Friday, May 20, 2011

Maid in India: The "bai" wisdom (Part 2)

They all have a story..and unfortunately one that underlines issues that plague India from a socio-economic perspective..illiteracy, domestic violence, urbanization, poverty, etc.

No one ever wants to become a "bai" ..Its not a career of their choice. The only career progression they aspire is to retire one day. But they still keep at it, either in pursuit of some life goal or as a way to escape their reality. Some toil because they certainly dont want their children to follow the same path. Some want to go back to their village and live in peace. Some just want to be "happily" married or "respectfully" single.

They get feisty because that's the only way they've known to deal with life. If it were not for their fighting spirit they'd have succumbed to depression, abuse, illegal paths. Their belief system, right or wrong, becomes their guiding force...and their source of finding solace in little things life throws at them. Tucked in their tales below, are some "pearls of wisdom" for us as well.

When we moved from Bangalore to Gurgaon, our maid, an elderly 50+ traditional South Indian lady living alone with her abusive husband, was the only one who cried inconsolably..I was immensely touched, and frankly a little surprised. Its not that I was paying her anything out of the ordinary or that she didn't have dearth of work. 'I'll find other homes', she said. 'But who will call me "Ammaji" now?' (Ammaji is a respectful salutation for a mother.)

[Little respect does go a long way.]

Btw, hard to resist while we are on the topic of respect, an earnest request for menfolk who feel the right to show their manhood on maids: Isn't it good enough that they are there for your dirty laundry?

Mistreated by her mother-in-law, eventually divorced, and physically abused by her own drunkard brother, when she came to us, she was a wreck. I felt pity and kept her even though I had another nanny at the time. I couldn't do much..but I would listen to her as she poured her heart out about her past. She stayed with me for a year and a half, caring for my kid in a way he didn't miss me while I was busy with work. While her "fighting spirit" (of the literal sense) eventually got the better of me, it was the only thing that led to her own life transformation.
She went back. (But still calls up to inquire about her "mannu" and my son still misses her. In fact, she's the only reason he wants to visit Bangalore.) Just the other day, she called me to say..'I've found myself a husband...He doesn't drink and doesn't live with his parents'.
A life-long bond has been formed just because I had given my ears to her tears.

[Show Empathy. It never goes out of style.]


And now I think about it, I used to teach her how to conduct life on a day-to-day basis, but she's shown me how to live it. With hope and on your own terms.

But I found my "mother of pearl wisdom" from lo and behold..a 30-year old, illiterate, slum-raised carpenter! While haggling for the last 5K which my baniya mind had calculated to be over the top and thus not ready to let go, I got a response that I had never expected.
'This may look like a premium for my services..ma'am. But let me tell you, this exact money will go towards teaching 10 slum kids the skills of the trade. I run a free workshop for such kids on Sundays. When they become carpenters and a source of income for their families..they will thank me directly, but will also thank you indirectly.'

This 30-year old illiterate carpenter has figured out how to leave his legacy...Have we?

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Maid in India : The "bai" wisdom (Part 1)

If you are a nuclear family living in the expat suburbs of India, just succumb to the fact that the bais are taking over. They are surely ruling your minds..practically ruling your homes..and I'm thinking if they put their mind to it, they could be ruling the nation (esp. in lieu of the gaping holes created by our current political parties).

And by bais here, I mean the domestic help available in the form of maids, nannies, drivers, cooks, dog-walkers, car-washers and helpers for any other chores that the upper-middle/rich in India can afford to offload. There's a secret why we are the Outsource Capital of the world. We, in turn, are outsourcing our mundane jobs to the "bais".

Todays bais have understood their role in the life of an Indian household and in this cycle of wealth-creation. Sometimes they manipulate, sometimes they use this knowledge as a shield for their own basic rights. Just a side-note for those double-incomed, quality-time starved couples, forget talking about finances or buying that fancy car while car-pooling to work..cos there's a driver in the front seat, thats adding up all these figures and calculating how much share of that can be safely assumed as a salary raise in the next cycle.
Actually bais have an uncognitive dissonance for money, which makes them all the more unique. While they are always eager for the next higher-paying opportunity, they can also leave a job bcos the boss doesnt salute back, or asks too many questions or talks too little. My 3+ year tenure in India as a homemaker is filled with such "bai" experiences that I feel well-equiped to write a book on "Maid Management". I believe the sueder MBA programs would surely embrace it. But thought of starting with a blog first.

'You have it easy, dont you?'..says my coming-of-age 17-year old full-time nanny/maid one day. Rationalizing around how hard it has been through one undergrad degree, two post-grad degrees, three job changes, and just surviving in the rat-race wont help. To her, materialistic comforts are the only yardstick of easiness of life. So you can either abandon the worldy goods or make her a shareholder in the materialistic pleasures. After a minute of introspection and juggling with options, I say 'Maybe..but dont worry you have it easy too'.

The part-timer on the other hand (Pls. dont get envious folks...you dont get a full-timer in the elite condos of Gurgaon without selling her on the fact that there's a part-timer doing the "ground" work), refuses to eat anything that has been in the fridge for more than few hours...You could lay fancy desserts or other culinary delites, but the answer remains, 'Hamare yahan to taaza hi khate hai!' 'I only eat fresh food!' You're better off puttng some extra pounds on you, rather than convincing her out of her perceived notion of edibility (which is likely governed by the fridgeless world she comes from.).

And between the two of them, there's always a relative that is sick or will become sick in a week's time. Perfect excuse for a day off. I now understand why the smarter homemakers always have their speed-dials filled with back-up bais numbers.

And of course, where there are maids, there are maid issues.
If your bais are too friendly, you are worried. If they are not, you are doomed. Everyday you get to partake in the "give-and-take" of verbal innuendos and political tactics that would put politicians to shame. Lo and behold if you decide to take sides, dont just use fairness as a criteria for conflict resolution, cos there's hierarchy that needs to be respected. A full-timer obviously commands more respect and listening power than a part-timer. And if you cant handle it all, seriously consider hiring a "head-maid" to manage the maids. Delegate the dirty work, as they say!

All said and done.."bai" is an essential commodity..And since you've put your MBA trained mind in doing the cost-benefit analysis of retaining vs. hiring new ones, you are constantly trying to figure out ways to survive and sustain a "bai" beyond a few months..

My husband's advice of doing "A one-minute manager" on them rarely works. They get inflated with praises..but get defensive with the criticism, however short and sweet it is.

Giving them ownership and sense of responsibility only partially helps. Believe me, I have tried that too..with mixed results.
While the living room gets dustfree everyday without my nudging, it has been rearranged according to my maids taste. While the fridge is never empty, its invariably filled with goodies that her taste buds appeal to. And while the wardrobe is neatly arranged, my fashion sense is scorned off at many such cleaning sessions.

The single effective way I seem to have sustained mine is through a barter of services. Her obsession with the English language (Thank You Western World) has fortunately come to rescue. Speaking English signifies freedom to her..and I've become the key to her path of success. But when she learns English..what then? Computer skills as a selling tactic maybe?!. :-/

ps. Let me leave you with a classic bai QOTD 'tension lene ka nai, tension dene ka!' 'I dont take tension/stress, I give tension!'