Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Maid in Mumbai

I just realised that I have been blogging for over one and a half years about my life as a working mom and I have never done a detailed post on the support system that allows me to even consider such a life without having a nervous breakdown – I am talking about my maids.

Given my penchant for order, what better place to start than the very beginning – which is actually a lot before Ayaan was even a possibility – it was the time we decided to get a dog. And like with a baby, this decision too came with its accompanying lifestyle changes – the biggest one being breaching our precious privacy and letting a full time maid into our home. My mom managed to get hold of an elderly widow called Hitkari from Bihar, who given her quiet and undemanding nature, fitted into our home and our lives seamlessly.

When I got pregnant couple of years down the line, I felt pretty smug about the fact that I had atleast one maid figured out. But you know what they say about counting your chickens before they hatch. What happened in my seventh month of pregnancy has pretty much become the urban legend of maid stories amongst my friends. One day, completely out of the blue, I came home to find my supposedly mild-mannered and respectable maid sprawled out on my bean bag, drunk out of her mind! She apologised to me the next day but it was pretty half-hearted as apologies go and it was diluted even further when same behaviour was repeated the following evening! The lady in question was sent home with a one-way ticket – forget about the baby, there was no way I was okay with leaving my dogs in the care of this woman, who suddenly seemed to have suddenly discovered a partiality for alcohol with a vengeance.

So the nanny hunt began with a vengeance. I began with offering the job to Surekha, the lady who had been cooking for us for the last four years – we liked her and trusted her but she has young kids of her own to cook and clean for, so she regretfully declined our offer of increased salary and increased hours. She continues to be our morning maid though. In retrospect, it was a good thing because she is quite unreliable with respect to time, something I never noticed before but in the current situation would seriously hamper my peace of mind.

Then I tried the agency route. A mix of characters came my way – some good, some not so much. But most of them failed to match up on one or more of my endless list of requirements:

  • She had to be a woman. To start with, the thought of having a strange man hanging around the house was beyond weird. Secondly, I don’t think that men have the necessary sensibilities to be care-givers, especially to children who are not their own. And lastly and most importantly, most of the stories I have heard about kids being abused involve men.
  • She had to be middle-aged, ideally should have had kids of her own or should have worked as a nanny for atleast 3-4 years. I see a lot of very young maids, barely out of their teens, with their young charges in the park. Now, I have one such girl who lives with me and she is great playmate for Ayaan, but it stops at that. I can never imagine leaving Ayaan in the sole care of someone who has no experience with caring for children and is barely done with being one herself…
  • Moreover, her work experience should have included a stint with a working mom because helping out a SAHM and handling a child solo while the mother is away are two very different things.
  • She should not have had any addictive habits. Many a prospective nanny was ruled out simply because she had orange/ stained teeth – a sure sign of a tobacco chewing habit.
  • She could not have be too fat. Somehow, I just felt that a seriously overweight woman would not be able to keep up with a hyperactive toddler. On the flipside, she should not have been too thin/ weak-looking either.
  • She had to be willing to either stay with me or work the number of hours that covered my office timings and be willing to stay late or spend the night in case of emergencies.
  • If a day maid, then I didn’t want one who lived very far away because that makes for a lot of no-shows, especially during the monsoons.
  • I wanted to avoid taking on someone with very young kids as they tend to take a lot of sick days and school days off, which while understandable can be highly disruptive to the life of a working mom.
  • Above all else, I had to like her. This one is just about that indefinable something that the person either had or didn’t have – something that just clicked within moments of meeting them. It’s kind of like falling in love ;-)

But even the seemingly good ones who made it through all these criteria didn’t work because the one thing that I was absolutely insistent on was that they furnish me with references and none of them were willing/ able to do so – either the previous employers had allegedly moved abroad or they had not parted on good terms. The idea of leaving my son with a person whose background I knew nothing of just didn’t appeal to me. So I kept looking but since I was unwilling to relax any of the abovementioned criteria, I soon found myself four months into my six-month maternity leave with no nanny in sight.

And then suddenly, lady luck seemed to favour me. First, I managed to trace a lady called Mary who had worked for a distant relative who had moved cities. I met her and really liked her. We agreed that she would start a week later but on the D-day, she didn’t show and when I called, her son picked up and said that she had been hospitalised – they never said for what – and would call back when she was better. She never did.

