God, RM. I am so sorry. It’s hard to tell people they’re doing a bad job. Easier to do it yourself. Mint gets mad at me too. But what to do..?

      Regarding your relationship with your maid, sometimes it is just not possible to break boundaries. So let go. .

  2. Maya said

    Can I just hug you, although virtually, for writing this? I wish we had more people like you here, Pepper. I really mean it!

  3. All valid points in an extremely balanced, thought-provoking post!
    While cribs about the maids’ shoddy work, etc. are valid in many cases, the fact that they are underpaid and overworked is almost universally true. I’m always amazed at how people complain bitterly about inflation, but act as if a slight increase in the maid’s salary is like the sky falling on their heads.

  4. It’s very nice of you guys to do ur lil bit for Lakshmi but feel bad how the society people react. There are many good people among the underpaid maids and I was lucky in Pune where two nice ladies worked at our home, calling me son and when I left for Mumbai, one of my bai showered blessing. She was being beaten by the husband and both the hubby and the son were nikamma who were whining their time boozing. Now, uve inspiring me to jot ma thoughts on the two wonderful ladies. Respect for treating ur maid so well. Bless you, Pepper:)

  5. deethi said

    There are certain things like tea and coffee rings on the cups and sometimes dust still under the table. But Geetha my help is amazing and she shows that she cares and that she knows we care for her. For the others who say, we pay more and treat them otherwise,well it is up to us to decide no? 🙂 you doing the right thing.

    • Pepper said

      I always say this, For me, t is easier to tolerate shabby work done by people who are loving, rather than brilliant work done by people who are arrogant.

  6. I work. So I barely cook through out the month. Most of the times I eat outside as I am tired or due to occasions.

    There is this maid of mine who just don’t come as a surprise in the morning in spite of telling her many times with a softest tone possible to just inform that she might not come on so and so day just a day ahead or call me ahead.

    She doesn’t work during weekends. And if at all I cook in weekends she asks me “Why did you cook so many dishes? or What have I eaten and tried to feed 1000 ppl during the weekend” kind of questions every monday morning.

    #Facepalm# forget about hygiene – redoing is quite normal and she comments it is my obsession.

    P.S. : She is over paid.

  7. hitchy said

    started reading this post with a lot of arguments in my mind… but at the end… sigh… it was so wonderful… perhaps you are right! 🙂

    • Pepper said

      Thanks HItchy 🙂 I wouldn’t mind hearing your argument though. I am always up for a good debate when it comes to this issue. Have had several in the past and I have most of my answered ready and rehearsed by now. Lol.

  8. Deepa said

    I loved this post very, very much. You know over the years my mother has hired many maids. She not only paid them properly but also got them married off well when they came of age. If they joined us as teenagers she ensured that they took classes in something they could make a living out of someday. One of our early maids became an adept seamstress and today owns two tailoring stores doing brisk business and is about to open one in Dubai with her sister who’s settled there! Another, wanted to become a secretary so my father enrolled her in diploma courses towards that end. She first apprenticed in my father’s office and then found her a better job. When they were able to move on in life to better prospects my parents not only urged them leave us but were extremely proud of them too. In their later years my parents had more temporary maids- those who came in, did the work and left mainly from the shanties that had mushroomed all over with migrant labor from neighboring states. In those cases they paid them well above the prevailing rates, ensured that their husbands got steady jobs so they wouldn’t mooch off of their wives’ pay and that their children were enrolled in good local schools. My parents paid for the fees if any, book costs and uniforms. They would have a pact with our bai(s) right from the start. That in exchange for good pay, proper working conditions and steady employment they would have to send all their children to school and ensure their enrollment at least until the 10th std. It usually worked out well and many of those kids have gone on to become graduates. Our early maids still visit us with their families and we used to attend their birthdays and festivals when in town. Currently, my mother lives by herself and has her maid’s daughter staying with her because the latter needs quiet and peace to study for her 12th boards. She gets a lot of study help from my mother who is very invested in her education. The best part is, she is the first girl from her family to be educated beyond the 10th and not be married off early like her sisters were. So what you and mint are doing differently does contribute in its own way towards bettering Lakshmi’s life.

    • Pepper said

      This is the most heartwarming comment, Deepa. My parents keep buying books for their maids kids and do other little things, but what your parents have done is simply incredible. I wish we all learn from them..

  9. radha said

    I read your blog and was very happy to read this, then i got thinking about our household help , They are our family, out cook mami stays with us – has been for over 40 yrs , stays in our compound, actually cared for my husband since his parents passed away in his 20’s.. our gardener cum house helper cum shopper cum everything is her relative, again with us for 40+ yrs, he’s a bit mentally challenged but is the BEST gardener , can grow anything and give any horticulturist a run for their money, he also works at my husbands business taking care of plans and managing the maintainence etc., he calls himself maintenence mgr 🙂 , our driver has been with us for 25yrs, and regularly gives my boys a piece of his mind when he sees them on their bikes 🙂 he taught us all to drive.
    They are our family, we need to do a lot more for our helpers , starting with not underpaying them. we make lakhs yet cringe to pay a decent wage for people making our life easier.
    We’ve been telling out cook to retire and move to our estate in munnar and lord it over there 🙂 she refuses. our boys are in hostel and she thinks we’ll eat out adn become unhealthy if she’s gone. She makes the absolutely best ADrak chai every morning and eve , she is a half auyurvedic dr, with her home made remedies i swear.

    • Pepper said

      Wow Radha, I am blown over. Really. But I am also wondering, are all these loyal people only a thing of the past? It sure is hard to find somebody who sticks with you for that long in today’s age. On the other hand, most people in our generation are moving about too, as opposed to living in one ancestral home for most of their life, so I guess the help keeps moving around as well.. 🙂

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