Maid in India – a new book

Maid unnamed (1)in India by Tripti Lahiri, Aleph

Rs 599/

Review by Anjana Basu

The situation of the Indian domestic is an awkward one. Maids from the Eastern regions are in demand in the more affluent parts of India, but the average Indian employer has no notion of how to behave with a domestic in a 21st  century world. The concept of domesticity has been part and parcel of life since the days of the landowners and their great houses, though before that, of course, there were the slaves who worked to build the Pyramids and other similar labourers. In the West domestic workers were gradually phased out and apartments that could be self-serviced were built.

Indian homes, however, remain different. They have stone or marble floors resistant to vacuum cleaners, they are plagued by dust and grocery shopping still necessitates sending someone to haggle for fresh produce in slushy markets stepping over fish scales. Add to that the fact that the difference between the haves and have-nots is vast in cities like Delhi.

Journalist Tripti Lahiri takes Delhi as her base and narrates the different stories of the maids who go there to work. The main issue she writes is the treatment meted out by the employer. Maids who are sent by go-betweens may or may not strike it lucky and there is always an undercurrent of domestic abuse. Many employers think that they have a right to physically ill-treat those who work for them because the women come from a different social circumstance. Because of the demand, Delhi has a formal maid’s agency called The Maids Company where the women who apply are put through formal training sessions and after the training is completed are introduced to prospective employers in a two-way interview process.

Lahiri points out factors that persist even though the days of democracy are supposedly in force. The domestic usually sits on the floor while the employer has the comfort of a chair or sofa – to be fair of course, most village folk are used to squatting on the ground while urban dwellers have lost the habit entirely. Lahiri follows the lives of many of those professionally trained. At one point there was a demand to raise salaries and give the maids a day off – that demand fell through simply because while it might have worked for those who held high powered jobs in the capital, others across the country simply could not afford it.

A maid’s salary can stretch from Rs 2,000 to Rs 10,000 or beyond, depending on who she works for. In most cases they are treated as the outsiders and in case of a theft, or a murder, domestics are the first to be accused. Their rooms are cramped, especially in the new apartment buildings and quite often food is dealt out to them and they are expected to eat after their employers have finished dining. Lahiri tells the stories of  how Fullin from Athgama in rural Jharkhand, Lovely from a tiny neighbourhood in Bengal’s Malda, Mae from Kokrajhar and a Santhali girl from Annabiri, in the heart of Maoist country—find themselves in the nation’s most powerful city, working for its richest people. Of course, they are lucky – many other girls promised dream jobs find themselves in the hands of traffickers.

The anecdotes in this book are a mix of dashed hopes and opportunity – Lahiri’s employers cover tycoons and politicians as well as everyday people, though everyday employers are not so exciting. It is the difference between the refugee and the tycoon seen at close quarters that makes the story. Once upon a time the rules for the memsahib and the maid were clearly set out and understood. Today there is a crossover happening – domestics are encouraging their children to move up in the social sphere by finding white-collar jobs – and the rules are no longer so clear. There are maids who will refuse to work for Indians, find ex-pats more reasonable and generous.  There are also employers with consciences experimenting with different ways to employ – through the division of labour in a few cases.

Lahiri tells her stories with a journalist’s flair but has no clear cut solutions to the issue. Though she has chosen Delhi because that is the one place where the maid’s uncertain role in society is best highlighted and where experiments may lead to a new order.