Tales of Life in India 2…

or: The Trouble With Maids. We left off with me getting psyched up over hiring a maid. I have never had a maid. I haven’t wanted nor needed a maid. I like my privacy and the thought of having a complete stranger in my space always kind of freaked me out. Yes, there has been the occasion where I pondered the prospect of having someone pick up after me, or take care of the mundane and monotonous tasks that we all loathe. Who hasn’t? Where I am from, maids work for hotel chains, the wealthy or for those that are inordinately busy, elderly or have health issues that warrant them needing a helping hand now and again. I have even worked as a maid.

It took me awhile to adjust to the thought of having a maid and as I said earlier I did this by imagining all the fun things that could be probable if maid was dealing with certain household tasks. We were given the option of having a live-in but Sus and I didn’t exactly need that much help and it was very much out of my comfort zone. It was just the two of us and at the time our two dogs that we had brought with us from the States. The non live-in maid’s day starts at 10 and lunch is at 2 and they leave at 5 and are allowed two 15 minute tea breaks as well, company regulations not ours, also…

You pay their monthly wage, cover their food costs and their transportation fees, they get either a Diwali bonus or a Christmas bonus depending upon religion, and their wage increases by x amount (to be mutually agreed upon by both parties) each year they work for you. They get one month paid vacation which they can take all at once or break up. If they stay late they get paid extra, if they are asked to do extra cleaning they get paid extra. All of this sounds reasonable.

Here is the catch!

They are notoriously vague on what duties they will perform, you receive the customary, “no problem” that all of India is quick to give you but once maid starts work there is a different phrase coming forth. The duties that we needed were really very basic, sweep/vacuum/mop floors and vacuum dog bedding, dust, clean bathroom, tidy up balcony, wash windows (inside only because we are on the 23rd floor and it is not safe although you will see the maids that work for locals out on the ledge scrubbing those windows clean with no safety harness or net).

I was going to be responsible for cooking, dishes and kitchen clean-up, taking out the trash, laundry with the exception of Sus’ work clothes that were sent out to be dry-cleaned and pressed and the blankets that I sent with the Dhobi because they are too large for the washing machine. I was also in charge of the dogs (who also had a walker (will explain later in post)), and later the cats that we would adopt. I did the grocery shopping, changed bed linens, cleaned the fridge and ceiling fans because Maids do not do ladders. Not that we have one. We do have a step stool but they don’t do those either.

Ennette, was our first maid and I really didn’t learn much from her. One she was the first and I wasn’t sure what to expect. So, everything she did or said didn’t register as odd. It wasn’t how it was done back home but I wasn’t in the States anymore and for all I knew what she did and what she said was the norm for Indian maids. She didn’t last long. Everything was an issue, she spent a great deal of time telling me that how I wanted things cleaned was not possible here. It just wasn’t done. I knew otherwise because I had been the one doing the cleaning and it worked fine. She also worked very hard at convincing us that literally everything that we wanted done needed to be hired out to someone and she could supervise. We found out later that Ennette had been a nanny for the company and since none of the new expat families required her services she was moved to the maid pool.

Next came Mongola. Mongola was a local and not from the Company, She was also incredibly cheap compared to Ennette. The Company at that time didn’t have any available maids except those that we had already met with and did not fit into what we were looking for; they needed either a live-in situation or they wanted more work or work that we didn’t require or they just didn’t want to work for someone that had dogs which was over half of the maids interviewed. 98% of Mumbaikers claim to have been viciously attacked by dogs sometime during their life and much to the amusement of our dogs and our annoyance, will run in circles screaming or try to climb imaginary walls when we (with dogs) cross their path. After making a sufficient show of fear they will stop, walk over and stand within licking distance and explain how they were viciously attacked and mauled by a dog. Can we please walk in the opposite direction? This is why we hired a dog-walker. This drama play does not happen to the local dog walker.

Back to Mongola. We never knew when or if Mongola was going to show up for work. She always needed a pay advance but conveniently forgot this by the end of the month when it was time to be paid and with the language barrier it was always an ordeal. Supposedly, she was doing extra jobs and therefore required extra pay (I had to get our neighbor to translate). Since Mongola showed up about twice a week for an hour or two (not the agreement) and spent most of the time drinking tea and trying to talk to me or in this case Mime out conversations in what I like to call Language Barrier Charades (fun for the whole family), I was perplexed by what constituted extra duties especially since she had yet to consistently fulfill those she was hired to do.