Just days after the Mary option fell through, I got another lead. A friend of a friend was moving to Singapore and despite her best efforts, she had not been able to arrange a visa for her nanny and was leaving without her. So I asked them to send her over for an interview. Shashikala walked into my house and I took an instant dislike to her – she came across as a demanding, know-it-all person with an enormous chip on her shoulder. But the friend she had worked for (also a full time working mom) had praised her highly and said that she was excellent with her baby girl. Having run out of time and options, I decided to try Shashikala out for a couple of weeks before taking a final decision.

In the end, I am glad that I listened to reason rather than go by my instantaneous dislike for something as silly as her attitude in her dealings with me. Because she has turned out to be an excellent nanny to Ayaan – he adores her to bits, she manages his feeding and napping brilliantly (sometimes better than me), and above all, she is a responsible, mature woman who cares for Ayaan with the right mix of affection and discipline. We have had our ups and downs and she is still not my favourite person, but I have come to realise that that is the least important thing.

In addition to Shashikala the Nanny cum Cook, I have two other maids. Surekha is my old cook and I didn’t want to fire her so she fills in the three-hour gap in the morning before Shashikala arrives at ten. Shashikala leaves as early or late as I get home from work and is not averse to spending the occasional night. I also have a girl called Jamuna, who lives with me and is responsible for keeping things clean and being Ayaan’s playmate. It’s quite an ideal mix because Jamuna has the energy and enthusiasm to play with Ayaan endlessly, while the others are good at feeding and comforting him.

While the set-up is pretty comfortable right now and I hope it stays that way (fingers crossed, knock on wood), I am too much of a control freak to let go completely so I leave no doubt in their minds on how I like things done. The rules are simple:

  • Ayaan eats only in his high chair and sleeps only in his cot and unless there is a very good reason, all this happens as per his regular schedule.
  • One of the maids has to be in viewing distance of him at all times.
  • Absolutely no TV is to be watched by anyone while he is awake.
  • I make a weekly meal plan that spells out what he is to eat for every meal. Moreover, there is to be no junk food and no eating between meals. The meal plan is a recent thing because I found that if I left it entirely up to them, Ayaan’s menu had become pretty boring and repetitive.
  • If I am not back by six and it is not raining, Ayaan should be taken to the park for atleast an hour in the evening.
  • He is never to be left in the unsupervised care of Jamuna.
  • Under no circumstances shall anyone raise a hand on him.

The usual question that people ask me when I tell them all this is how do I know that they are following my rules. I have my ways:

  • Even though we don’t need to, Jai and I always carry our house keys and enter without ringing the bell so that they don’t have any advance notice of our arrival and we can know exactly what they were up to at that particular moment.
  • We try and come back at unexpected times. Jai is able to do this more often than I am since his office is just 10 minutes away. So he randomly drops in for lunch or just to say hi when he is passing by. This keeps them on their toes.
  • I make sure that they stick to even the smallest and least important of my diktats. I don’t believe, as far as they are concerned, in picking my battles because it’s important to drive home the point that I am the last word on everything, no matter how insignificant, to do with Ayaan.
  • And finally, I know that most of my rules are being followed because Ayaan is not particularly interested in watching TV and creates no fuss whatsoever for eating in his high chair and sleeping in his cot. As for the junk food, we’ve pretty much stopped stocking that at home.

So that, in a very large nutshell, is the backbone of my life as a working mom. My maids are all important pillars but the one who is truly indispensable is Shashikala. If she leaves, for whatever reason, I will either have to quit my job or beg the grandmothers to step in while I begin the long, painful search all over again…


  1. Amazing. Inspiration for the less organised to be more so. The bible of motherhood is what I now refer to your blog as...even to the un-child-ized!

  2. Ro: so glad you did this post just now! good for me, anyway :-)

    here's hoping the backbone stays intact,


  3. i think you should watch "The Nanny Diaries" was such a great movie.
    SO does Ayaan get to eat with you guys?

  4. Finding one good maid is difficult enough and you have 3. WOW!!!

  5. Anonymous11:36 pm

    Just wondering how old is Jamuna? Hope this is not a child labour case!!

