The first time I noticed that the order of the world was truly out of whack, was when my friend told me she cleaned her house before the maid came to clean, “So she doesn’t freak out if it’s too dirty.” It left me rather bemused. The definition of an employee is someone who does specific work for you at a given price, or so I always thought. The Indian maid, however, is an altogether different creature. The relationship between a maid and her employer is a tenuous and delicate thing that has far more to do with moods than with money.
In the West, only a particular wealthy cross-section can afford to employ ‘help’. That is something you do for strangers or friends, and not for money. In India, there are ‘servants’. Most Indians don’t shy away from the term, although there is hardly anything servile about a maid demanding a raise just when your extended family is flying in for a week. It seems everyone in the city has had some maid misadventure. My latest one was on her second day on the job. I had to wade into the bathroom where a broken tap was spraying a geyser to the ceiling, listening to her insist that ‘she’ didn’t break it, ‘it’ broke. While I was still figuring out how to stanch the flow, she suggested I call her husband, who, by some fortunate and totally unexpected coincidence, was a plumber. Needless to say, she was politely asked to leave, and I took two minutes to rebuild the tap myself.
Maids are as interchangeable as spare parts, and actually don’t seem to mind. In a world that tends to favour super-specialisation, we like to think that we and only we can perform this particular task in the extraordinary way that expresses our unique personality. Which may be partly what astounds us about the casualness with which these working ladies give up and take up jobs. Everyone you see on your street can recommend a maid to you. The best maids you’ll find, however, work for someone whose immaculate house you’ve visited, but there’s an issue of etiquette in asking a friend if you can also employ her maid. There is also a danger in firing too many maids too quickly. It is said that a fussy employer doesn’t get many maids. So one should put up with a strange maid and her infuriating methods of shifting filth from one room to another for at least a few months before firing her. Which is another venture. You can’t tell a maid her work is appalling and she needs to go (although I have, with no side-effects). The preferred manner of breaking off is to claim to be leaving town for some weeks, promise to call her when you return, and just never call her back. Or wait for some inexcusable transgression which, depending on your tolerance, could be sooner or never.
The games maids play are truly mind-boggling. Witness Indira Sakharkar, a sports teacher in Juhu, who stopped her maid as she was departing for the day because she spied, curiously, her own engagement ring on the employee’s hand. The maid insisted innocently that she herself had given it to her earlier that day. The size of the lie is so large it leaves one speechless, but at least the ring was saved. And the maid? Not fired. South Mumbai-based yoga instructor Jyoti Debnath, conversely, knows her maid very well, so well that she can tell when and what she is stealing. And yet, as the maid leaves with her purse in the shape of the stolen item, Mrs Debnath will force a smile and kind word and let her walk out. Why? Because “the maid does good work, I don’t want to lose her.”
What is it about domestic chores that makes people put up with theft and lies? Of course, no one wants to sweep and swab their own floors, wash their own dishes, launder their own clothes. It’s no fun, especially when you have to do it, and especially when it’s every single day. What it also is, is manual labour, and that can reflect on your social status, or at least your perception of it. A spic-and-span house also displays one’s prowess in marshalling cleaning forces to obey your command. Because, let’s face it, there’s ‘clean’ for us and ‘clean’ for them. While we may tolerate a slight degree of slovenliness for ourselves, the outside world cannot be allowed to sense that. The extra cleaning is for their benefit.
Therefore, a maid serves to 1) do the manual work, 2) keep up the shape of the house for you the resident, 3) keep up the appearance of the house for them, the guests, and 4) maintain your image as a kaiser of cleanliness. That’s a hefty package of duties to place on any one person. Which is why a maid may deduce that your need of her services can be leveraged for more money. And may even wonder if you’d dare fire her if she skipped a day or twenty. And may risk slipping a pretty trinket or two into her pocket. I mean, if you knew your boss thought the company would collapse overnight without you, wouldn’t you think you could get away with an extra few days of leave? Maybe negotiate a raise? Insist on your own laptop, a new car, an assistant...?