Here is where it gets fun, allegedly, the tea drinking, mimed conversations were the extra duties. WHAT? Just your run of the mill cultural difference. A maid’s duties are not just limited to domestic household tasks they are also there to entertain and be a companion. This harkens back to India’s yester-years when a woman would marry into a family she barely knew and one of the family maids or the daughter of a maid would go with the new bride as a confidant/companion/servant and a reminder of home. I get that. It is something akin to the British Lady’s Maid. I have difficulty applying this to my modern sensibilities not to mention I lack this cultural history.  I am a stranger in a strange land but I am not helpless, bored, lonely and in need of a companion. I did however need a maid and two in still hadn’t had one.

I am, quite loathe of small talk, strangers touching me (they also constantly try to give massages as part of their extra duties but never ask if you want one), and I hate being shadowed (followed from room to room just slightly behind me to anticipate anything I might do that will require their assistance). I am a big girl. I can dress myself and take care of my personal hygiene regimen without help and I prefer it that way. Some things just need to be private but fall into that companion-maid role and it isn’t what I wanted a maid for. I also made sure that being a companion was not expected of them or wanted. Not that it helped to deter. I wish I could say that we dismissed Mongola but she just stopped coming in and when she did show back up months had passed and we had hired someone new.

Sheila was our next maid and then there was Maria and then Winnie and then back to Maria. They were all Company maids. Each one with their own requirements of what they would and would not do and a series of quirks that would allow them to make extra money with no extra effort. I figured out that having a maid wasn’t going to result in the euphoric utopia I had imagined. I had yet to have a moment of time to paint, read, or spend time with the fur kids uninterrupted. I spent a great deal of my time fighting off massages I didn’t want, trying to decipher conversations with maid, micro-managing the housecleaning duties and performing household tasks that they wouldn’t. My list had increased while theirs had decreased and I was becoming acutely aware of the fact that I was never going to have a moments peace. Not to mention I was growing restless over the fact that they were getting paid for doing next to nothing. There was also a whole lot of drama going on and I was exhausted from it.

The drama starts with cleaning supplies and yes, it is your responsibility to provide this too. I do not have an issue with this because some of the products that are used here are extremely toxic and have made there way here after being banned from use in other countries, it is the same with processed food items. The Indian brands are incredibly watered down and I think are probably just water with perfume in it. They insist on not using cleaning product, a bucket of water with a rag and you are good to go. This bucket and rag clean everything, floors, toilets, tubs, kitchen cabinets, etc. It is gross, and unsanitary but it harkens back to the days of mud huts and they insist that is how it will be and results in you having to show them how you want things cleaned and re-showing them every week. You have to micro-manage them and it is exhausting.

Each maid comes in and demands a list of items they need but they won’t use most of it. Things like a vacuum are requested but never used. They prefer the typical Indian broom which is different than what we use and it has to be the traditional, natural type not the newer version made out of synthetic materials. The natural broom has to be prepared and your maid will sit on the floor, vigorously rubbing the fibers between her hands to remove the chafe for two working days. She does nothing else but the broom those two days with the exception of tea breaks and lunch. By the time she is done the broom is half its size and she is complaining about her hands (the synthetic brooms do not need this preparation). The natural broom lasts about two months and then you buy another one, followed by two days of prep and complaints.

You will also get a tale about how that broom came about, which goddess it is associated with, or created it, etc. but it soon becomes apparent that they all have a different story and so it might just be a ploy for more money and to get out of their duties for the day. I stopped buying the natural brooms, one because they have become quite hard to find and two, I ended up doing two days of house-cleaning and cleaning up the dust and chafe from the broom prep and three it just isn’t economical. This switch of product did not go over very well with the maid and resulted in a stand off.

