Every now and then a shattering example of the rigid class system particular to servanthood rears its ghastly head. When it does it’s brutal, exposing a collective hypocrisy when it comes to Indians’ relationship with their domestic workers. Suicides off high rises, where somebody has been kept in slave-like conditions. 24-hour workdays. The hiring of minors. Or the most recent incident (if not criminal, morally reprehensible) when a guest of a member of the Delhi Golf Club was stripped of her dignity with the curt, “Maids are not allowed”. Tragically, this assumption was made based on the guest’s attire, a jainsem, the traditional dress of Northeasterners.
In this city, the Delhi Gymkhana Club and the Golf Club are still valiantly clinging on to their identity, of being the last bastions of old-world charm and propriety. However, this isn’t just about an outdated notion of a dress code that nobody but the babus at these august institutions care for. It’s about the imbalance of power, where society as a whole is complicit – that a certain grade of employee may never, ever aspire to a seat at the table, no matter what their role is in your life.
I don’t speak in jest when I say that in day-to-day urban living, a competent domestic worker is more important than a parent, sibling and most definitely, a spouse. Life as we know it would come to a grinding halt without somebody to take care of household chores. And considering the diminishing returns in so many artistic pursuits, it really would be wise to refrain from sneering at other honest occupations, irrespective of how people are dressed for them. Designer Rohit Bal’s cook has just launched a catering service for Kashmiri food. A cleaner and now dog walker I know makes Rs 20,000 extra, moonlighting for two neighbours for 1 hour extra work every day. A maid with good credentials and a passport, as I learnt this summer, can make as much as Rs 5,000 a day accompanying a family with young children abroad. They have a network on Facebook. Indians with their penchant for travelling like George the Fifth have done the math and figured out that hiring a babysitter in London over a holiday costs more than flying someone out from India. Often, a domestic worker in Mumbai or Delhi is earning more than a starter salary in a BPO, or more than somebody in McDonalds.
Till Delhi’s air became so bad, the Capital was a prime posting for foreign diplomats who enjoyed first world lifestyles, while claiming compensation of third world hardships. It was preferred to Bangkok, Hong Kong and Beijing for one reason only: the retinue of servants one could hire for a song. By all accounts, foreign saabs are preferred because they’re just so grateful for the assistance. It is, perhaps, one of those perversities peculiar to Indians because of our painful history of caste, that the people we are most dependent on, we’re not willing to treat as equals.
One would imagine that when you’re hiring somebody to take care of your most precious asset, your child, or your house, you would bend over backwards to make them comfortable. With a nanny, you’re asking a stranger to nurture your child while you go about your life. You’re trying to purchase affection when actually you should be thinking about the old adage, that money can’t buy love. It can, at best, buy loyalty and respect.
House workers may be shadows in the background but considering the unfettered access they have to the intricacies of our lives, it’s anything but an association of unequals.