My neighbour’s father-in-law was a little boy when Vishram came from the village to look after him. Over 60 years later, he was baby-sitting the third generation of children in that family. He had welcomed and trained two daughters-in-law. He had helped run a joint family of several members and heaven knows how many unexpected guests for decades. He was their rock, their confidante, their know-it-all. In his old age, when he was ill, he was taken to the hospital and home-made food was sent to him. Medicines were bought and the necessary surgeries undertaken. Till the end of his living days, he was like a family member – somewhat. But when he died, it was his fellow-villagers – migrants like him – who cremated him with the money his present Sheth gave… not grudgingly, but not generously either. At the end of his “tenure”, he was after all an outsider – “a servant”.
A stranger inside our home
Loyalists like Vishram are hard-to-find today. Full-time servants are now getting extinct. It’s the reign of part-time maids in the cities. There are males who do domestic work too, but it’s the bai who is more popular. In many homes, for that hour or two, when she’s at our homes – sweeping, mopping, dusting, tidying, chopping, grinding, grating – she’s a family member. But how many know whether she or her children have a deadly disease? Do we really care? Do we willingly ever give her a paid holiday? If she calls in sick, she’s accused of pretending. If she doesn’t, but stays absent anyway, she’s irresponsible. If she breaks a fragile glass, it’s not by mistake. If she quits our home for another higher paying one, she’s ungrateful.
As long she’s useful to the employer [sigh, and don’t we all know we can’t do without her], she’s given extra saris for Holi and Dassehra. We give her poha and chai in the morning, maybe even a small gift from the mall, once in a while. Her daily arrival – the moment the doorbell rings – is a welcome relief. She may handle our “bundle of joy” when it is screaming to be cuddled, give it a bath, walk it to the park, pat it to sleep, but she will not have a say in how it should be raised. She’s a part of the household – one that is indispensable – but she seldom “belongs”. She knows family secrets, but remains an outsider.
There are stray examples where a domestic help is adopted as part of family. One exemplary example is of a family I know. They had a handicapped son. When the father was posted to Assam, they employed a poor girl to help in taking care of their boy. When they moved to other places, they took her along. When their own daughter began going to school, they sent this girl to school as well. Yes, she helped as any servant would, but equally, they gave her the same opportunities their own daughter enjoyed. Today, the servant is a post graduate, with a good job, has been gifted a flat and is looking for a groom. The handicapped son, now an adult, is being cared for by the parents and other part-time helpers.
Servants – a boon
Never mind the extremes of affection and cruelty. In an average [middle-class and above] Indian’s life, a servant is a boon. They keep an eye on the children when we’re at office. Come retirement, and they climb the ladder and help us clean the fans, take the passbook to the bank, call the doctor, buy medicines and walk the dog.
In the case of young working couples, the servant is the annadaata of the house. The servant will wait for the gas cylinder to arrive, check on the plants, collect the registered letter and do so many other things which otherwise could have been a massive task for us.
A part of every salary, no matter how many the zeros, is kept aside for another human being’s upkeep – so that we can pass on the inevitable drudgery to a lesser mortal.
In most cases, at the end of it all, like our own children, servants too will fly to greener pastures. It’s hard to let go. “I did so much for them and now they don’t even bother to visit” could be said equally of our own flesh and blood. There’s always a feeling of being let down. What we do for our servants is because our lives become so comfortable, practically bordering on luxury, because of them. There is an element of selfishness there.
However, we owe it to them to alleviate their lot if we can. Some might say, “We’re paying them for their services, so why should we do any more?” The altruistic believe it’s a duty to society, not a debt to consider. Can a servant ever become a member of the family? It’s a moot point, worthy of debate.
Tips for managing servants
- Choose your “helper” depending on your need. Do you want a cook, a nurse, a cleaner, a companion or an all-in-one?
- Be clear about the job description, the salary and the perks. Weekly squabbles over rest-hours will cause daily unpleasantness, best avoided.
- Nothing like a personal reference from a reliable source. Word of mouth is better than any bureau.
- No matter how “trustworthy” a person’s reputation, listen to the cops; give them a photograph and the background they need, to verify the credentials.
- Be careful with your valuables and private information.
- Train the person well, your life depends on it. Supervise and check the work done regularly.
- Consider it your responsibility to better the servant’s future. Plan for a long-term saving or pension plan. The contribution could be yours.
- More importantly, educate the servant, not necessarily the alphabets. Sometimes, teaching a skill like plumbing or embroidery may earn them a better living. And occasionally, you could depend on them for bailing you out of a tight spot when the washer gives way or in a crunch when you need a tear in your favourite blouse mended. In return, you will earn a place in their memory.
- Keep your distance when you are confiding in them. Watch your words.
- Do give the odd, unexpected gift once in a while, even if it’s not in the contract. It works wonders for their morale.
- Never forget, your servant isn’t doing his or her job to further a career, but out of need and for survival. They are fellow human beings, in no way inferior to you. They must work, yes. And you must be fair.