In India, servants and masters form strands of an inter-dependent and complicated social fabric. One simply cannot exist without the other. In the west, while race is a constant topic of discussion, In India, caste is that topic of discussion. People casually evoke caste to identify people and effortlessly discriminate.
Class, however is never discussed. It’s assumed.
The undertones of class can be sensed in everyday conversations. You don’t even have to read between the lines.
The very word, ‘servant’ makes me cringe. It implies there’s a master. It makes me cringe even further to know that I am one of those masters. So, I’ll refrain from using such references. I’ll refer to the staff by their name or their profession – cook, cleaner, driver, nanny, watchman, etc.
First, allow me to tell my story, and then I will add some commentary.
For the past few days, we have been looking for some additional help for cooking dinner and cleaning our house. My dear aunt who is also our neighbor, went out of her way to find help for us. The first reference, Raju, came with high recommendation. But, even after Raju’s promise to meet with us, and after many phone calls, he was a no show. In India, I later realized, “yes” usually means a “no.”
Few days passed. The next reference was Suresh who is supposedly a great cook and cooks for Germans and Americans who live in the neighborhood. No show. Again.
My aunt is not just persistent, but also resourceful. She spoke with her former cook, Nina, who happened to know of a relative, a young woman, Sharada who had recently moved with her husband and two young children to Madras. Sharada and her family had relocated from Nepal to south India where language, culture, food, and pretty much everything else is foreign to them. Yet, they gave up their roots for opportunities, probably not comprehending the potential transformation of their own identity.
On a Monday evening, Nina, Sharada, and my aunt arrived at our house. Sharada is a tall woman. She was dressed in a neat salvar kameez, and had kumkum applied unevenly on her forehead, right where her hair was parted. She appeared religious. My wife, my mother, my aunt, and I were sitting on the couch while Sharada and Nina were standing in front of us. An intimidating panel interview for anyone. I wanted to ask them to sit down, but I didn’t want to disrupt the social order. Only later, did I have the courage and the sense to ask myself,
Who cares if social order is disrupted in order to save human dignity?
Sharada was silent and appeared nervous. Nina did most of the talking. I tried to put Sharada at ease by asking her about her young children. After discussing what she can cook and if she can clean, they told us, Sharada will return the next evening to try the job for a week. The next evening, I received a call from my aunt letting me know that Sharada backed out. The reason was that she was nervous about her first job. Why am I not surprised?
After yet another no-show, my aunt’s current cook, Shanthi, another Nepalese woman who spoke fluent Tamil, recommended Ikinder. Perhaps, the fourth time would be the charm. This time around, during the interview, I offered two chairs for Ikinder and Shanthi to sit down. They were surprised that we would offer them a seat. A seat! They laughed and gestured “It’s OK,” and stood.
The fourth time was indeed the charm. It all worked out and Ikinder agreed to help us with cleaning and cooking every other evening. There was no bargaining. He asked for four-thousand rupees a month (sixty US dollars) and I agreed. For the last few days, he has made some delicious meals and appears to be efficient with his cleaning. I can only hope he stays.
A monthly salary of sixty dollars, even for a part-time job is not a whole lot of money. Of course, the economics, cost of labor and cost of living are different in every place. However, I cannot overlook the fact that I sometimes spend that kind of money on a single dinner, or on ten cushion covers, even here in India. Life isn’t fair and it is what it is, but still makes me pause and reflect.
My mother, a working professional, a doctor no less, raised me, but couldn’t have done it without help. The women who helped raise my sister and me lived in our house, ate whatever was leftover, and watched the same programs on TV as we did. They were loyal guardians of our home and I can’t recall a single incident of abuse or theft. More than thirty years later, my father who has been diagnosed with Alzheimers, needs attention the same way my sister and I needed when we were children. Though he is self-sufficient for the most part, he needs physical help, but more importantly trusted help. My mother has done a phenomenal job of securing trusted, stable, and loyal help. This is important. Home staff can be flaky if you don’t take good care of them. If you are used to a cook and a driver, and if they just leave, your life gets disrupted. And for my seventy year old mother, who is running this household almost entirely by herself, if the staff doesn’t show for a few weeks, it becomes extremely challenging.
In India, we have quite a number of staff ‘types.’ There’s a cook who feeds you, a driver who drives you places in an air-conditioned bubble, a top-servant who mops the floor and washes your dishes, a watchman who provides security for your house, a dhobi who washes your clothes, and a nanny who takes care of your children. What I often find missing is explicit gratitude for all that they do for us. We almost never say thank you to them. We take them for granted. They seem to exist just to serve.
Our driver, Kannan, has been with our family for eighteen years. I moved out of my parents’ house about ten years before Kannan joined us, and I find that Kannan sometimes knows more about my father than I do. It’s not a bad thing or a sad thing. It just is.
Kannan’s life story is inspiring. More than twenty years ago, he lost his brother to alcohol. Kannan took it upon himself to take care of his widowed sister-in-law and her two young children. The children are all grown up now. One of them is working in animation and the other one is an engineer. He never married. He dedicated his life to two causes – his family and mine. Kannan knows my entire family – over a hundred of them. He didn’t know them because he spent time with them, but because he cared enough. Just two days ago, I learned the names of his nephew and niece – Dinesh and Divya. There’s so little I know about Kannan or anyone who helps us. Dhanam. Selvi. Moses. Shanthi. Aandal. Raghu. Shanmugam. I want to hear their stories. I want to know how they live. How do they celebrate birthdays? How do they mourn deaths? Where do they eat? What do they eat? How do they entertain themselves? What are their friends like? I don’t seem to know anything about them.
Some day, I’ll write nine stories of servitude.