  6. Anonymous2:14 am

    Not passing judgement ...I might have made the same decision in ur shoes too.. But...it is interesting that ..u are a wrking mom ...but you do not trust other wrking moms ( in reference to ur comment that potential maids should not have small children) to be professional ...while at the same time u would'nt want ur employers to believe that since u have a small kid u will not be as dedicated as the next person and pass u up for an exciting project or a job promotion...

    Honestly ...not judging u ...I would have doen the same thing perhaps in your shoes ..

  7. "I don’t think that men have the necessary sensibilities to be care-givers"
    Hey hey! I will have to move to Mumbai and work for you to prove you wrong :P

    "Absolutely no TV"
    Awesome! We have the exact same rule. I don't know why it shocks people!

  8. sigh. if i had three good maids i'd have two jobs maybe! but this old maid still doenst remember to change a wet nappy... and still sneaks off to smoke a beedi. God bless your maids.

  9. o good luck Ro!! And knock on wood..for ur maids..

  10. Well said. Finding good, reliable child care makes it soo much easy. We were lucky to have a terrific nanny for Chip, but for most part now, I am my own maid,cook, play companion to Chip :)

  11. [30in2005] *blush*

    [Y] Actually, I was thinking about you when I was posting this. All the best for figuring out your own backbone...

    [Grafx] Well, when I am around he won't allow anyone else to feed him - so I feed him all meals on weekends and breakfast and dinner on most weekdays...

    [Anon1] Nope, she is well over the legal age.

    [Anon2] You do have a point but the fact is that even in most professional organizations, women with kids are considered as less valuable assets (heck, I've been told that to my face by someone when I got back to work post maternity leave) and generally move slower up the corporate ladder... it's just the way it is.

    [Twisted DNA] Well, I would have to check your references ;)

    And I do allow him to watch 10-15 minutes of TV when he asks (twice or thrice a week), because I don't him to grow up craving it like some forbidden fruit but I make sure that I am there with him to control what and how much

    [Sunita/ Mad Momma/STS/ Dotmom] Like I said - fingers crossed

  12. nice of you to credit your support structure, and I like how you called them the 'backbone of your life'.

    here's hoping the pillars stay intact!

  13. I know just what you mean. I had a cook, a maid and a driver who were my backbone, and I still couldnt work from my own office cause I could not keep a full timer....thanks for the number though.

  14. I don't have even one( suffered a slipped disc sometime back, and it still hasn't gotten right yet- my backbone!;-P) and you have 3!!!
    Can I borrow..? Please? Ummm... Shashikala?

    Lol! touchwood, touchwood touchwood- for all three of your gems.

  15. that is wonderful

    i always have thought that help in Mumbai is far superior than in Chennai

    they seem to understand punctuality and how it is when a woman works

  16. Anonymous10:12 pm

    good you have things all figured out! Jamuna sounds like a child herself - 18 years is legal, below that, one is guilty of using child labour.

    Too many people in urban India think it ok to get away with this. There is something about Urban Middle Class people that is just that tad bit insensitive - like no one I know every talks about the lives of the people who work as domestic help in their homes- how they deal with their own children, how they manage to send them school, what one can do to help them etc. The worst is when I see how middle class people haggle about wages to be paid to people working as domestic help!!! One night about town and 3000 bucks is probably blown on starters and cocktails, yet for that 100 rupee raise, its a tamasha - the worst is when they brag about how they brought the wages down - YUCK!!!!
    And Please what is this 'maid' business - we dont live in the 16th century. Its as good as calling them 'servants'. When people say that all I want to do is slap them.

    Before anyone here says it, of course I am judgemental - tough.

  17. Anonymous10:24 pm

    Prev Anonymous poster - That was exactly my thought too. Jamuna really seems like a child (if not why else would the author not trust her with her child). And I know legal age is 14 and that law is too outdated. I still believe if you keep someone at home below 18, you better take care of their education. When you can spend so much on your dog, why can't you give respect to a human being!!!! I am also a judgemental reader.

