Chennai Journal
Saturday, June 11, 2005
Servant tales
Leela came back, but only to collect her belongings. Her brother survived the accident, but is still in the hospital with broken bones and a head injury, and will require several months’ care. So she is moving back to Kerala. Before Leela collected her stuff from the servant’s quarters, she picked up and held Junior, who started following her the moment she came into the house. I’m guessing that Junior will be the member of the family Leela misses most.

Leela’s “resignation” solved a problem for us, because the maid that she found for us as a temporary replacement during her absence is far superior to her in both housekeeping and cooking skills. Joyce makes excellent western as well as Indian fare, which is a great relief to Marty, and her cleaning is much more thorough---and regular---than Leela’s. Plus, she is willing to come a full six days a week, whereas Leela had grown accustomed to working for expats who let her have the whole weekend off, largely because they wanted the privacy. Every Thursday or Friday, Leela would start talking about how she needed to leave on Friday night or Saturday morning for one reason or another. Finally, I had a conversation with her about my expectations that she stay through the full day on Saturday, which I could tell did not go down well with her. Though we all liked Leela as a person (and Junior liked her most of all), her quitting was a blessing in disguise.

Our arrangement with Joyce isn’t likely to be permanent, for due to her family situation she is only able to come during the day, not stay overnight, and we’d really like a live-in to provide us more flexibility with Dad. She knows this and since she’d come out of early retirement anyway to help us, it’s not a problem for her. Our neighbors have contracted with a service that provides maid/cook employment to women who would otherwise struggle—women left by their husbands, divorcees, etc. They work all but one day a month and live in---at less than we are paying either Leela or Joyce. We’re going to check them out. (Marty’s torn, though, because he really likes Joyce’s cooking—and she hasn’t made Leela’s mistake of confusing a tin of cat food with tuna fish).

The servant economy here is a whole topic unto itself. Well meaning expats have a tendency to wreak havoc on it. It’s hard for Westerners to fathom, but a salary of $100 per month is a very good working class wage here --- those who work for even wealthy Indians make much less than this. Expats not only have a tendency to pay more than the going rate, but at the merest suggestion from the servant, they throw in extras that no Indian would provide, such as reimbursing transportation to and from work, loans and generous gifts, and shorter working hours. I’m guilty of this myself—remember the loan request from the driver? One of my co-workers told me that some expats continue to send money to their servants after they leave India—one as much as $500 per month!

I understand the psychology that motivates this behavior—a desire to uplift the supposedly downtrodden and the sense that the money is a mere pittance-- but the effect isn’t positive, and we’d be much better served to contribute the money to a local charity that would help the truly unfortunate. For one thing, this largesse encourages the servants to become used to a standard of living that may not be sustained---not unlike the auto worker who upgrades his lifestyle while paid overtime and then suffers when it’s reduced or eliminated. Secondly, it creates expectations that all expats should bestow favors, even when performance hasn’t been proven over time. My driver seemed miffed, for example, because after only two months of working for me, I wouldn’t buy him a new moped to replace the one given by the expat he drove for five years ago (and which I suspect he hadn’t properly maintained). And finally, it spoils the servants to work for a market wage again---some will hold out for months, waiting for another expat, rather than go back to work at the going rate—and also creates resentment among other staff in the neighborhood who make less. Of course, expats are usually also nicer to work for---we say please and thank you a lot more. That part I’m also guilty of, but don’t intend to change.

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