One of the defining characteristics of being an adult Indian woman, especially a married woman, in India is that you begin talking about the household help. Sit with a group of married Indian women at a party or in the building and more often than not, the discussion will veer around to complaints about the maid or how to get a good one or how expensive they have become. When I got married I swore to myself that I would not become one of those women.
I still stick to my decision not to go on too much about domestic help just as I try not to go on too much about my child because basically going on about any one topic can get boring. Moreover, if this is an unending problem it might be better to take a breather from it and talk about something else.
But, now that I am older and wiser, I do not trivialize those discussions anymore. The fact is that for a woman running a household – and the job of running the household is primarily left to women in India – having decent help is pretty important, just as important as having decent employees is to any company. Just because the domain of the discussion is the home doesn’t make it trivial.
Poet Mamma wrote about how domestic help in India can be a cause of great stress for women in India. I agree.
My experience of domestic help in India is that they range from needing a great deal of supervision/management to being incompetent. Many of those who are good at their jobs have been trained through such arduous supervision/management over time and they are now in short supply.
I used to think that part of the problem is that they are so badly paid. However, now I am not convinced that that would solve the problem. I think attention to detail and pride in attention to detail – essential qualities in good household help – are just not high up there in the Indian work ethic. I see this in a lot of other professions in India but it seems to inflict household help in a big way. I definitely think that household help should be paid better. But from what I have seen, even substantially raising the salary does not ensure competence, leave alone excellence. While the ones that are good at their job are not necessarily the ones that are well paid.
My mother’s approach to handling the household help is rigorous supervision in the first few weeks of work. Honestly, if I had to work for my mother, I would have probably quit in a day. On the other hand, most people who work for my mother realize that she has a kind heart, although she wants things done her way and is quite a nag. Her friends, relatives, and now her daughters are often at the receiving end of phone calls appealing for help for the maid – kid’s school fees, husband’s job, how to secure a house, medical issues etc.
I prefer a more businesslike approach. I would prefer if helpers agreed on a salary, did your work well without having to be nagged or told, came to work on time and took leave as previously agreed, just like any other job.
But when I had to manage household help myself, I realised that a more laissez-faire approach doesn’t work. One has to project this kadoos image, otherwise you are perceived as a softie and all hell breaks loose. So you either turn into this nagging Nazi or be walked all over, especially if you are young.
My one experience of managing a household help in India scarred me enough for me to vow to just do everything myself when I moved to Hong Kong. Luckily, in Hong Kong it is possible to do everything oneself especially if there are no kids. First, houses are small. There isn’t copious amounts of dust. One does not feel obliged to cook complicated food, even for parties (I am shameless in this regard.) You don’t have people dropping in announced so it’s fine if your house is a bit messy during the week. Buying groceries is convenient – one has the option of a supermarket or a ‘wet market’ like in India but both are not a hassle to get to even in pouring rain (going to the bazaar in Mumbai’s heat/rain can be a trying experience) and the quality of produce is generally acceptable.
Getting anything done is simple – there can be communication barrier when trying to get the local plumber or electrician to come but once they do they do a good job or they say right away that they can’t do it and they also tell you upfront what they will charge. Even though you are speaking two different languages it all gets sorted out without the miscommunication that seems to occur in India.
It also helps to be married to a man who has lived away from his parents for at least a year. So he is used to doing housework himself instead of seeing it as the woman’s job. I had done very little housework before I moved to Hong Kong, but it’s not rocket science. V and I split the work pretty evenly – it was quickly discovered that I was a dud at cooking so V handled that and I focused on cleaning up. We basically did most of the housework on weekends. It gave me a sense of pride and relief that I could manage on my own without a hlper.
Then after about a year and a half, V’s friend asked him if we’d like to try out a part-time helper who was looking for work. We decided to give it a shot. Part-time foreign helpers and live-out are technically illegal in Hong Kong but they are still a common phenomenon because many helpers like to make a quick buck on the side, particularly on their statutory weekly day off.
This one arrived in a miniskirt (which she changed into shorts I think) and got cracking with a pair of earphones blaring music into her head. I didn’t have to tell her what to do. She went at the house like the pro that she was and in two hours V and I found ourselves staring at our sparkling home openmouthed. We were hooked. We also had a great deal of respect for these people who do a much better job than we ever could.
I have experienced three helpers in Hong Kong and never seen the level of incompetence that is rife among their kind in India. The helpers here are able to work independently up to a certain standard. They know what has to be done and they get on with it. If you want things done a certain way, you have to tell them or show them once and generally, it’s done.
Admittedly, I am a hands off kind of person. I am bad at delegation and if I have to instruct too much, I’d rather just do it myself. I am not too concerned about things done my way as long as the end result is presentable. This is not the case with most people but even my more exacting friends here are satisfied with their helpers. We do not often have conversations about our helpers because there is not much to say.
This is however not a universal state of being. Many people in Hong Kong are unhappy with their helpers. The helper discussions on online forums are always active. People ask me who I am leaving my child with when I come to work and when I say a helper, they expect me to follow up with a complaint and when I say that I am very happy with my helper, they look beyond surprised.
The attitude of the Chinese to helpers is similar to the typical Indian one. Here, the helper-employer relationship is regulated by law – there is a minimum wage, conditions of employment, statutory leave, a labour tribunal that is not unsympathetic to the helpers etc. But within the parameters of the contract, many families work their helpers to the bone, knowing that for many of them making the job work is a necessity. They are also treated like second-class citizens.
I think to some extent this inability to see helpers as human beings – or to see them as a different class of human beings – results in some of the problems between employers and helpers both in Hong Kong and in India. But it doesn’t explain everything. I have seen many examples of decent helpers in Hong Kong but very few in India.
Once there are kids, whether one parent is at home or both are working, it is very hard to manage without help. I know people in the US do it, and I frankly do not know how. I think if you happen to have a difficult child (say even a baby with colic), it is extremely hard for two people to manage the child and all the housework, especially if one or both parents goes to work in the week. It would put an incredible stress on relationships.
Poet Mamma mentioned that one of the attractions of moving to India was the availability of household help. I am in the opposite situation. My primary reason for NOT moving to India – and V agrees with me here – is the lack of quality household help. I would not be able to manage a small child in India and stay sane with the quality of help available. If you asked me the reasons I am in Hong Kong, right now the biggest one would be my helper.