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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  • 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.

    • 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! 🙂

      • 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!

        • 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 🙂