Servants in India

Yesterday and today, we’ve had meals at Chris’s maternal grandmother’s home that were prepared by her servant helper. Although they are called servants, these helpers are obviously paid and are not in any way slave labor… well, at least not with Chris’s grandmother. I’m not quite sure what a “fair” wage is in India, but I read a case in the local newspaper about a servant who was murdered in Chennai, and she was only paid 5,000 rupees per month — that’s not even $75 USD. There’s no established, regulated living wage for household help, so it’s hard for me to say what is “good” or “not good.” But whatever should be considered “good,” 5,000 rupees really sounds like a steal for the boss and slightly like robbery for the paid help to me.

Chris’s grandmother’s servant was willing to prepare anything for us. On Friday night, his grandma asked what we’d like for breakfast the next morning, which the servant would prepare. “Anything you want — she will make it,” his grandma said. I felt extremely spoiled and a little guilty. In the end, we asked her to prepare puttu, which is a South Indian grated coconut and pounded rice breakfast dish, something rarely if ever seen back in New York City Indian restaurants. You mix it with your hands with some sweet steamed Indian banana (or plantain as they call it there), a little sugar, and eat it. Her servant was extremely thorough; she not only laid all the plates and napkins out for us along with the food, but she even squeezed us fresh Indian lime (or mousambi) juice for us. She got annoyed anytime it looked as though we were lifting a plate or going to toss something into the rubbish bin and would quickly snatch items out of our hands.

It felt like too much for me. I know that she’s hired help and that’s her job, but I wasn’t used to this level of attention and service in someone’s personal home, and so it felt a little uncomfortable to me. I certainly was not raised with this type of service or this level of classism, and so it’s hard for me to imagine having this every single day. Chris’s grandma told us that her servant stays with her full-time six days a week, and she usually goes home on Sundays to her own family. Since his grandma’s eyesight is deteriorating, she really needs this level of support at this time in her life.

We also chatted over breakfast this morning with Chris’s grand-aunt, who is Chris’s grandmother’s sister. She told us that servants are absolutely needed. She never really enjoyed cooking but did it because she had to do it, and the part that made it the most unattractive were the dishes that remained to be cleaned after all the food was ready. “With that, you really need someone to clean all that up for you,” she insisted. “I already did all the cooking, so someone else should do the cleaning. So the servants can do that!”

I chuckled a little. “Sure, of course you need hired help to do that for you. In our case, our dishwasher is the actual dishwasher and Chris!” I said. And for really dirty and greasy pots, that dishwasher is actually me. And none of us get paid for this, sadly.

It’s all about different expectations in different societies. In India, paid labor is cheap, versus in the U.S., where paid labor is extremely expensive. Our values are not the same, which create these differences in expectation.

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