“Do you know about Hanuman, sir? He was the faithful servant of the god Rama, and we worship him in our temples because he is a shining example of how to serve your masters with absolute fidelity, love, and devotion. These are the kinds of gods they have foisted on us Mr. Jiabao. Understand, now, how hard it is for a man to win his freedom in India.”
― Aravind Adiga,
“No one must expect to find it an easy matter to manage a number of native servants, who will have different castes, not one of whom have anything in common with their employers; whose ideas of honesty, cleanliness and truthfulness are not merely vague, but do not exist. Their delinquencies must be taken philosophically.” Emily Short Wonnacott a letter to her mother from Poona on August 15th, 1869
I want to talk about help. Specifically of the domestic variety. This is not a subject I gave much thought before my move to India, and now I think about it quite a bit. A whole concept that occupied literally no part of my life before is now something that occupies a large part of my mind. This is one of those things that is surprising about moving to a new country, the way that something you literally never thought about ends up occupying your mind. Like water.
I didn’t think much about water in the US. It comes from a tap, which works for me, I like that kind of water. I didn’t even filter it, or put one of those things on the faucet that filters it, or think about filters, on any level. Turn a handle, get some water. Easy. Did I know that many people all over the world had a much more complicated relationship with water? Absolutely. Contributed money for people building wells closer to their communities. Understood water on a close level and a far level. Got it.
But here, water is somewhere in the middle. You have to attach a larger filter onto your water system here, and then turn it on, and get the water through a separate rubber tube. The tube is small, and the system takes a bit of time to turn on, so we fill up water bottles to make it more efficient. So that’s a thing I think about and a way I spend my time now. Filling up water bottles. This isn’t a problem for me, per se. It’s not negative, or positive, it just IS. It’s different, and takes up my time, and I think about water in a different way. And that’s fine, except, almost everything is like that. Everything I think about is different, running the gamut from slightly different to deeply different, and it piles up in my mind, until it all feels like it’s too much, and I don’t know what to do with everything happening in my head.
I don’t really want to talk about water. I want to talk about domestic help.
This is a difficult post to write, mostly because it’s a difficult thing to write about, and it’s complicated, I cannot promise that you will love what you read, or even understand it. I’m not sure I really understand it myself, my relationship to service in India. But it is only through writing that I will be able to understand it better, really, so might as well try. What I think and feel is probably hypocritical. At least, that’s what I’ve been told. So I suppose I have to be okay with that. Maybe that’s the human condition, when confronted with the reality of life, when dealing with our own intersection of need, instinct and sense of self, that each of those needs contradicts themselves, and so WE contradict ourselves. Maybe on some level hypocrisy is more than saying one thing and doing another. It’s wanting multiple contradictory things at once.
Enough of the philosophy, I suppose. And down to the facts.
India is a land of service, of servants, of help. Let’s talk about the word, help, because I hate it so very much in this context. I don’t understand it, on an essential level. The word implies that I am lacking in something. That I can’t do something, and therefore I need aid. But I was raised to be self sufficient, and to take pride in that. Needing help is a sign of weakness, at least when it comes to basic domestic matters. Needing help implies that you can’t do something, so you need someone to do it for you, or show you how to do it. One is a temporary condition, I don’t know what to do, so you will come and show me what to do, teach me what to do, and then I will do it. The other is more permanent. I need help, because I CAN’T do something, so you have to help me do it, but what I really mean by that is that you have to do it for me. This is the way I think of HELP.
Most people I know here grew up with a human being who lived in their house and served their family in their basic domestic needs. By this I mean they had someone who was living in their home and sweeping their floors, doing their dishes, washing their clothing, carrying things to them, bringing them a glass of water when they were parched, dusting their objects, clearing their plates, and sometimes cooking for them although sometimes that was an entirely separate person. Many people I know also had someone who was employed to drive their car for them. I know a lot of car owners who don’t personally know how to drive the car they own. They don’t have to. They can pay someone to do it for them.
Now, about this human being. Who are they? Where do they come from? Well, they come from a lower socio-economic class than the people they serve, that’s a give-in. And in modern India, perhaps in India before now as well, they come from a more rural area. They are often women, except for the drivers, who are men, of course, can’t trust a woman with a car, who are sent out of their villages at young ages to find work in someone’s home. When you have children, this multiples, and you have help for your child, your cleaning, your cooking, and so on. You can have help for everything in India. You can have so much help that it begs the question, what are you actually doing for yourself?
But perhaps this is the wrong question. Or not a relevant one. I mean, it’s one that occupies my mind, that haunts me at night, that I ask of everyone I meet (IN MY MIND, I’m not a garbage person), but obviously that’s something that I often feel alone in. Because that’s not really something that seems to matter to people who live in a labor economy. It’s not about what you can do for yourself or not. It’s about what you can afford to have other people do for you. Personal competence is not a virtue to be cultivated here. Which is great. Except, what happens when you’ve built your whole personality on that value?
And what happens when you just don’t feel comfortable with help? When you weren’t raised with people who come in to you home and do things for you on a daily basis as a part of your life? Look, I grew up with insane privilege. My parents are two well-educated working professionals who gave me every advantage. I went to private school my entire life, I attended Yale University and they paid for college, I got a fellowship for graduate school, I am debt free and the product of two people who took a great deal of care and time raising me, and yes, we had someone clean our home twice a month. I recognize the immense luck and resources I have had, and I am grateful in ways I will never be able to fully express. But I still don’t know what to do about the way I feel about the humans who come to my apartment in Mumbai every day to clean our home and cook food for my husband.
This is a poor country. It is poor on a level that I have never understood poverty before. So paying people to do things for you is pretty much the norm for many reasons, and there are many reasons to do that and I get that. Also, frankly, it was very clearly explained to me by Mr. India that he wanted help in India to clean and that this was an important part of the economy and that funding people’s lives was important when you could afford it. And besides. He wanted a maid. He was used to having one, and a cook, and that was something that he wanted to have, and I knew that was part of life here, so I agreed, and it IS part of life here, in fact, we have significantly LESS help than most people we know, although the spectrum of help and how much you have is a sort of insane thing to be thinking about. Yet another thing I think about that I never had before.
I am deeply uncomfortable with people who come into my home to do things for me on a daily basis. I am deeply uncomfortable being served. I can do so many things myself, why would I want someone to come do them for me? I don’t really see the point of most things that people come to our home and do. And yet, I yep the benefit. Not much of it, really, but I like that Varsha, who comes and cleans daily scrubs my clothing, mostly because we don’t have a washing machine. And she puts away all the dishes from our drying rack, which I love. Does she do anything I couldn’t do? No. But I appreciate her. I like her. I just don’t NEED her. So what do I do with that? I don’t mind it much at a restaurant. I’m okay with Uber. This is, I suppose, the hypocrisy I mentioned before. What is the degree of service that makes me uncomfortable? How do i justify my discomfort about one thing over the other?
I don’t want to be someone who expects people to serve me. But the truth is, I don’t worry about that much. I’m probably never going to be that way. I just don’t know how to be comfortable with the idea of help. It’s like water. It takes up all this space in my mind, these things that we pay someone to do, that I don’t understand why we need to pay someone to do, that are part of life here. I don’t know what to do with this thing that is a part of day-to-day life here. I don’t know how to be comfortable with it, or like it. Someone who comes to my home and does things for me should be a positive thing for my life, shouldn’t it?
But I don’t know how to feel that way. Do you?