When I was small I remember the help never sat on the furniture. They would take their shoes off outside the door before they entered a room and would then either remain standing, squat or sit on the floor to speak to my grandmother or whoever it was. The old-school kind of help were for life, so you knew about their families and who married whom and how many grandchildren, and they knew much more about one’s own life as the help is wont to. There was a certain decorum though. The help knew their place and you, the employer, knew yours. You weren’t meant to fraternize or treat them like equals because they just weren’t, and they expected the same. It’s like Carson in Downton Abbey—you don’t expect that the Lord will treat you like his friend, nor do you want him to. It’s not proper.
But “proper” has gone out the window with modern times, and I’m not sure whether that’s been a boon or a bomb. One never says the word “nauker” any more, for example. It carries a whiff of derogatory nose-turning-up, although back in the day “nauker” just meant someone who was employed. You were a nauker who did a naukeri, whether it was in an office, a school or in a house. In a way the word was much more egalitarian because it was used to universally describe all employed people, regardless of class. Now you only call someone a nauker to be nasty, sarcastic or occasionally ironic because hipsters use Urdu too. The word has been replaced with “mulazim”, the politically-correct way to describe your household help.
Out the window has also gone “ayah”, that lovely Kipling-y word that always reminds me of nostalgic British fiction about little English children growing up with their expat Company-sahib and memsahib parents in India, avoiding cholera and being given mangoes to eat by a wise and cosy ayah, from whose bosom child is torn at age ten to be sent “back home” to a cold, miserable boarding school. Ayah is now a fashionable and upwardly mobile “maid”. A maid is not a wise and cozy woman of middle age who sings you nice lullabies at bedtime. A maid is a twenty-something with salon-done eyebrows, a cell phone better than yours and jeggings on underneath a kameez. A maid plays Candy Crush in her free time and takes selfies for Whatsapp that you see when they message you “hy bagy” at 11.30 p.m and realize the background of the photo is your study bookcase. A maid is nobody’s nauker. If anything, you’re probably hers.
It’s a dilemma I think about constantly. In my deep heart I would love to be a real, proper Begum Sahib. The kind my grandmothers were, who never raised their voice but only had to point at something and it would be done, like magic. A quiet and immense power, like Dumbledore—or Sauron, depending on one’s mood. But I also know my grandmothers didn’t read political philosophy and feminist tracts and thus weren’t plagued by employing women’s labour in order to relieve one’s own burden. They didn’t worry that in order to write a column they had to have another woman around to make sure the children weren’t sniffing glue or using the drawing room carpet to make a tent. Our grandmothers didn’t feel guilty for making the help sit on the carpet barefoot. I would implode in a ball of self-conscious embarrassment and class guilt if I told the help to sit on the floor. I know I can’t do it, and I won’t.
The thing is, they won’t either. Nobody now will enter the room and sit on the floor. All the help sits on a chair, a sofa, a stool. And on one level, I think that’s all right. At the end of it, it boils down to how we perceive labour. Unskilled labour is poorly ranked, and our social response mirrors this opinion. The cleaning woman is the lowest tier, followed by the gardener, the maid, the cook and the driver. Liberties are allowed accordingly. People who work in shops and offices have another, higher rank, and so it goes. And it’s not quite fair or right that the people upon who we depend for our everyday convenience and assistance are the ones we think least of. If your cleaning woman or man didn’t do their job, you’d be doing jharoo-taaki yourself, hauling the garbage out yourself. If your maid didn’t iron your clothes, your cook not make lunch—you get the picture. These are the people whose jobs are to provide you with a service that makes your life easier. They know everything about us—when you’re trying to lose weight, when you’re ill, when you fight with your spouse, where you go and what you eat, how much your clothes cost. They know. Normally people who are this intimate with the details of your life are your family or roommates. But because it’s the help, they don’t count?
I can’t balance the equation. I can’t balance my cook making a fancy dinner and then not being “allowed” to eat it too. I can’t reconcile being comfortable enough to trust a maid to give my child a bath, but then be told to sit at a separate table at a restaurant. I can’t justify sitting on a sofa and telling another person to sit on the floor. For what? Because my job is nicer than theirs? We complain that the help doesn’t know their place any more. But isn’t it time that we examine the boundaries of that “place”, and acknowledge they are blurring? Can we dare to be comfortable with the help wanting the same things as us—a nice wedding, pretty shoes, a fancy phone? Can we deal with the balance tipping towards a form of equality?