Every day they walk into our houses and tidy it up like their own. They cook our meals, do our dishes, throw away the trash, ensure everything is in order so that we can go about the day without worrying about our homes. Our maids easily deserve more credit (and salaries) than they receive, they deserve to be recognised and acknowledged rather than having an existence in the fringes. Even today, there is an unspoken protocol between the employer and employee when it comes to domestic help – the help has separate utensils, only has leftovers, doesn’t use our bathroom or our furniture. From middle-class households to the palatial bungalows of business tycoons, it is still the same story.
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Tripti Lahiri is the Asia editor of Quartz, who was part of an award-winning Wall Street Journal team that reported in-depth on the law enforcement and judicial response to crimes against women in India. Her first book Maid In India documents how every year, thousands of poor, illiterate, unskilled women flock to Delhi from villages across the country to work as domestic help. The book features in-depth reporting in the villages around the country, from where women make their way to upper-class homes in Delhi and Gurgaon, courtrooms where the worst allegations of abuse get heard, and homes across the class ladder. The author speaks to us about the complex and troubling relations between the help and those they serve.
First, tell us how the idea of writing this book came about? Is yours one of the first books to be written on this subject in India?
The book grew out of my own personal experiences, from wondering how middlemen (and women) found people to bring to the city, to try to figure out what was the right wage to pay, as well as conversations with Aleph. It’s definitely not one of the first books to be written on the subject in India, but it’s certainly among the first narrative journalism books in India. In terms of academic writing, people like Swapna M. Banerjee, Raka Ray, and Seemin Qayum, to name just a few, have done terrific work—I especially enjoyed Banerjee’s breakdown of staffing and wages in the Tagore household. They were fabulously wealthy and even had a French chef.
And in terms of memoirs, Baby Halder’s extremely widely read book, A Life Less Ordinary, is one of the only ones that come to mind, at least in contemporary times. There is a book by a man who went to England from West Bengal in Victorian times and worked as a cook but then eventually became an Imam. One thing I couldn’t find, for obvious reasons, is historic accounts by Indian women who kept help or who worked as help—there’s hardly anything like the diaries kept by British women, which are now so helpful to understand the lives of women in the past.
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How did you research for this book?
I asked for help from a lot of people — especially women. Apart from women working as help, these included older women in my own circle, to ask how things had changed, lawyers and nonprofits who had represented maids, and companies and agents who were working in this field. I also looked at court cases and judgments and sometimes tried to find people from those cases.
Were people comfortable sharing their stories? What were the challenges in putting this book together?
“When writing you sometimes face an internal push and pull between writing honestly and wanting to protect people who have opened some aspect of their lives to you for whatever reason they have chosen to do so.”
Not always, but more often than not. One challenge was that sometimes I would meet women whose close or extended family members had been covered in the newspapers—perhaps something bad had happened. When I went to the villages the family members were always very willing to speak with me, but sometimes it wasn’t clear how much they understood what I was going to do with what they were saying, so that was a dilemma. Another thing is that when you talk for an extended time with people you often develop sympathy for them—even if they have done something wrong. When writing you sometimes face an internal push and pull between writing honestly and wanting to protect people who have opened some aspect of their lives to you for whatever reason they have chosen to do so.
For some reason, the Indian middle class doesn’t treat its housekeeping staff as humans. Like the blurb of your book points out – they are expected to eat leftovers, use separate utensils, and not even use the bathrooms. Why is there such an extreme apathy?
I wish I had a clear and comprehensive answer. I think it’s not so much apathy as a strange mixing of very old traditions and new beliefs. So definitely some of this—eating leftovers, separate utensils—is shaped by feudalism and caste, from the kind of zamindari attitude you see caricatured in movies. People who’ve grown up in cities like to say “We don’t even think about caste.” But even while “not thinking about it” we follow all these rules. It also doesn’t help that sometimes the employers can’t relate to the people they hire at all culturally.
I wonder if a North Indian, upper-caste urban couple can really consider a tribal girl from a faraway village who doesn’t speak Hindi well as their fellow citizen, and their equal as a human being, even if she’s not their equal in income or social status.
Are things changing though (what are the kind of changes you are anticipating)? Is the younger generation trying to bridge the gap between the employer and employee in one’s house or most are still succumbing to the pressure being inflicted by the older members of their family (you had recounted a similar incident in your book)?
I think things are changing all the time—sometimes for the worse, often for the better. And I do see younger people often trying to pay more and being more conscious about hours. But I’ve often also seen young families with a help who looks to be a teenager carrying their kid and following them around a mall.
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Do we have any laws protecting maids against abuse or ill-treatment considering they make up a considerable portion of our workforce?
The Delhi court judgment in 2010 that I write about in the book made it easier to take action on behalf of child workers. Some states have minimum wages in place for domestic workers and I think the central government is considering a national policy for domestic workers that would recommend a monthly wage of not less than 9,000 rupees. Domestic workers are covered under the sexual harassment law and can bring an assault complaint under criminal provisions. Some welfare groups are considering formally registering a domestic workers’ union so that they’ll have better standing to help people—that’s something that’s happened in other parts of Asia too, such as the Philippines. But in terms of a law that deals with their particular circumstances, the number of hours they work a day, what holidays or benefits they’re owed, there’s nothing like that.
8. What do you want people to take away from this book?
“I hope reading the book will help people look with fresh eyes at the arrangements they have with their help. A lot of what happens is inherited almost—it’s always been done a certain way and people keep doing it that way.”
I want people to be more aware the person working in their house has a personal story just like they do, perhaps with some grief but also lots of hopes and dreams. Their role as your cook or your nanny is just one part of their life, actually. I also hope reading the book will help people can look with fresh eyes at the arrangements they have with their help. As I said earlier, a lot of what happens is inherited almost—it’s always been done a certain way and people keep doing it that way. But does it make sense that we can’t drink out of the same kind of glass, or could we try doing things a different way? I also hear a lot of people saying they feel peer pressure not to pay more than their neighbours. But somebody must set the higher end of the wage range—why should it be someone else? Why not you?
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