I’ve never been very comfortable about having servants. I don’t like the use of that word – it sounds part colonial, part racist. In my mind, words – or rather concepts – associated with “servant” (to mean domestic help) are: dignity, respect, equality (the lack of); exploitation, arrogance, even – this is a harsh one – ownership.

So, if you ask me, I’d never say I have two servants. I have domestic help. I have “girls” who come and cook and clean the house. I think of them as employees, and I try to treat them that way. They get Sundays off, one paid holiday a month, pretty much unlimited sick leave provided they inform me beforehand, and one of them even got a couple of months’ unpaid sick leave (that is, I didn’t sack her) which is practically unheard of over here.

But I’m not comfortable about having servants and treating them like servants. I mean, you sometimes see families in clubs, restaurants, even at birthday parties or at the park, with an ayah (child minder) in tow to help with the kids. Sometimes it’s two parents, one child, and an ayah. The ayah sits at the table, eats, feeds the kid, is basically treated like a member of the party, but she is an ayah. I don’t know if the parents are uncomfortable about the presence of an ayah, but usually you can see discomfort written all over the ayah’s attitude at being in an unfamiliar environment.

I am not passing any judgement on people who trail their ayahs around them – I’m only saying that I could never do this. There’s something very weird about treating as an apparent equal someone who you obviously do not think of as an equal in the social sense: “You can sit at our table, you can eat what we order, you can use the cutlery and the napkins, but remember, don’t go getting above yourself, you are just an ayah.”

Another thing that makes me thoroughly uncomfortable is having the domestic help privy to, and part of, all your personal discussions, all your family events, celebrations, and outings. I don’t like the idea of living my life in front of “servants” as though they have eyes that don’t see, ears that don’t hear, and brains that don’t think.

So it’s inevitable that when it comes to taking care of the kids, employing an ayah is not something I’m at all enthusiastic about, even though there are so many practical benefits.

Now that we are applying for admission to school for the twins, we also have to think about how we’re going to manage dropping them to school and picking them up, if we don’t get them into one of the really nearby schools. Send a driver and an ayah in a car? Well, it’s certainly practical and I’ve seen lots of such driver- and ayah-equipped cars arriving at the local school… but I just don’t think I can do that.

So apart from playing driver-cum-ayah myself, which is not a terribly fulfilling role, what else can I do about this?


8 thoughts on “Servants

  1. Ayesha

    Yeah I too am uncomfortable with the term “servant”…also “ayah”. But the fact that ayah means grandmother in Tamil, makes it a little better. Just a little. The thing that makes me feel like a real worm is having the help eat in different plates from the rest of the family’s, making them sit on the floor/mat/stool, eat separately. I try and change things a bit in my own home; but not enough. “They” say the help isn’t used to such equality, and will abuse it. And I’m not sure I want to risk testing that homegrown pearl. 😦

  2. andaleebwajid

    Agree with you there Mika…and you know, Ayesha’s comment reminded me of a book I’d read recently…The Space Between Us, by Thrity Umrigar…an interesting read…abt two women, one of them a maid, and the other, the woman of the house.

  3. doug H

    Being utterly unfamiliar with the complexities of Indian social class structures, I admit to being unqualified to offer any suggestions.

    Here in the USA, we have a supposedly ‘classless’ society. (I don’t THINK that that means that none of us have any class…). No, actually we were taught in school that there are basically three classes of people, based primarily on income: Upper, Middle, and Lower. (not counting the sub-divisions: upper and lower Middle; the Super rich; the Nuvo-riche; the not quite poor, etc) but basically breaking down into Rich, Average, and Poor.
    But, unlike the class system which existed (or may still exist) in England, where one is destined to remain forever in the class into which one is born, in America individuals are able to move fluidly upwards or downwards between adifferent class.
    A poor person, though hard work, education and gumption has the ability to become a member of the middle class, or even a wealthy person. And indeed, this is not at all uncommon: witness the election of our President to be, Barach Obama. Raised by a white, working class mother and grandmother (his father having moved back to Africa when he was three), he was able to study his way into one of the best law schools, Harvard, – where he graduated first in his class – and has now ascended to the highest office in the land.
    And, conversely, sons and daughters born into wealthy families have been known to squander their inheritances and wind up sleeping in the gutter.

    As I understand it, a country having a Middle class is outside the historical norm. Historically, there tend to be the Upper classes, who tend to hoard all of their wealth, and then the poor people, who work long hours for little pay, assuming they’re lucky enough to have found employment at all. Rather the way things were in the era of Charles Dickens in England. Those born into a family of servants (most of the males being inexplicably named “Jeeves”) stood zero chance of ever working their way up to a middle class (which didn’t exist as we currently understand it), or to ever find themselves among the wealthy.

    We were all taught in school about the caste system which existed (and may still to an unknown extent – unknown by me, anyway) in India, ranging from the Brahmans at the high end down to the Untouchables at the bottom, with a slew of sub-classes in the middle, none of which I can recall the names of.

    I’m curious: Is there a tie between the shade of one’s skin color and the caste into one finds themselves born?
    Does the servant class members have a chance to move upwardly to a higher class/caste?
    Is there what we would here consider a working class, i.e. – having enough money for all the necessities of life, and enough money to provide for one’s family, own a car, etc., but being neither truly wealthy nor destitute?

    (btw, only the upper middle classes, such as families of lawyers, doctors, and successful business here, are able to afford to employ servants.)

  4. poupee97

    Hi Doug,

    Regarding caste and skin colour, I replied to your comment in my previous post (Disinpestation, I think). Regarding upward mobility, people can cut across class barriers, usually by means of education, but breaking out of caste is techincally impossible and practically very difficult. Yes, we have a middle class – a very large middle class, in fact – but our middle class has a rather humbler lifestyle than the American middle class, and cars belong largely to the upper middle class, with the lower middle class usually running to a scooter/motorcycle or two.


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