  18. Anons, both of you -- Consider the work they do in the environment they do it. They get a safe, warm, comfortable place to spend the day in, food no problem, and between the two of them they have to cook and take care of one single child who spends a couple of hours in playschool. Also, when his mother is around she does everything for him.

    I don't think you are taking into account the division of labour here.

    Also, it hardly matters what you refer to them as, so long as they feel comfortable and secure in their jobs.

    Do you even have children? Have you ever allowed somebody else, even a grandparent, to care for a child who is important to you? One nappy left on too long leads to a rash which pains a baby for days. For the neglect of an hour. Kids end up trusting their caregivers entirely so it is important to ensure that the caregivers are worthy of the trust.

    Anybody who has not had a child of her own or handled one for a year at least is too young/ immature to be trusted entirely with somebody else's. Caring for children is not a skill anybody is born with, trust me.

    Lastly, if you respect the opinions you have stated, show that by leaving your names. If differentiates you from the random trolls.

    Rohini -- I'm sorry for butting in, I just don't think these two thought out the issues involved here. I'm tempted to get in a nanny some days, but so far V and I have managed. Let's see how this goes.

  19. Touch wood, fingers crossed and knock wood X 100. it's great you decided to do a post on yr 'backbone'. we really don't give credit to the behind the scenes folks sometimes.
    You could have been describing tara's nanny when you wrote about shashikala. "Aunty poopa" as rogue monkey calls her is pretty indispensable in our house too. and we have the exact same relationship as y do with shasikala. as if we don't have enough power struggles at work already! :)

  20. [Kodi's Mom] Well, they are. There's no way I could work with a peaceful mind (or maybe even work at all) without them.

    [Kiran] Hope your search for help works out soon.

    [JLT] So now you want to break my backbone too? ;-)

    [Rajam] I agree - I think people in Mumbai in general are a lot more professional.

    [Anons 3&4] Firstly, if it's not too much of a problem with you, I am going to respect the Government of India's opinion on what constitutes child labour and is therefore illegal rather than yours. Secondly, I pay all my maids well above market rate and they all have loans outstanding that are in multiples of their salaries... for the rest of your concerned queries/ comments, refer to Sue's comment - she's done a pretty good job of saying what I would have.

    [Sue] Thanks for having my back *hugs*

    [Aqua] Aunty Poopa? LOL!

  21. This was really interesting. In the event we ever do manage to make our permanent residence in your country, I might be calling you up for tips on hiring house-help!

    Have a great weekend, Rohini!

  22. Nice post. You sure are a true manager!

  23. Madison6:28 am

    When I read the first paragraph of your entry, words like "maids" and "support system" gave me the impression that it was going to be a thank-you note for your domestic help.

    I was disappointed to see that it was a bourgeois account of how you "manage the servants". I am even more surprised by the comments that praise you for your management and organisation skills but fail to note how much your 3 "maids" do for your family every single day.

    It is interesting that your son spends more waking hours in a day with the 3 of them, than with you. They are more than just the grease that keeps your machine going... in your son's eyes now, they are family too. And I think they deserve to be shown in a more human light - not just as maid, playmate and "nanny cum cook"

  24. Very interesting post. Not sure what to say. Maybe it's a cultural difference, but I could never imagine having (or even wanting) a houseful of maids.

  25. Anonymous8:27 pm

    Just came across your blog.
    I am a full-time working mom of 1 toddler and a preschooler. I am comfortably able to work full-time, spend quality time with the kids and keep the house in near perfect condition.

    I'll be moving to India early next year on an assignment. I was wondering what issues I would have to face from managing the home front.
    Is it not possible to work full-time and still care of children at home, i mean after they come back from preschool?
    Are the working hours very long in India?

    Just looking for some insight. It appears from your post that life there would mean depending on hired help.

  26. Anonymous9:06 am

    What can I say?? Shameless article by an inhuman who calls herself human being.

  27. anon- do you even follow English?

    Can't you see it- the post is a tribute to what rohini calls the pillars of her life...

  28. Madison: A Mom IS maid, playmate, nanny and cook to her child. So sometimes owing to time constraints when a Mom engages another person to be one or more than one of these, isn't that quite OK?

  29. Anonymous6:03 pm

    Maybe it is cultural thing.
    Are all working moms in India have the same arrangement?
    Wow! Nice to be in your shoes?

