On domesticity and dependence

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.

31 thoughts on “On domesticity and dependence

  1. Pingback: Where crazy meets awesome | hAAthi

  2. shweta

    Oh god! Maid woes everywhere!!! My maid of 5 years left recently. After mourning for one month and feeling like my life has come to an end, I’ve also realised that I can be much more efficient without her… I finish up chores so much faster and the house is also much cleaner.. I’ve also realised that no matter how well we treat them, sadly they don’t reciprocate the same feelings…


  3. akshay

    I’m the maid in my house. Or the domestic help, if you will. Cooking, laundry, the dishes, the odd bit of vacuuming, all done everyday. I tend to find it relaxing, for some reason. But then again, my standards for vacuuming and dusting aren’t terribly high.

    My mum seems to have good domestic help karma. She’s always lucked out, from what I can tell.

    Hows Shantha Auntie?


  4. oh.. you just have to know what happened today…After all the adjustments we have been making for her, today when the husband returned home at 7 30 AM (he’d been at work since 7 AM yesterday.. and pulled an all-nighter as well ) and I had left for class, she had the gall to tell him ” Bega banni.. wait madtiddini” in a less than courteous tone because he had to ask to wait for ten minutes until he came back. After that she refused to do the dishes because ” there are not too many and she could finish it tomorrow”

    Until yesterday it was mere contemplation. Today, we decided to send her off. :| We just had the talk.

    Too much, no?


  5. mahabore

    My mother’s and wife’s woes with domestic help are never ending tales which don’t have anything pleasant in them at all. While some of them are good at work but extremely irregular, the others are regular but suck at work. This seems to be the story all over town, at least in Bangalore for sure. I therefore could completely relate to this post :)


  6. R

    Dude! Chumma like that I am posting comment (since I already blabbed off what I thought, on mail) :D
    Here’s to you finding the independence that works for you (much as I think the idea of total independence from the house helps is a good one for everyone involved, on a daily basis, I know how tiring it gets).


      1. I’m going to be the devil’s advocate here. But before that, the disclaimer: I understand where you’re coming from, and I completely agree that you’ve been very kind and considerate towards your help. I also think people and employers are absolutely justified in not putting up with tardiness, unprofessional behavior, or frequent absences, and that’s not what I’m commenting on. I’m not going to talk about you or your help at all. I’ll talk about actual situations from my own life. (Aside: I was actually picturing Romney in my head while writing that last comment and now that moment is gone so the effect won’t be the same!)

        In my line of work, I get a new manager and a lot of new colleagues with every project. Some of these are people I consider my friends, and many more are people I consider colleagues but not friends. They’re all nice folks, very professional, hard-working, considerate and helpful. Still, not friends. It just never happened. We didn’t have that ‘connection’ or I couldn’t relate to them or I simply didn’t have the energy to take on one more friend. That’s right, I, in spite of my comfortable job, in spite of the fact that I spend more nights in a year sleeping in hotel rooms than my own place and therefore have hardly any chores to do, didn’t have the energy it took to initiate or maintain one more relationship. I don’t expect to be penalized for that or have it held against me. Even if these people were to shower me with even more kindness and consideration, they might never become my friends. I’ll think of them as kind and considerate people. I don’t necessarily have to befriend every kind and considerate person I work with or for.

