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Serve the servants: A bachelor and his maid

Palash Krishna Mehrotra | Updated on: 26 July 2017, 16:57 IST
(Photo edit: Arya Sharma/Catch News)

Many years ago, Freddie Mercury sang: ‘I can’t live with you/ But I can’t live without you/ I can’t let you stay/ Ooh but I can’t live if you go away...’

He was singing a love song, but the words describe, fairly accurately, the relationship the Indian middle class has with its servants.

I’m aware that the word ‘servant’ is not entirely acceptable. The U.K. Telegraph, for instance, describes the services provided by domestic help as ‘Outsourcing chores like cleaning.’ But I will stick with ‘servant’, for at a later stage in this piece I’ll talk about the nature of dependence that the master-servant relationship engenders.

Serving time

The mistreatment of a maid in a Noida highrise reminded us of the, at times, severely unequal terms on which this relationship is based. But the need for help is not just an Indian need.

The Indian middle class keeps servants because it has access to a cheap workforce, desperate for employment. The west doesn’t have this luxury. Only the rich can afford Filipino maids. It comes at a price.

If the western middle class could afford servants they would employ them too

If the western middle class could afford servants they would employ them too. There are those who’d disagree. Even if one has the money, some of us are uncomfortable at the thought of someone else doing our work for us. A healthy person should do his or her own chores.

However, a new study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests that using money to buy free time, such as hiring a cook or a cleaner to do chores, adds to one’s sense of well-being. In contrast, spending money on possessions does not.

The survey covered more than 6000 people in North America and Europe. The Telegraph quotes Dr Ashley Whillans, assistant professor at Harvard Business School, who carried out the research, as saying: ‘People who hire a housecleaner or pay the kid next door to mow the lawn might feel like they're being lazy. But our results suggest that buying time has similar benefits for happiness as having more money.’

Socially acceptable slavery

It’s not that our middle class is unusually cruel because it relies so much on servants. The problem arises in how we treat them.

In India, the master-servant relationship often tends to take on feudal overtones. The master, even if benevolent, takes on a mai-baap role. Often, it’s not at as simple as someone coming to your house, providing services, and going back to her or his life in the outside world.

She sleeps in dingy, oven-like quarters, while the master sleeps in an air-conditioned room

The full-time servant is attached to the family round the clock. She is severed from her family in the village. She is not allowed to go out of the house and have friends. She sleeps in dingy, oven-like quarters, while the master sleeps in an air-conditioned room. Indians also take their help along with them everywhere.

The maid holding the baby follows the memsahib as she goes shopping to the mall, has an expensive lunch at a restaurant (where the maid is either not allowed in, or has to sit at a separate table).

The servant also accompanies the family on outstation trips. This has the ring of slavery—full time servitude, with no days off, where you cannot have a timetable of your own, but instead your hours — day and night — are synced with that of the house you work in.

Help, I need somebody

My mother, Vandana, doesn’t believe in keeping servants. I grew up in Allahabad with no servants around. I learnt early to help with the housework. Chopping carrots was my favourite activity as a child. Peeling potatoes too. I love doing dishes the way some people love to cook mutton. When I’m in the kitchen doing the dishes, I throw everyone out. I own three kinds of brooms and two vacuum cleaners.

Indians, of course, buy the vacuum cleaner, and then hire a maid to run it over the carpet, defeating the point of the appliance.

My mother empathises with the hard lives that maids lead. But she herself is not the kind to shy away from work. She works herself to the bone even at the age of seventy-three. She likes the independence of being able to do her own chores as and when.

With servants, she felt tied down. Servants can manipulate the dependence one has on them, leaving one in the paradoxical position of being a master, as well as a slave to one’s servant.

Naipaul begins to reflect on the power that a servant exercises over the master...

This aspect of the master-servant relationship is something Naipaul touches on in An Area of Darkness. In a chapter called ‘A Doll’s House on the Dal Lake’, he writes in some entertaining detail about his experiences in the Hotel Liward. As the days go by, Naipaul finds himself being involuntarily sucked into the servant politics of the kitchen.

The khansama extracts money from Naipaul on the pretext of his wife having typhoid. Aziz, who also works at the hotel, tells Naipaul the truth at dinner: the khansama was lying: ‘Aziz’s tight-lipped smile, suppressing laughter at my gullibility, was infuriating.’