  30. Anon - Yeah, you should try being a working mom ANYWHERE! Then we'll see how nice it is to be in those shoes.

    It is easy to say it is a "cultural" thing. If maid service were as easily available whereever you live, and as affordable, I am assuming you wouldn't be saying this. Is this a case of sour grapes, dearo?

  31. Madison8:02 pm

    just like that: Going by your argument, while Rohini is away at work, her 3 "maids" are taking over the role of Mom to Ayaan. So all the more reason for her to potray them in a more dignified and human light. What really irks me is the tone of the entry - the 3 women who (according to you) are literally playing 'mother' to her son during the week are not given half the credit that Rohini gives to herself for finding and managing them.

  32. Anonymous10:10 pm

    Wow! You must be earning a lot to afford 3 maids in Mumbai!!


  33. [Talena] Are you serious? You have plans of relocating?

    [Choxbox] Thanks :)

    [Madison] Personally do not see what you found undignified or inhuman in what I wrote. This post was definitely not about taking credit but just an insight into what makes my life as a working mom work.

    [Alan] Thanks for expressing your different point of view so diplomatically, most of the others have chosen not to :(

    [Anon5] Well, it is a bit tough to be a working mom in India in my opinion for a couple of reasons:
    1. We Indians are not known for our work-life balance and working hours are not always predictable
    2. Running a house here requires more elbow grease - to start with, cleaning is a daily affair rather than a fortnightly one.
    3. Preschool typically lasts just a couple of hours and I have not come across too many good day care options.

    [Anon6] I have nothing to say to you

    [Artnavy/ JLT/ Ceekay] Thanks for sticking up for me :)

    [Anon7] Read my response to Anon 5 on how being a working mom without help is far, far tougher in India and there is also the fact that help is much more affordable here

  34. All hail the anxious hand-wringers and the incoherent trolls. Welcome to my club, Rohini. Meetings are at my place on Wednesdays. Heh.

  35. Ro,
    So jealous of you! I'm have to start nanny hunting soon since Gudiya's current nanny is getting older and can't keep up. I'm dreading the whole exercise.

  36. Its good that u have a nice support system..Touch wood..

  37. In June of 2005, we thought we'd be there before Jabin was born in November. That fell through, and here we still are. Someday, I'm sure.

  38. Anonymous5:09 am

    Oh PHUULLEEAASSEE....people who are judgemental....no thank you for your opinions. To be in India as a working mother and with a toddler without a support system would be like being in Mars without another human being around....strange, scary and the all the feelings in between. The system has been working well for all along and we really don't need another person to come and take it apart...the maids are getting a lot of nice things out of this arrangement and hey, if they weren't out there looking for a job, then they wouldn't have been here. So just shoo shoo...find someplace else to bitch abt things...


  39. S: You go girl!!! (Assuming you ARE a "girl" and not a "boy" sympathetic to us working mothers :D LOL!)

  40. Anonymous4:17 am

    S, while I agree with you that the system works well and that it is economically viable in India, I do think there IS a need to take it apart and examine it carefully.

    For example,
    1. What is the level of fair wages for household help?
    2. What is a fair expectation of work hours?
    3. What kind of work should we be making them do (esp on the cleaning front?) and how do we compensate them for that so that we minimize exploitation?
    3. What about overtime, vacation days, bonuses, long-term benefits? Are some of these even feasible given the unorganized nature of the market?
    4. Why are wages for hosuehold help so low when our own professional salaries have gone through the roof in the same period? Is this fair given demand and supply?
    5. What do we do with adult illiterate household help? Where does our responsibility end in terms of educating them?
    6. What about employing household help who are over a legal age (14 I believe) but might stil be considered in a gray zone morally i.e. below 18 years?
    7. Should we continue to call them 'servants' and "maids" or shoudl we employ more inoffensive (politically correct?) terminology?

    and so on. I think, in a lot of upper middle-class professional India we are at the stage of the economy where we have the luxury to ask these questions and find fair answers. We should.


    (Disclaimer: this is a generalized comment and not intended to single out anyone for violating any of these standards or something).