I learned that they have a network, that I call the Bombay Bai’s Club. Bai is what the locals call maids and oddly it has Chinese origins. The maids (city wide) like to talk to each other (usually on the bus or train) and if one finds something that earns them a bit more money or time then word spreads like wildfire and they all try it. Having gone through so many maids you start to notice patterns. Here are some of the highlights:

If they can squeeze an extra 100 rupees from you they will…

and it goes something like this…

“Madam, yesterday I missed my bus and had to take a tuk-tuk (auto-rickshaw) to get here can you please spare me just 100 rupees, not much, but I need to feed my children, ageing and sick mother-in-law/father-in-law, husband, uncle, or mentally/physically challenged nephew.” Notice that outside the mother-in-law, no other female is mentioned. The reason is a cultural one and will be discussed in another post. I would like to take this opportunity to point out that you are already paying for their transport, bus, train, or tuk-tuk. They are responsible for making the bus or train and if they missed it another one is right around the corner and they are the only things that run on a regular basis in Mumbai. Tuk-tuks too are as prevalent as mosquitos in this country so do not pay twice for transport.

if the object is time off it will go like this:

“Madam, I am so sorry but I must go, my mother-in-law/father-in-law, husband, uncle, nephew is very ill or met with an accident and is feared dying so I must go to hospital.” This scenario usually plays out during wedding season, holidays or if some sort of entertainment is happening such as cricket games between favorite teams or big rivals (India vs. Pakistan), circus is in town or a Bollywood movie is being filmed somewhere nearby. I would spend time worried for said relative and when maid would return to work I would inquire about relative and receive a customary head bobble along with a “they are quite well, Madam,” when you press further you will get, “It was a Miracle Madam. They were quite ill and in a coma for 15 minutes but were fully recovered by lunch and came home, walking on their own, even though the doctor thought they would have to remove the leg because of injury/illness. You might think I am making this up but other expats are probably slapping their leg and laughing having been told a similar tale.

All of our maids had a mobile phone, I had their number and they had mine. They could have called or sent a text to let me know that they couldn’t make it in due to an emergency and here is why they didn’t:

They show up to tell you because in their mind if they come in it counts as a day of work even if they were only there for 10 minutes, they are also hoping that along with sad story you will give them extra money and sadly I did this until I noticed something was amiss. Also, once you start giving them extra money it becomes expected and the amount will increase until you are not comfortable. it is one thing to hand over an extra 1000 or 2000 rupees it is another when they start giving you stories about needing 1 lahk or they will be homeless or some relative won’t get the life saving surgery they need.

Don’t open that Pandora’s Box. Company regulations forbid them to do so but they will try it anyway because they can’t be fired and they are also counting on you not saying anything and if you do they already got the money. This is also how we ended up with Maria as a maid twice. We can terminate her employment from our household but not from the company. If we terminate her from service she simply becomes someone else maid…or ours once again later down the road after sufficient time has elapsed that she and her supervisor have forgotten that she had already dismissed from our employ but no worries she will try to work it to her advantage.

The Indian government has made it impossible for someone to be fired. They can be demoted, pay can be cut, hours can be cut, they can be moved to another department but they can not be fired or at least it becomes a task worthy of Sisyphus. Visiting India and living in India are two very different things, visiting assaults the senses, living assaults your sanity.

I long ago gave up on my utopia and so we no longer have a maid and I am desperately trying to carve out a bit of time to squeeze in some creative endeavors (hence the promises I made myself in the previous post). The pets are calmer, I am calmer, the flat is cleaner, the doorbell and the security phone still annoy me.


Just a little side note: A maid that works for an expat will make anywhere between 18,000 – 20,000 Rupees a month. Her counterpart that works for an Indian family will make 3,000 to 6,000 Rupees a month. Even our maid had a maid and a cook and her maid had a maid. Maids are a very common commodity. You also pay about 1,200 rupees each month for your maids transportation costs and food cost is also on you and food in India is expensive, supply and demand…lots of people, not a lot of food. You are actually forking out more along the lines of 23,000 – 30,000 rupees a month total and the expat maid is doing a lot less work than her counterpart. Expats usually do not mistreat their maids or put her life in jeopardy. You will also give her a Christmas/Diwali Bonus which is an additional 10,000 rupees or more if negotiated. Every year she works for you her pay automatically increases 3,000 -6,000 Rupees again based on what was negotiated. So, please do not think that they are poor mistreated denizens.  I am simply pointing out cultural differences that I found amusing, annoying or perplexing…nothing more. My humour is dry and sarcastic, FYI.


Photo: Life’s More Fun with Monkeys (1/12)

taken with a Nikon DSLR 5300 by Pamela

Shimla, India























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