Some time last week, after a rather tense month with the new maid (who was just three months old into the job), and a string of events that caused me considerable discomfort and irritation, the last straw snapped when I realised there are basically two kinds of people in the world. Considerate ones and inconsiderate ones. And my patience for inconsiderate people is fading so fast, I have now turned into the person who can sever ties before I can say whatjusthappened.
Remember when I wrote about the trouble my old maid would give me? She was a slacker, but at heart, she was considerate. She genuinely cared for my well-being, and understood that I cared as much about her too. She still calls on me now and then, asking how the husband and I are doing and offers her services every single time. But here’s the irony. The new maid, though extremely hygienic and rather good at her job was, as I recently discovered much to my disappointment, completely inconsiderate.
I kept telling myself to focus on her work, because it’s what mattered the most. So I’d tolerate her 839 cribs, 864 weird quirks and the 522 times that she tested my patience to levels I didn’t know I could go. I said I must be pragmatic, focus on what I am paying her for, be as transactional about our relationship as she was. I was paying her for the work she did, and nothing else should matter. But I realised very quickly that I do not function like that.
I value a smiling, chirpy person as much as I value someone who will dust the window sills without being my pointing it out. I am happier with house help I can treat like family, have conversations with and have a relationship based on mutual respect, rather than one that teeters on the unequal balance that separates the haves from the have-nots. And that’s what the issue with current house-help was.
I don’t know enough about her history, or past experience working elsewhere, but it was becoming increasingly obvious to me that she has been treated badly in the past, worked in plush, big homes and constantly feeling the pinch of several basic things she could not have. In the few conversations I did have with her, in moments when she would let her guard down and reveal details, I found out that her family of four lived in a small room, with a single ventilator for a window. They do not have a refrigerator. They still burn wood and paper to warm water with which to bathe. Despite that, she was determined to keep working enough to send her daughters to school. I appreciated her determination, and hardwork and told her I’d help in whatever way I could.
I tried hard to build a bond with her, like I am used to doing with house help. I have grown up in a home where they quickly become one of us, living with us, just the way a guest or a relative or friend would. I did it through conversations, I was empathetic, I did it through gestures, I even tried telling her plain and simply that I was not interested in exploiting her. In the three months that she was here, I lent her a significant amount of money, twice over without expecting it to be returned. Every single time that she fell ill (and it happened a lot), I was around, doling out pills, giving her days off, knocking off chores that I knew could wait till she was better, or just pitching in and doing it myself. One day, when she was especially bad, I recommended her to a GP, told her not to waste her time and energy at the government hospital, paid for her medication and bought her multi-vitamins that she claimed were too expensive for her to depend on. I know money doesn’t buy relationships, but surely the effort ought to have shown that I wasn’t out to get her. But try as I did, I could not get her to shed her perception of me being just another inconsiderate employer. The minute we’d make some head-way she would retreat back into her guarded shell, the one behind which she probably felt safe from exploitative employers.
The flip-side of that was that many of her actions were grossly inconsiderate. She would often behave in ways that irked me, and made me notice that she really didn’t care much for me and my home, as much as I did about her and her well-being. I was constantly making adjustments to accommodate her wildly swinging moods, her erratic schedules, her sickly self and everything else, under the pretext of trying to build bridges with her. But it really made no difference to her, because when it came to making a concession just once, the day before Diwali, when I asked for some extra time to help me clean up in time for the festival, she flatly refused. For some reason, after a month of testing my patience, gritting my teeth and pushing myself to make do, that was the last straw. It snapped and I politely told her this arrangement wasn’t working for me.
She possessed a sense of entitlement, and believed that I depended on her much more than she depended on me and probably wasn’t expecting me to ask her to stop coming in so easily. But it is precisely what made me discontinue her employment as easily as I took her into my home. When I had the conversation and shut the door, I panicked for a moment. I felt a bit paralysed thinking about adding in a pile of dishes, laundry, sweeping and mopping the house in addition to my already bursting-at-the-seams day. I felt dizzy thinking about squeezing it all in, amidst my assignments, gym time and baking.
But one week later, I am doing okay. Of course it’s easier said and done since this is a fairly small household of two people and I am anal to begin with, so there is never really that much to tidy up anyway. But it made me realise that this issue of domestic help is such an unnecessarily swollen one in Indian homes. We have come to feel completely incapacitated by the lack of house help. Is it possible that we depend so blindly and wholeheartedly on domestic help that somewhere we have forgotten how independent we can really be?
The first couple of days were hard, I struggled to make time for it all, and a couple of things had me frustrated and in a bad mood. But I figured out a schedule to fit it in. Alternating important chores across the week, slotting them in between my cooking and working time, and it seems to work. You know what’s better? It’s actually liberating. I don’t have to be house-bound waiting for the house help to show up and take her time doing the chores. I am quicker, evidently because I managed to knock off the same list of tasks in lesser time, and my house hasn’t looked this clean since I moved in. It’s nice to be able to wake up to a clean house, the dishes done the previous night and a fresh and nice smelling kitchen to walk into. It’s also wonder to have the flexibility to do the chores as I wish, when I wish. Basically, I’m back in charge. There is nobody to depend on but me. And sometimes VC haha.
I’ve always been grossly uncomfortable with the use of the word servant, when talking about domestic help. Because it implies an unequal distribution of power. As soon as I was old enough to understand the implications of the word, it seems too heavy and loaded a term to throw about and casually tag all those wonderful people who offer their services, often involving arduous labour and effort, to make our lives easier. I find the word maid also uncomfortable, but slightly less derogatory. I also never understood what the big deal about having domestic help versus not having it, was. I remember going to an aerobics class when I lived in Bangalore, where I was the only unmarried girl, with no domestic woes to worry about. The aunties around me seemed to be in a constant “maid-servant” trap. Discussing maid-servant habits, maid-servant psyches, maid-servant issues, maid-servant blessings and the like, all with equal dramatic gusto. I remember thinking then that I didn’t get it, and hoping that I never found myself in a similar place in life, where every conversation I have revolves around domestic help woes. Yet, 7 odd years down the line, here I am. Maid-less, sans domestic help, all on my own with a house to tend to. And suddenly I realise now. It is a boon to have help. But it is only as useful as you want and allow it to be. The line between what is necessary and what becomes mandatory is a thin one.
While I am patiently waiting for a replacement who will hopefully be hygienic and dependable and considerate, I think it’s good to go off all help every now and then, to remind myself what dependence really is, and how much of it is required. I can and must know how to manage without help too and I hope that I never turn into the kind of person whose entire world can come crashing down because the house help decided not to show up.