Many Westerners who live in India are ambivalent about hiring Indian domestic workers, or as they are commonly called, servants. I grew up with servants- and my parents hired as many as their missionary salary allowed. When we returned from furlough, there would be a large crowd of employment applicants on our verandah. At one point, my father’s mission income supported our family and 35 others. Our cook had 11 children, our ayah had 7. We also had a dhobi (laundry man), a “water boy” who watered the garden and hauled buckets of water to the upstairs verandah for baths, and a sweeper (house cleaner).
As a child, this didn’t disturb me or raise any questions. It seemed we were performing a service to these families, and these adults and children were my best friends and caretakers. Now as an adult, it’s not so easy to reconcile this reality. Western employers tend to pay more and treat their staff with respect, but the arrangement still feels very feudal and colonial. I’ve seen middle class Indians treat their servants with a fair dose of paternalism, disrespect and even abuse.
Manjula, property manager and cook at Bob Granner and Pippa Mukerjee’s homes in the Kodaikanal area, is a longtime and much beloved employee. She handles multiple tasks, including gourmet cooking, all property bill payments and finances, supervision of maintenance work, and oversight of the two other part-time workers. Manjula helped to build and establish huge garden areas. She works long hours on her feet. She has a good salary, I’m told, and her own free house nearby. She absolutely refuses to take breaks, even when she doesn’t feel well. Manjula clearly sees herself as a servant and is committed to that role. Please scroll to the end of this post to view a music slideshow I made recently honoring Manjula’s work and the beauty of the gardens she helped to create. I focused on her work shopping in the market, cooking, laundry, and gardening. The panoramic views of the surrounding mountains are taken from her front porch.
I do believe that Manjula has a good job and is treated very well. Her employers hope that she might be able to retire to England, where her daughter and family live. But many other servants in India are not so lucky. From a recent article “The State of Domestic Workers in India”:
- The number of domestic workers in India range from official estimates of 4.2 million to unofficial estimates of more than 50 million.
- Girls and women make up the significant majority of domestic workers. Between 2000 and 2010, women accounted for seventy-five % of the increase in the total number of domestic workers in India.
- The majority of domestic workers in India are illiterate/ minimally educated and low-skilled. They are also one of the poorest and most exploited groups of workers in the country.
- Domestic workers in India are forced to be dependent on their employers because they have no legal protection as workers under India’s labor laws, and no bargaining power due to their situations of poverty, illiteracy and low-skills.