Indian Housewives and Their Maids

The rela­tion­ship many Indian house­wives have with their maids is in many ways like that of arranged marriages.

To start with, the elab­o­rate maid-hunting process begins much like bride-hunting in arranged mar­riages, where you first seek ref­er­ences for qual­ity maids. After short-listing suit­able can­di­dates, they are then ‘screened’ in an inter­view where the capa­bil­i­ties of the maid are assessed in con­junc­tion with her expec­ta­tions. After the screen­ing process for every can­di­date maid, feed­back and impres­sions are dis­cussed between the fam­ily before mov­ing onto the next can­di­date. After some rounds of dis­cus­sions about the nature of work­load and what is a fair pay for that work, a can­di­date is cho­sen after a lot of nego­ti­a­tion. Vet­eran house­wives nag and scoff at the unre­al­is­tic expec­ta­tions of today’s maids, just like mothers-in-law nag and scoff at the unre­al­is­tic expec­ta­tions of today’s brides.

The cho­sen can­di­date begins her work in the home much like a bride join­ing a fam­ily after mar­riage. The maid’s boss, the house­wife, acts like a mother-in-law does with a bride. Every aspect of her work is observed through a micro­scope in an overtly judg­men­tal fash­ion. The maid, like a new bride, has an innate accep­tance that this is nat­ural. Dur­ing her ini­tial days at work, she demon­strates her best behav­ior. The house­wife takes care not to appear too demand­ing, lest the maid run away. For the house­wife, it is a tricky game of how many demands of work you can get away with for the amount of pay agreed with­out los­ing the maid; for the maid, it is a tricky game of how super­fi­cially you can do the assigned work for the amount of pay agreed with­out los­ing the job.

At this stage, it is cus­tom­ary for the house­wife to nag and com­plain about a few aspects of the maid’s work. The cleaned uten­sils still have some left­over soap pow­der or aren’t being cleaned prop­erly, there is always some dirt left in this area even after dust­ing, she has been late at work two times in the past two weeks, it was her duty to inform before­hand when she skipped work the other day, and so on. Ear­lier gen­er­a­tions of maids may have taken this crit­i­cism pas­sively or sim­ply deflected it to domes­tic prob­lems, but mod­ern maids, like mod­ern brides, have evolved their own retorts. The qual­ity of the soap being used, the cheap mop that should have been replaced long time back, how other maids in other house­holds do much less work for much higher pay, etc. are now weapons in the maid’s arse­nal that are used judi­ciously. It is a game of cards, where both the house­wife and the maid strive to retain their aces up their sleeve should the need arise, while con­tin­u­ing to play counter-attack.

Like arranged mar­riages, many of these con­trived rela­tion­ships sur­vive this ini­tial chal­leng­ing phase. Nei­ther side’s expec­ta­tions are fully met, but there is accep­tance of the dis­sat­is­fac­tion as a price to be paid for the ben­e­fits of the rela­tion­ship. After all, if there were no maid, the house­wife would have a tremen­dous bur­den on her shoul­ders man­ag­ing all the house­hold chores by her­self. On the other hand, the monthly pay for her work is finan­cial secu­rity for the maid, whose hus­band usu­ally can’t be relied on to pro­vide suf­fi­ciently for her children’s future.

Jeal­ousy, like in many mar­riages, is a another fac­tor between neigh­bor­ing house­wives, about who has the best maid. Chat­ter between house­wives breaks the ice with dis­cussing how awful or awe­some their maids are, and if the rela­tion­ship devel­ops, ends in how awful or awe­some their hus­bands are.

The maid’s role extends well beyond the house­hold work. She is the back­bone of the grapevine in the soci­ety. From the daugh­ter of neigh­bors so-and-so who is ready for mar­riage for whom they’re look­ing for suit­ors and how neigh­bor so-and-so has many domes­tic argu­ments, to how there was a brouhaha about that party last week and who was say­ing what about it to whom in the soci­ety, the maid is the dom­i­nant under­ground chan­nel of communication.

