The Help

Let me start by saying that I’ve never had anyone do my laundry or clean for me other than my parents when I was a child.  Now, I do all of those thing on my own.  I even had a summer job in high school as a maid, and gained a very deep appreciation for how hard of a job it is (plus a lot of ridiculous stories, since I found that people treated the maid more like a psychologist).

Now, in India, I have two men seemingly at my disposal.  They are the “caretakers” of the apartment I am staying in … and that’s about all I know.  They were sleeping in the apartment before I arrived, but now they sleep in the basement of the building, presumably in pretty unfortunate and minimal conditions.  (My mind keeps flashing to the description of a basement that the driver sleeps in from the book “White Tiger”- literally swarming with roaches.)

The men seem to be very determined to work hard – in addition to their role as caretakers, they also have day jobs, so we are all at work at the same time.

One of these men, Ananta, has been instructed by the flat owner to accompany me wherever I go (other than work). This meant that my he very kindly arranged transport to lots of temples when I visited on Sunday. He insisted on coming with me to the mall and was walking around showing me things I might be interested in, until I told him to wait outside until I had finished shopping. However, I definitely go places and just don’t tell him.  Every night when I walk to get dinner at the restaurant nearby (a 2 minute walk along a busy road) he insists on coming and sitting outside while I eat, so I don’t walk alone.  I don’t fight him about this because dinner time is 9 pm. My first two days I was so lonely I invited him to join me for dinner and bought him food, even though I am very aware it is not “appropriate” by indian standards.  Now, he’s put his foot down, and doesn’t come inside while I am eating.  I don’t think he was shown much respect in the restaurants, either.  He now eats dinner for Rs. 20 at a roadside stand, and mine is about Rs. 80-120 in the restaurant.

He and the other man, C., come around 6:50 am to see if I want tea, then around 7 pm when I get home from work. C. is always bowing and running ahead to open doors and saying “yes, madam”, “please, madam”, “sorry, madam”. If I say I want tea, it is served on a platter (below).  There seems to be an unspoken rule that we don’t touch. But I’m not sure about it – in fact, I have a million questions about this whole situation…



1. What exactly are these men supposed to do?

2. How often is appropriate for me to ask them to sweep the floor? (They weren’t doing it, but since someone came to sweep the floor every morning when I stayed with friends in Delhi,I figured it was appropriate and asked them to do it.  They have done it twice in 5 days.)

3. Can I tell them to go buy a clean sponge for washing dishes, or should I just do it myself? Let’s not talk about the current sponge.

4. Can I tell them to dust?

5. The kitchen is smelly and has flies.  Can I tell them to clean it?

6. Is is rude for me to not invite them to stay in the apartment or watch TV, at least occasionally?

7. Am I supposed to pay them or tip them for things?

8. Will they do my ironing, or am I supposed to?

9. The sinks (bathroom and living room) seem like they haven’t been washed in months.  Can I ask them to do it?

10. How much are they paid per day to do this caretaking? What do they think about me?  DO they ever wash the pot that they make tea in? etc.

I really struggle with this set up , because I know I am fully capable of being self sufficient and doing my own cleaning, but I also think that these people are here to do (and paid to do) these services. But I feel really silly even thinking “wash this sink!”  I have decided to go buy some sponges today and just do some of the things myself (I’ll start with sinks and dusting).

I struggle with wanting to be nice. But also wanting to have things clean. Not being able to speak the same language.  Not knowing boundaries about what is appropriate for me to ask them to do. I really want to pay them money – but I know the landlord is paying them.  Last night I asked Ananta if he is going to Cuttack with me this weekend, where I’ll stay with my adviser’s mother. He said he is going to his village, because his daughter has a special ceremony (I think), and he needs to buy her a Rs. 200 dress – he has been saving up.  I wanted to just freaking hand him the rupees (less than $5) right then and there.  I’m still thinking about it.  Is it bad to buy them meals and give them money (which to them is a LOT of money)?  I want to do it.  My only concerns are that it goes against the culture to have me giving them money – might make them try to take advantage of me – or something like that.  But I just feel horrible about how expensive my meals (and camera, and computer) are- and he’s working really hard to save up Rs. 200 – and he has been helpful to me. In other cases, I would be concerned that someone would spend the money on alcohol – but I don’t get the impression that he would.

Sorry this was a rambling post.  I am (obviously) quite confused about how to live with this type of “help”, and how to find an appropriate balance of doing what is culturally acceptable and doing what I think is right.  But I am deeply grateful for their kind and helpful service. If you are reading this and have any insights, please share 🙂

Edit: I should be sure to say that this place is by no means “very dirty”. Many places in America are equivalent, and it is quite nice by Indian standards.  I’ve stayed in many places that are orders of magnitude worse than this apartment. The only reason I’m even mentioning wanting to clean the sinks, etc, is that I’m here for a prolonged time, and I wasn’t sure if cleaning was included in the list of responsibilities of the caretakers. But I feel very lucky to have such a nice place to stay and two people to help look after it. 

3 thoughts on “The Help

  1. I don’t know anything about detailed cultural practices here, but i would assume that it isn’t considered ok for you to give them money or buy them stuff – but I think that if you did it every once and a while as a token of appreciation, maybe seeing what kind of gifts are appropriate (asking a co-worker or your adviser’s mom?) and that can encourage a good relationship between you, but also not make them uncomfortable or put you at risk.

    • Good suggestions. I ended up giving him the money for the dress. I just really wanted to.
      I’ve talked to a friend in Delhi which helped me get a better understanding of normal behaviors in this type of situation… and I will try to do an update post on the blog.

      • neat! i’ll be interested to hear what you learned. and I’m happy that the little girl is getting her dress cause then i bet dad can spend the money getting something else to support her. you are so kind!

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