A maid doesn’t do a very appealing job. It’s tough enough cleaning your own bathroom, not to mention six different households’ bathrooms serving full extended families. And for what? In Mumbai, a month’s domestic chores can be done in Rs 1,200 (Rs 400 per ‘job’: sweeping/swabbing, dishes and clothes). In New York, a maid’s single visit can run you the equivalent of Rs 1,200 per hour. A maid in Mumbai working in six different houses a day would earn Rs 7,200 a month. If Western rates were applied to a Mumbai maid’s work schedule of one hour a day, 30 days a month, it would cost Rs 27,000-41,000 in New York, Rs 21,000-42,000 in London, and Rs 18,000-35,000 in Paris, and for only one house. The fact is that for the work they do, Mumbai maids get paid a pittance.
The real confusion arises when a maid seems not to want the money. From a middle and higher income perspective, a lower income person in the service industry should be on her best behaviour to ensure continued employment. Why, therefore, the unapologetic absenteeism, the lack of accountability, the broken communication? The answer is rather simple, if uncomfortable. A maid is a lower income person in the service industry because she can’t do anything else. Maids lack the education, means and work ethic necessary to do a ‘regular’ job. To expect corporate-style discipline and responsibility from them is to totally miss the point. And a day in their slippers would demotivate anyone in the world.
We’ve all heard stories of maids seducing the men or sons of the house they work in. Dia Srivastava, a suburban housewife in Mumbai, had left her maid at home while she went for groceries, and returned just before her husband was expected back from work, only to find the woman lying on her bed naked and smoking her husband’s cigarettes. We’re also familiar with stories of pregnancy and extortion. Even the rich and famous seem vulnerable to such transgressions. As for me, I am (fortunately) yet to experience the mighty powers of a maid’s seduction in my eight years as an employer, although I hear they are redoubtable. Perhaps they are mightily subtle?
At any rate, maids are emotionally high-strung creatures an employer must be sensitive to, as ad film producer Alpa Khote learnt one day. After expressing her dissatisfaction at the maid’s ability to ignore large patches of dirt in conspicuous corners, the maid burst into tears and wailed, “Why are you torturing me?!” Crocodile tears? I know I can’t ever tell. When the maid goes back to her village, I believe her, but when she’s been ill twice a month ever since she began working, I become suspicious. And guilty of scepticism over another person’s ill health. Would it be too much to suggest that maids tend to play on an employer’s guilt? My aforementioned friend has immersed herself in a complex relationship of guilt and martyrdom, where she must cajole her maid. To get work, she must resort to such guilt-inducing methods as asking, “Shall I touch your feet now to make you do it?” It’s a verbal tool she has refined after decades of experience with maid psychology.
The healthiest employee-maid equation I know of is one forged by Leela Rao, a marketing chief living in Bandra who makes it clear on the first day that this isn’t a talking relationship, and pays the maid daily on a pro rata basis. She says, “Equations with maids become messy when you feel they gyp you for what you’re paying, so the daily wage fixes that. And because it’s not a buddy-buddy relationship, they know you’re not affected by any bizarre behaviour. Above that, if they misbehave it’s totally because they’ve got personal issues. You just have to be prepared to let go anyone at any moment.” Which sounds fair. I’ve also heard of someone who hired a five-star hotel staffer (male, too—a heresy!) to work part-time at his place, which is rather smart, although the man-maid worked at a five-star rate of Rs 3,000 a month to clean thrice a week.
But who wants an efficient and self-effacing maid? Not very many people, I realise. There would be no scope for domestic drama, and no maid stories to swap with other disgruntled employers over lattes. Mumbai would lose one of its enduring symbols, because idiosyncrasies aside, they’re tough, proud, and go out and do their jobs (almost) every single day. But let’s face it: idiosyncrasies make life a little more interesting and lot less predictable, if not… quite… as clean as you’d like.