Household help

One of the joys of living in India is the help one can get albeit at a  price (I will get into that in another post). People are amazed at the facilities we Indians enjoy – the local baniya, the chemist, the vegetable vendor, the meat man, the egg man, the bread man, the fruit man, the newspaper man, the milk man   – all of whom home deliver with just a phone call almost 11 hours a day.  

This is not to mention the other delivery men like couriers, florists and postmen.

Then we have service providers like beauticians who give you facials, pedicures, manicures, head massages, haircuts and even help drape your sari if you so require, physiotherapists,masseurs, fortune tellers, priests, tailors, door to door salesmen of saris and jewelry repairers who sit in your house and string all your pearls.

I was traveling in a lift the other day in a building known for having more servants than residents. This is not very uncommon in Mumbai . There are some families I know who have a maid/boy to look after each child, a cook who is either resident or visiting, a laundryman or dhobi who comes in to iron the clothes, a driver or chauffeur and sometimes even a general dogsbody or gentleman’s valet. In addition there is also the cleaning lady who may or may not do the bathrooms in which case one has to employ a jamadar or janitor. The number of servants not only depend on the size of the household and the jobs to be done, but also reflect the family‘s social status. For instance, a rich and famous family would not only employ a general overseer or housekeeper who will also double up as an accountant and keep the family’s books, maintain the inventory and do the overall shopping for provisions and household items. The really super duper rich also employ a secretary who comes in for the day while some families employ a telephone operator who also keeps track of the mail and courier parcels that are delivered to the house. Families with little children often employ an ayah or children’s maid but now the trend is to employ a regular, trained nurse especially for the newborn. And of course, the really rich employ a nanny or even a governess.

If you multiply this complement of household staff by the number of flats in a building – it does work out to more than double the residents!

Visiting workmen

This is in addition to the other people who offer their services to the residents of the building which include car cleaners, beauticians who give pedicures, manicures, haircuts in the comfort of one’s home and are constantly in and out at all times of day! Since most buildings are either in need of repair or undergoing some kind of refurbishment, almost every building is crawling with an electrician, a plumber, a carpenter or painter these workmen. In our building once, every flat was undergoing some kind of renovation as every new resident re-organises the walls and living space according to either his personal preference or the advise of his vastu/ feng shui consultant before moving in with his movable personal effects.

The building societies themselves have staff as security guards, lift men ( those who operate the lifts), an electrician, a plumber, gardeners, office boys , pump men or water men – who monitor the water pumps and water supply and sweepers who keep the building clean.

So what does this have to do with my relatives?

Well, in the olden days, servants or people who offered services were called by the service they offered. For instance a cook would be called a cook or a driver would be called a driver. Often these people were addressed by their given name and no one seemed to take any offence.
However, with the rise of democracy and education, there is a subtle change among attitudes of those who serve. No longer are they servants but people who work or do a job. Consequently they are no longer summoned with a “You there” or ” Who’s there?” or even their designation ( watchman, supervisor ) but are actually given names which were traditionally reserved for our relatives.
Maids, these days, who are extremely hard to come by even though their work leaves much to be desired are often called Didi or elder sister with as much unctuousness as one can muster in one’s voice. