When we returned to Delhi after a long hiatus, there was one thing that I looked forward to, apart from family and spicy food, and that was getting a maid. From a distance it seemed like a wonderful dream – to have a maid to do all your chores around the house – it was reason enough to move back to India.
Only, I didn’t realize how difficult that process would be, it was easier, I was told on arriving in Delhi, to find that high paying job. I got a lot of advise on the matter, and also heard horror stories about maids running away with everything except the kitchen sink – everyone I spoke to had a story to tell. But the one common advice I got from most people, was that once you find the right one, you do all you can to not only keep her, but also keep her happy, so she does not get poached. “A happy maid” a wise friend told me “makes for a happy family”.
India’s upper classes seem to have this one common, perennial woe –finding the right domestic help – someone who can be trusted to run the house and take care of the kids while you are away at work.
There’s no structured way of getting one, though there are agencies that promise to find you the perfect person, but these are, mostly, vague one-man operations that more are more likely to pass on some untrained sixteen year old girl straight from the village who’d run away after a few months, leaving you with nothing but the agent’s mobile number that would’ve long changed by then.
The only other way, and in the end this is really the one that proves fruitful, is to call up everyone you know and “spread the word” – ask friends’ maids to carry the message down their network, and then pray hard. In India one depends on domestic help for everything, from cleaning the house to looking after the kids, and the day your maid decided to walk out, is the day you don’t go to work and make desperate calls everyone in your phonebook. Then you call your mother, and ask her to help you with your kids while you juggle everything else – till you find a decent maid again that is.
As a result of this shortage of good, trusted maids and cooks, there has been a huge rise in their salaries, because India’s well off, with their increased earning power, are willing to throw as much money as needed at the problem. Expats and repatriated NRIs (Non Resident Indians) are being blamed for spoiling the market since they are shelling out large sums of money and grabbing the best lot. A full-time maid, who lives with you, could now earn about four to five thousand rupees a month – about hundred dollars – which is still a lot of money in India for the lower classes. And increasingly there are those who pay up to ten thousand rupees a month (about two hundred and fifty dollars) to attract the best people. Then there are, of course, stories about people paying even a thousand dollars a month for the right person – but these are not that common and make for good headlines.
So, when looked at from one angle, the maids have never had it so good or been so much in demand. They dictate their terms of service and have a take-it-or-leave-it attitude. A friend of mine was once asked by her maid who her assistant would be, claiming that she could not work without one. Attend any Delhi party and you’ll hear umpteen stories about high maintenance maids and their demands.
But there are always two sides to any story, and while there are those who are earning more and living a better life, there are also those, mostly young village girls who leave their families to work in the cities, who don’t get paid enough and get ill treated. Often they are girls who run away from home looking for domestic work and get exploited by agents and employers. One such girl even wrote down her story, which got published and became a popular book.
My maid is crucial to my life, I could not be writing this article if she was away. When I say this to my mother she comments that we are the spoilt generation, because she brought up three children and worked without half the kind of help I have, having only one child. I don’t know how she did it.
I guess she’s right, we are spoilt in the new India whose growing economy has benefited people like me. What I pay my maid today is almost the salary my mother retired at after teaching at a reputed school for twenty four years – it tells you something about the times we live in.