When the khansama finds this out he stops talking to Naipaul. He feels ‘betrayed’. Aziz must have made fun of him behind Naipaul’s back: ‘I did not like to think of his humiliation in the kitchen; and I liked to think least of all of Aziz’s triumph over him. On that small island I had become involved with them all...’

To Naipaul, Aziz was someone who provided him service for a fee and went back to his world. Now, he begins to see him in a new light. Aziz doesn’t have a life beyond service: ‘Service was his world. It was his craft, his trade...it was the source of his power.’

It’s at this point that Naipaul begins to reflect on the power that a servant exercises over the master, reducing the latter to a child-like figure: ‘I had read of the extraordinary control of eighteenth-century servants in Europe; I had been puzzled by the insolence of Russian servants in novels like Dead Souls and Oblomov; in India I had seen mistress and manservant engage in arguments as passionate, as seemingly irreparable and as quickly forgotten as the arguments between husband and wife.

'Now I began to understand. To possess a personal servant, whose skill is to please, who has no function beyond that of service, is painlessly to surrender part of oneself. It creates dependence where none existed; it requires requital; and it can reduce one to infantilism.’

Bachelor pad

While I didn’t grow up with servants, in Delhi, the same lady, Rupa, has been working for me for nine years now. Here I’d like to point out that the master-servant relationship in an Indian middle class family is very different from the one between a bachelor and his maid.

Rupa knows me. She’s known everyone, every girlfriend, who has passed through my bachelor’s quarters. She knows my habits, good and bad. Occasionally she plays agony aunt, like when I was with a girl with whom I’d argue all the time. She told me early that this one wasn’t going to work out.

She likes working for bachelors because it is stress free, as compared with working for a memsahib

Rupa is single herself. Her husband left her years ago. She thinks of herself as a professional working woman. She has grown-up children, but likes to adopt impoverished kids in her neighbourhood, feed and educate them.

We bond as single people. We talk about things other than work, like her interest in ghazals and music. When Catch News translates a piece of mine into Hindi (which doesn’t happen very often), she reads it and gives me her feedback.

Rupa says she likes working for bachelors because it is stress free, as compared with working for a memsahib. She can be moody. She will bully me at times.

Bachelors are not hard taskmasters. My gig allows Rupa space to breathe. I’m like the easy-going teacher in school in whose class the kids riot and let off steam (which they did when I was teaching at The Doon School). But Rupa doesn’t riot.

On her own terms

Sometimes, after the work is done, she hangs around for an hour chatting about this and that, both of us sipping on small cups of sugary black tea. We make conversation about day-to-day life, cricket, film stars and Arvind Kejriwal, whom she voted for. When I call her ‘yaar’, she jokingly reminds me that she’s three years older to me and that I should show her some respect.

Rupa makes her own rules and lives by them. I don’t have a choice in the matter. One self-made rule she’s followed with military discipline, is that of taking all public holidays off.

Over nine years, I’ve noticed that this coincides with the official list of dry days in Delhi, twenty-eight in all. She gives equal precedence to Independence Day, Bakr-Id, Christmas, Pujo (ten day break; Rupa’s Bengali) and Jhooley Lal Jayanti. All Sundays are off.

Both of us are single in a society that values marriage above all else

We can take pleasure in this relationship as absolute equals because of common temperaments, but also because we’re both outsiders in a way. Both of us are single in a society that values marriage above all else. The fact that, as a freelance writer, I’m always short on money brings us together even more. My ‘poverty’ doesn’t even begin to compare with hers, but the fact that I’m not some loaded brat provides the glue of sympathy.

She works for me out of affection. She says that after I leave, she won’t work in the house anymore. Time has come for her to retire. Her back gives her too much trouble. She says she has saved enough to take care of her sunset years.

Until that happens, she’s happy to help me out. The other day she called me – she’d come, done her chores and left, while I slept till late (she has the duplicate keys to the house). Rupa called and said: ‘Bhaiya aapki jeans mein kuch pot tha. Voh maine bahar valey kamre mein lamp ke neeche rakh diya hai.” (I found some pot in your jeans pocket. I’ve kept it under the lamp in the outside room.’

Viva, Rupa.


(The writer is a social commentator and the author of Eunuch Park & The Butterfly Generation)

First published: 26 July 2017, 15:51 IST