        There are times when even before a project starts, even before I’ve met the new team, I’ve already made up my mind about not making any new friends. Like the project I’m going to start on Monday. A completely new team for me, but I’ve heard great things from other friends of mine who’ve worked with them. Yet, I have no inclination to be friends with anyone there, which in consulting translates to long dinners and drinks at the hotel lounge each night. Because I’m going to be swamped with my school applications and that’s more important to me. I’ve also noticed I tend to take on more work or spend more time helping others when I think of them as friends. It’s not like saying no is harder, it doesn’t OCCUR to me to say no because I think of this person as a friend. Not that it goes unnoticed. It makes its way to that project’s performance review and in whatever small amount to my raise at the end of the year. Still, I’m happy to not get that mention on my file or those extra bucks in my raise cos my school apps are more important. When I was going through my divorce, my sanity was more important. My goal is to go in, get the job done, and get the hell out of there. It’s not to take initiative, not to get great reviews, not to cultivate lasting friendships, but just earn my paycheck. The quality of my work is still very high, but I’m not going above and beyond, just sticking to the job description. I feel like I should be able to get away with it. I shouldn’t have to justify it. I should be able to get an Average rating next year and no raise and not have it look like something I need to explain. And that’s the stance of a person far more privileged than your domestic help. I don’t have kids to raise, I don’t have chores to do (on most days), I don’t have to worry about money, and I’m treated like an equal in the circles I hang out in.

        Except when I’m not. By people outside of those circles. I’m taking the example of Mitt Romney because he has about as much class privilege compared to me as I do compared to your help. If he were to suggest that he and I be friends, I’d flat out say no thank you. He didn’t win the presidential election, and I’ve never even visited MA so it’s not like he’s failed me as a policymaker or senator or governor. But being my friend would require having a basic understanding of how I live my life, which he’s never had to live for one day. In my head, I’d say “What nerve!”

        For him to nod along and say “I understand” when I talk about how rough a day I’ve had would be to pretend that he has ANY IDEA wtf I’m talking about, that the societal forces that make him the 1% and me the 99% do not exist. It would be like invalidating the privileges he’s always enjoyed and always will, that I can only dream about. It would be like minimizing the effort I’ve put in to overcome obstacles and hurdles that he doesn’t even know exist. It would be like pretending that the same opportunities that he’s always taken for granted have always been available to me.

        It’s not his fault that he was born into that much privilege. But by the same token, it’s not my fault that I was born without it. Yet, structural imbalances ensure that he continues to benefit at my cost and at the cost of others like me, and I don’t see him giving that up. He didn’t create those imbalances, he didn’t create the forces of oppression and privilege, so logically, it makes no sense. I should be willing to become friends with him. But what would such a friendship be like? Would we have coffee together? Sure. Meaningful conversations? Sure. Would he invite me to a party at his house? I’m not too sure. Would he talk to his other friends about the new friend they absolutely must meet, for he’s sure we’ll get along like a house on fire? Positively not. If I get into a relationship with his younger sibling or one of his sons, he probably wouldn’t be too thrilled about that either. If I got engaged to one of them, I’m sure all hell would break loose. So then how are we friends, since it’s clear that we couldn’t possibly be equals? I would any day choose to not enter this “sort of like friend/family, but not exactly equal” arrangement, and that’s my prerogative.

        If he’s hurt by that, I’d say – Sorry about your hurt fee-fees (feelings), I’m sure this is all very hard for you – with biting sarcasm. He might have a grand sense of entitlement about everything else, but he’s not entitled to my friendship. I might not have been born into a lot of privilege, but the privilege to decide whether or not I want to accept a proposal of friendship, for whatever reason, is something I feel absolutely entitled to.


        1. But but but I wasn’t trying to be her friend. I know you said the Romney story/your story wasn’t directly linked to the help situation here, but maybe they are related in the parallels you have drawn. And based on that I have to say there is a HUGE difference between your working situation and the average situation of domestic help in India. Secondly, you perform a specialised skill, there are a dozen maids available for every one that slacks off and gets fired around here. They might not all be the best available, but there are that many to go around. WHich is why I find it ridiculous that people haven’t already taught themselves to be accountable/responsible for the jobs they have been assigned, for fear of losing their job and being easily replaced.

          My issue is not with her refuaing my help or my “friendship”. It is merely with her complete inability to 1) do the bare minimum that is expected of her, without being late too often, without having to be policed over all the time, without taking the concessions she has already been given for granted. If you in your work scenario did all/any of these things I’m pretty sure you’d be ticked off for it, whether you were friends with your superiors or not, right?

