We need a maid. I know I sound like a snob when I say that but there are many reasons why we need a maid.
Everybody has one. Or two. And a cook. And a nanny. And a gardener. And a driver. It is simply expected of us. 1- As rich people in this country, certain activities are considered beneath us. Huh? Yep. The fact that I mopped my floor this afternoon would make more than one woman in our compound gasp. 2- The trickling down of money is necessary, I wholeheartedly agree with that. The rich pay the poor to do the tasks they don’t want to do and I don’t want to clean. 3- And our house is big, really big. It has mostly marble floors and four bathrooms. Bangalore is very dusty and we live with our windows open all the time. This means that there is dust everywhere: on the floors, on the window sills, on the stairs (oh! those nasty slippery hard on your feet and malleolus bruiser stairs) and all horizontal surfaces such as coffee tables, television, phones, even the iron work inside the banister. I can tell you that it is an awful lot of work to get rid of the red dust!
So we need a maid.
Before we moved here, we were delighted that we wouldn’t have to lift a finger, that the house would be run for us. Oh, how we dreamt of having the laundry folded and neatly placed on the shelves. But I had also been told that “managing the maids” would be a chore. I didn’t believe it since I didn’t know what that meant. I had been told that we would have to teach them how we want things done. I thought that came from picky people who want the line around the faucets scrubbed with a toothbrush everyday. I am not picky! How can having everything done for you efficiently at such an affordable price be an inconvenience? Now I know. Hence, we don’t have a maid. Or a cook.
But I only want a maid part-time. It is not unusual to see full-time maids, even live-in maids. That’s what the “servant’s room” is supposed to be for. Many middle and upper-class Indians, as well as expats, especially if they have kids, have a full-time maid and nanny, sometimes both. That means having someone in your house all the time. And that means more or less ignoring that person all the time. I can’t do that, I can’t live with someone in my house as if they were transparent, non existent. I don’t want someone here when I am not decent, when I am on the phone, when I read a book, when I cut my nails, when I want to take a nap, when I am arguing with my husband! I can’t dance Bollywood-style as if no one is watching, because someone is watching! It is a valid point that I could get dressed completely in the morning and stop arguing with E, but it’s easier for me to pass on the full-time help! Some people give their key so the work is done while they are away. I didn’t do it in the US, I am not going to start now.
The first few days after we moved, wannabe maids were lining up at our door all day long. Back in December, I checked many of the letters of recommendation and was astounded to see the negative feedback. For one of them, I was told by not one, but several ex-expats that the woman was a nightmare, and that despite the fact that she was carrying decent references, I had to read between the lines. “She cleans and cooks” doesn’t mean she does either well. Live and learn! Therefore I decided if the people who wrote those letters don’t respond, I won’t press it.
We hired one lady, with whom I clicked. Her first day was Christmas Eve. She was funny, seemed efficient and eager to work, we could understand each other’s English, and her previous employers only had good things to say about her. The first time was wonderful. She even cleaned out the refrigerator (that’s called “having a sense of initiative” in reference letters). She cooked an amazing meal, with several courses. We were in heaven. Then I realized that she was cooking less, and she didn’t have time to finish the cleaning. No problem (yet). I had been told she has a sister with whom she worked in tandem, one cooking, the other cleaning. I thought it was a grand idea. I was wrong. Hiring the sister was the beginning of the end.
First they argued over the salary. I didn’t want to have long discussions over how much I would pay one, then how much I would pay the other, so I gave them a very high price for both. After they made sure bonuses would be added, all catholic and major hindu religious, state, national and city holidays were off, they happily agreed. However, twenty minutes later, the sister comes back to me, quite aggressive, asking for more because the first one wanted too much of that chunk. No. I don’t know what happened between the two of them, but they didn’t ask for more money. They also stopped talking to each other while working here.
But they asked for “stuff”. They had me buy four different brooms, one toilet brush for each bathroom, different sponges and a long list of cleaning products. Ok, I thought, we are all comfortable with our cleaning supplies, I personally think 409 and Lysol (both of which we find here) do a great job on most surfaces, but if they are more efficient with their brands, fine. To this day, three of the brooms and two of the toilet brushes are still in their plastic wrap. This tells you a bit of what is to come.
I was clear that I didn’t want any organizing done. I just want the floors, bathrooms and kitchen cleaned. There was a silent battle of the wills over a winter coat that I had left on a bed because our little kitten likes to sleep on it. In one afternoon, I took it off the hanger and put it back on the bed three times. They insisted on cleaning the outside patio. In a reference letter, this too would fall under the category of “initiative”. But the bathrooms weren’t done. They unplugged every bit of electronic equipment and lamps, and neatly wrapped and tied the cords up. Can you imagine how my favorite geek reacted to having to replug everything that night? The kitchen counter was wiped but not clean (note to self: never have black granite in a kitchen). They insisted on shaking the sofa cushions but didn’t clean the mirrors, after specifically asking me to buy Windex. It is true that they organized the pantry staples into neat boxes, one for onions, one for potatoes, but in the process they put the super dangerous Permethrin next to garlic. They decided that anti-bacterial wipes and anti-mosquito wipes needed to be together in a big “wipe” box. A wipe is a wipe, right (in case you’re wondering, they both read English)! And my favorite: we had several bags of mixed mini chocolates (yes, yum!!) that they meticulously divided and stored into plastic bags, one for KitKats, one for Snickers, one for MnMs… Yet the stairs were neither swept nor mopped. The sense of initiative was giving way to necessary cleaning. We were told by a neighbor that they had been testing us. Enough.
Back to square one. The word got out and the line started again. But we haven’t been able to find a suitable one. Do I sound like a snob again? Yes, and I am painfully aware of that. Make no mistake about it: guilt follows you everywhere in India. Back to thinking of myself as a snobbish expat bossing the maids who live on the edge of poverty. Back to the maids coming to the front door at some ungodly early hour. Back to sweeping the floor myself, since most maids don’t want a part-time job. This puts a new spin on my personal definition of poverty.
A friend who lives in the same compound told me her maid is in a difficult financial situation since her husband’s death and needs additional work. She comes to her house 4 hours a day 5 times a week. But she turned down my offer of half that salary for 4 hours a week. She would only accept if I convince my friend to let her leave two hours early without changing her pay. This was my first, not last, experience of a maid trying to pin an employer against another. No.
The salary structure makes very little sense to me. There has to be a rationale, but I don’t get it. A maid wants X rupees for a full time job. Double that if you’re a foreigner. If they work half time, they want about 80% of that, even if they work only four hours a week, which is what I want. The compound association had given us written salary guidelines to avoid jealousies among personnel working here, but they would hear none of it. I told them I don’t think it’s fair or reasonable, but their mind works differently. Basically at this point, what they want to be paid per hour is the equivalent of four times what a software engineer earns. I understand they work piece meal, but still, I am very confused.
E. and I believe that there is a big window of opportunity for a service that would provide cleaning according to expat expectations, a Desi Merry Maids of sorts. Tomorrow we’ll talk to Sathya and see if he’s willing to start this business with us!
I have not yet given up on the idea of buying a Roomba, an automatic sweeper/mopper. That’s how thin my patience has run.