  41. Anonymous4:30 am


    Maybe u have seen a few maids being treated unjustly or unfairly. Let me ask u this...what is being fair? Does India have any laws for minimum wages and what a servant should do and don't? Life doesn't go on, should we sit down and nit pick each and every social cause and try to right it. It may not be possible to educate each and every person to make their life better....this is Rohini's way of helping someone/making a diff in their life and getting help for herself in return. A google search result for the term maid/servant: a female domestic/a person working in the service of another (especially in the household) respectively. This is actually the definition by princeton. Are u going to go there and find the person who defined this and shake him up? Are u going to coin a new term? There is nothing derogatory about it. Just as we would call a tailor, watchman etc it is a job name. Don't make it a big deal...I think you have had your 15min so, move on. Though you are appreciated for standing by what you think is right don't expect everyone to bend backwards to change the way the world operates. There is a limit and this seems to be it for you right here...


  42. Why are you whining?!? You are living a life of privilege at the expense of other peoples' desperation.

    Your view of other human beings and their relevance to you in terms of servants makes me want to vomit.

    My name is Shusli Baseler-Johnson.
    I worked and raised two children - without maids.

  43. P.S. You probably drove that poor elderly woman to drinking.

  44. Hi, My name is Eugene Johnson. I live in Portland, Oregon.

    I think I would be an alcoholic knowing that someone like you was actually breeding.

    Your arrogance is way beyond the pale. You are beyond racist. You see no one but yourself as human, and the rest as OTHER!

    If I were a Christian, I would pray that there is a special place in hell for folks like you and your supporters who have parised you on this sickening blog.

    Yours sincerely,

    Eugene Johnson

  45. I am with Shusli and Eugene on this post.

    It is indeed disturbing to read how you cannot see beyond the manner that you have dehumanized the 'maids' 'servants' who work for you.

    That India allows a 14 year old child to work in degrading conditions in any context is simply wrong.

    When I lived in India for 7 months I found many a child, younger than 14, working in restaurants, and for the upper class/castes.

    Young girls from any poor village are found working and slogging to raise the children of folks like you.

    They cook and clean. Tend to children all the time and live like their lives are about serving the wealthy.

    What you are not telling people outside India, is that the women you employ are likely lower caste folk (Dalits) who have very little options to survive.

    That is the reality in India but still, you eat and live off their misery and it comes through in the manner that you dismiss those who are shocked by the casual bigotry you display toward your 'maids' ...

    I am not buying your explanation that the girl who lives with you is better off than in her village.

    Even you admit that she will be forced to return.

    If you are as rich and powerful as you appear, intervene and change her life.

    Use your influence to change her destiny. Don't merely 'profit' from her misery because her life chances are determined by caste or social class.

    The first place to begin is for you to discard your privileged mindset.

    You may scoff at this, and want to believe you are being attacked unfairly by outsiders who know little about you or India, but the truth here is in the manner you have written.

    That manner tells of someone who is very comfortable with standing on the backs of the oppressed.


    Ridwan Laher

  46. Hi
    Found your post useful. I am always at a loss as to how to establish boundaries with help and set 'rules'. I am undergoing the painful search myself. Do you know of any nanny looking for work? Please help!

  47. Anonymous3:19 pm

    how do u ensure or know that your little one is really being taken care of ? Its the little things like whether he was washed properly, fed properly and that he was never roughed up by maids. Its something that would always haunt me at work when I WAS working and left because I could not trust the helpers.
    About the Rules.. how do u know that they really follow the rules?
    To the anon-
    Do u even have a kid and have ever handled helpers ever? What according to you should they be addressed as????
    The helpers/maids are not being tortured at all as you have put across, they can torture the working mums though... eg., they have moblies n when they take kids out to play they are unconcerned about the kid, what keeps them busy is the company of other maids and drivers while the parents are at work who TRUST their kids with them. They get to watch TV, afford mobiles, free premium cosmetics/clothes/food/ and excellent salary hikes and holidays as per their demands becoz obviously working mothers can not afford to piss them off. If you think that they are "abla naris" then forget it. They live a stylish life..a gift from the working mothers to them. They work out of free will, like all working mums do too. (am talking of 18 yrs and above)
    BTW they are called Didis these days. Some are really good and some are spoilt thanks to people like you.