          While my feelings weren’t terribly hurt, I have to say, I was disappointed by the fact that she didn’t even seem to acknowledge that she was getting a pretty good deal working in a home where I didn’t really bother her too much about the way she worked, where I worked my way around all her various inadequacies and issues before I decided it wasn’t working, and the fact that she actually had a decent pay (plus perks — extra money/cothes for Ganesh Chaturti/Dussehra AND Diwali — and advance payment) for someone who really didn’t live up to her end of the commitment at all. It obviously meant squat to her.


          1. Oh there’s no excuse for tardiness or unprofessional behavior or sub-standard work, like I said in the disclaimer. I wasn’t addressing that part of it at all in the comments. You are obviously well within your rights to fire her for whatever reason, but your specific reasons for firing her here would have gotten anyone fired, in any profession. Or at least reprimanded. I agree there’s a huge difference between my situation and hers, but isn’t that what we’re looking to change? I also know that they are easily replaceable, and that’s why there’s the concept of minimum wage over here. I don’t know if it will ever be introduced in India, but I hunk it makes total sense: the idea that everyone should get a living wage, that having a high supply of replacements shouldn’t drive their wages down below a point. It’s very low, but it’s something. The reason I didn’t draw any parallels was that you obviously know your situation and hers better than I do. It’s not my place to draw parallels; it’s up to you to consider if any part of my argument applies to this situation. I mentioned the Romney thing because I had actually told a friend once that he was too damn priveged to run for president. When she asked why, I’d said because he’s too privileged to even be my friend, even though as a friend he won’t be making decisions that affect my life in such a big way. Everything I wrote here is stuff I’d thought of back then. I thought it might be of some relevance here because of the difference in class privilege. And I have a much better shot at marrying a Romney than the average domestic helper in India does at marrying someone in their employer’s home. My point was that they know they’re not exactly equals, even if their employer wants more than an employer-employee relationship. If they’re not up for that, like I wouldn’t be as I mentioned, I wouldn’t be surprised. And they have way more reason than I do for wanting to get the job done and get the hell out without forming any sort of relationship with the people they work with/for. Yes, their situation is different than mine, they’re easily replaceable, that’s why they earn as little money as they do. That’s why they’re so stretched. I’m not completely inboard with the idea that they must stretch themselves further because they’re replaceable. As employees our situations might be very different, but as people we all have the prerogative to decide whether or not we want to establish a bond with someone.


            1. I think even the difference between the haves and havenots is much much wider here than it is there. So thats the reason why i felt the situations cannot be compared at all. Your arguements are mostly valid but i dont feel that too many apply here. Must exchange an email over this! Sooo many thoughts. Plus its been a while since we talked :)


  7. I didn’t have help when I wasn’t a mother, but once two kids came into the equation, it was just not possible to do without.

    Thankfully, I have a wonderful nanny/housekeeper and I am never one of those people complaining about the help :)


  8. It’s weird – because I’ve never LIVED in India – the idea of domestic help is foreign to me. My sister and I used to do all the chores divided up between us while we were living at home (no matter how much we grumbled which is a great feat in itself because what teenager/young adult wants to spend their time vacuuming or cleaning bathrooms?) because it was made to realise that it was OUR house too. The same goes for my brother who lives at home still. I never realised how big a job it is until I got a home of my own. I’ve been lucky to have a husband who is more anal about cleaning the house than me (seriously – borderline OCD to dish-washing. But that’s ok because I hate washing the dishes) and we have our own chores between us too. I’d LOVE to have domestic help now – because there are days where I just cannot find the time/energy to devote to the house. And honestly, it also comes way down the list of priorities for me. A lot of my friends in my mothers group back in Melbourne have a cleaner that comes once a week and that works for them.

    That being said, I know for me and you it’s a privilege, but there is also the thing that not spending time on things in our life that don’t make us happy. And if we can afford to outsource some of that so that we can spend more time on the things that do, I don’t think we should feel guilty about it. I hope you do find a solution too.