In a few cases, again, like in those rare mar­riages, the rela­tion­ship blos­soms. The maid’s qual­ity of work is adju­di­cated as excel­lent and best in class. The house­wife can now brag to her neigh­bors about how she was able to find the per­fect maid, just like how some women brag about find­ing the per­fect hus­band. Over and above her usual Diwali bonus, the maid gets gifts for her chil­dren. Her absences at work due to domes­tic issues are treated with sym­pa­thy. She is given free med­ica­tion and med­ical advice when­ever required. Old clothes are no longer dis­carded, they’re instead donated to the maid’s fam­ily. From children’s toys to antique fur­ni­ture, the maid enjoys the char­ity of the gen­er­ous housewife.

I doubt this sce­nario exists any­where out­side India. It is a unique sym­bi­otic tri­umvi­rate, where the maid works, the house­wife orches­trates and the hus­band pays. Jai Ho!

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  • Angel B

    Actu­ally it DOES bear a strong resem­blance to the housewife/maids dynam­ics here in Mex­ico. Set­ting aside the fact that arranged mar­riages are not that com­mon here, what you describe is pretty close to what I’ve seen in 40+ years here. It is a com­mon joke that the most impor­tant mem­ber of many mex­i­can house­holds is the maid. Per­son­ally I call them the “Queens of Home” :)

    But what you describe is also very com­mon here: girls that find an employer when young, and if they’re lucky, they will remain there for years, even decades and become as another mem­ber of the fam­ily. The old, wise maid who has been with the fam­ily for years and has seen the chil­dren grow is a cliche in mex­i­can movies and soap operas, but it is (or was) also a com­mon fix­ture in many households.

    I have a beau­ti­ful anec­dote that my mother shared with us about a young maid of indian descent that we had when my sis­ter and I were very lit­tle. One day she found her softly singing a lul­laby while we were sleep­ing in our beds. She was singing in otomi, a dialect spo­ken by many indi­ans in cen­tral Mex­ico. She says it was one of the most beau­ti­ful images she has ever seen.

    Great post, amigo 😉

    Regards from Mex­ico City.

    • Mahen­dra

      Wow, that a sim­i­lar cul­ture exists in your part of the world is indeed fascinating!

      I just absolutely love your “Queens of Home” moniker :)

      You are right in that our expo­sure to Mex­i­can cul­ture involves the cliched old maid who has been with the fam­ily for more than a decade, and it is good to know that it is not very far from reality.

      I had never heard of Otomi before, I had always thought Span­ish was the native lan­guage of peo­ple since centuries.

      Thank you for read­ing and shar­ing your thoughts, a very warm hello back from India! :)

      • Angel B

        Oh, I keep for­get­ting the influ­ence of Mexico’s great­est con­tri­bu­tion to world cul­ture: Telen­ov­e­las (soap operas) 😀 Indeed, old, wise maids are a sta­ple there.

        Out­side urban areas, par­tic­u­larly in cen­ter and south­ern Mex­ico, there are large num­bers of peo­ple that speak pre­his­panic lan­guages such as Otomi, Nahu­atl and Maza­hua as their first lan­guage. Some of them do not speak span­ish, even. But check this out: There is a Linux ver­sion in nahu­atl: Ome­teOS GNU/Linux and Fire­fox has been trans­lated in 24 dialects and vari­ants

        And the Mozilla Mex­ico logo absolutely rocks :)

        ¡Salu­dos to the other side of the world!

        • Mahen­dra

          This is absolutely fascinating…never knew Mex­ico was a multi-lingual coun­try like India!

          The logo is indeed very unique :)

  • kaus­tub

    Maids are under­es­ti­mated, But are an impor­tant stake­holder. Ramayana’s Man­thara played an influ­en­tial role. Your blog also reminds me of the movie ‘The Help’ por­tray them and their employ­ers in dif­fer­ent hues. I would say behind every suc­cess­ful per­son there is a silent, loyal housemaid :-)

    • Mahen­dra

      Ha ha! :) Thanks Kaustub.