The people who work for us

Everyone from certain sections of Indian society has had domestic help. They scrub floors and wash everything from vessels to curtains to floors to toilets to baby’s bottoms. Countless Indian girls have had their domestic maids check their heads for lice. They throw our trash bags spilling over with diapers and worse daily on their way out. They take with them leftover food that is grudgingly packed in the most disposable of plastic bags, because giving them a container is unheard of. They take home your children’s broken toys, your faded old clothes, that plastic chair no one in your home will sit in, that bag of rice spotted with insects that’s been neglected in your kitchen for ages, those bananas you bought last week and forgot to eat.

I know what some of you are thinking. Surely the Indian middle class isn’t this rotten? What about the rest? Most of us are middle-class, and we give them new clothes for Diwali, don’t we? We give them loans and salary advances, don’t we? We pay part of their childrens school fees, don’t we? Oh yes. We do. But we also do those other things.

Our children use their first names to address domestic help. Forget honorifics, it is not normal or common to see a middle-class family member address or treat domestic help with too much respect. What is this “too much respect”? This is a line I cannot describe to you, but by the time a child reaches a certain age, imbibes a certain awareness; it knows that calling the gardener by his name is okay, but calling the postman is not. Later it learns that calling your neighbors ‘sir’ is okay, but calling a postman this way is not. These things are absorbed into our very skins. Steep in this long enough, and you will never wash it off. And why should you? Everyone around you, everyone you’ve heard of and mingle with, has a similar experience. To be normal, all we really need to do is be like everyone else. Tell me, what could be easier?

I grew up with domestic help too. My family is firmly middle class. Our domestic help, a man and his wife, had been working for us for decades by the time I was born. This man saw my dad as a gangly growing teenager, saw and spoke to my grandad who passed away too, too early, watched my dad grow up, marry my then-shy mother, witness the births of all the children in the family, you get the idea. This is not common, but it happens. Of course it does. So I had the unique experience of being insulated from the all-too-common prejudice that I wrote about earlier. For this unasked-for, unknown-at-the-time blessing, I will always be grateful. By the time I came along, this man and his family were a part of our family. He doesn’t work for us anymore, he’s too old. My dad visits him every month and gives him his “pension” and some food and enquires after him. When he met the H for the first time, he cupped the H’s face in his and told my delighted, if confused husband “You’re dark!” He squinted into the H’s face and shouted in that voice of the nearly deaf, “Take care of her”

This slice of family history is to explain better where I am coming from. By no means is a single person’s experience representative of anything but what it is: a single person’s singular experience. Especially if that person has anything to do with India, it is best to steer clear of generalization. I know my experience is very, very far from the norm.

And what is the “norm”? Every day, there are thousands upon thousands of people who shuffle to other’s homes, leaving their own kitchens unwarmed by food, their own children untended. They clean the entrance of our houses, they paint the customary floor painting, they sweep and mop our floors, clean our bathrooms, walk our kids to school, some cook for us, pick up after us and fill the next few hours doing the countless things that make a home what it is. Things that seem so trivial, so petty when listed singly, but a few days without which all our expensive homes would begin to crack.

This is not a problem endemic to India alone, I know. If you have a population that has “cheap labor”, soon you will have people who cannot throw out their own trash. I worked for a company that employed three thousand people to do this kind of thing in its sprawling campus. It made me ill sometimes to see over-entitled yuppies leave their cafeteria tables littered with food and cups and plates, knowing full well a uniformed worker will clean up after them. These three thousand people saw us, every day, dressed sharply, mannered shabbily, traipsing through the campus, clicking away on our phones, walking amidst them as if they didn’t exist, earning salaries wildly inappropriate to the work we sometimes did (not), traveling abroad, driving cars. Cutting birthday cakes worth more than one day’s wage and smearing it on skin, taking so many photos of such and other mindlessness that no one would see more than once, if that. They were silent witnesses to this kind of waste every single day. What about them? Some of them were no older than us, yet they would never advance in their jobs the way we would. They wouldn’t get a severance package. They don’t get pensions. They don’t get promotions. What do they get? Uniforms. They get used as a tool for the company’s “Sustainability initiatives” or “Community giving” where the corporation pats its own back at hiring thousands of local people.

So many things bother me about how domestic help is treated, but one struck home yesterday. I am in India, enjoying the total luxury that not ironing your clothes entails. Last afternoon a man knocked on our door, I was told by the in-laws this is the person who irons their clothes. I counted and handed over a bag of clothes to him, a short middle aged man, surely with children. He smiled, was so deferent, dipped his head again and again and yess-ed every line I said. It hit me then, how unused I am to being treated this way after being out of India. Unsettling. It feels wrong to me that this person has to bend lower each time and thank me for giving him work, while actually he is the one who is doing me a good turn. Sure, I will pay him for it. But that’s business. You iron. I pay. Why the excess deference? The bowing, the calling me madam? He probably has a daughter my age. The whole thing left me feeling uneasy and not a little sad.

This is my biggest problem with domestic labor: this extra deference. This unasked for, unearned respect for employers that is thoughtlessly given away. In an Indian setting, the added layers of caste, class, religion, skin color and a myriad other ways of separating people contribute to the problem of oppression. Similarly, the otherness of our domestic help spawns another system of difference, a hierarchy that even subsequent generations cannot escape. One group grows up expecting reverence, the other grows up seeing this and are beaten down into doing the same. There is no escape, there is no salvation.

If you employ somebody, do not expect respect from them you have not earned. Give them their due, the due that they have not sacrificed in working for you.