    1. I think thats also the issue for me. Though we always had house help, my sister and I have also grown up in a home where though there was always someone to dust, sweep, mop, do the dishes, we didn’t have the help waiting on it. We were expected to clean up after us, keep our rooms tidy, fold dry laundry (sometimes do it too), help in the kitchen and the works.. I think thats why I find it much easier to get in and do something my way, than order someone around and depend on them to do it. In this case, the maid was driving me a bit batty with her erratic ways and rather than keep her, train her, and get her to work my way, I seem to be doing alright just doing things on my own now. Really, the house also looks and feels much nicer now.

      I dont even have babies as yet, btu I know that the moment there is a spike in my work, this luxury of spending two hours a day cleaning up and the like is going to be hard to make. Also, it is bloody tiring, which is why I am willing to pay well and feel grateful that I can have someone do it for me.


  9. I don’t have permanent help either. I mostly do everything myself unless I’ve just had a party and the place looks like a tornado blew through it. We have temp maid services here, you can hire them by the hour and it’s very convenient cos they come for that much time, do the work and go their way.


  10. Well, I don’t have any help and I just manage fine.. Dinner, lunch, Marathon Training, breakfast, utensils washing, cleaning.. We have a family of 2 and both of us chip in..
    I was abroad for a long time and never had any help there so never got in to the hassle of finding one after relocating..
    I think its a great feeling to be independent.. Be in charge of your life and mess :)


    1. That is SO awesome and refreshing to hear. It is entirely possible as I have discovered, and a very liberating kind of independence. So far I have managed without feeling the heat too much. Lets see how long it stays :)


  11. I am going through something very similar : my help turns up at different times each day and when we ask why she is late , she just smiles in reply. Most days I do most of my chores myself (washing dishes/ mopping/ etc ) because she comes bang when the husband is about to leave for work. She works at a beauty parlour too so I know she cannot be late there , so I let her go. But what about my/ my husband’s work? I ‘m thinking of going help less (Pun very much intended!). When we wash our plates after lunch/ dinner and after cooking, there’s isn’t a lot enough and like you say, it’s nice to wake up to clean dishes (which doesn’t happen when we have help bcos we leave them for her to do ) and a neat home. I am extremely uncomfortable giving orders too, so I keep nagging my husband to do it… so now he’s officially quit. :)

    Let’s hope we manage!!! Hehe…


    1. OMG that is TOTALLY ME!!! My maid would come in any time she liked, when she figured I worked from home and was techincally mostly around. But since I hate having the dishes lying around till noon, and some times post noon, i’d do it all myself, and she didnt seem to mind. That and several other concessions, which I managed because like you, I figured Im the one that can adjust, the other home she works in has a couple that works so she has to go there before they leave for work. It doesnt help to constantly be the one to make these adjustments. And no amount of telling her nicely helped me. She didnt seem to mind/care..

      I am currently help-less, but not helpless hahaha.. I dont want this to be my permanent situation, because its nice to have the helping hand to take the load off. Its okay for now because work is not hectic at the moment and Im off from my gym routine for the rest of the week. Once both pick up, I will be really stretched for time and thats when I’ll need help. Hoping I find a solution soon! And you do too.


  12. Meera Parameswaran

    I had solemnly swore to myself never to keep a house help when I saw my mother struggling with them during my growing up years. I truly believe in being self sufficient and that my house looks its best when I have my hands all over it :)


  13. Not just domestic help, many people who are good at their work tend to be highly inconsiderate towards their employers, especially when the employer treats them better than most other employers do. They should be checked early on, even at the risk of their quitting. Whatever the situation, one must have the ability to live without them.


    1. I wouldnt go so far as to generalise, but I am beginning to realise the need for balance. I went overboard being nice to the previous maid I had, and she wasnt even a good worker. This one, like I said, was a good worker but had a bad attitude, in my opinion. Im glad I could nip it in the bud before she got too comfortable and I was taken even more for granted


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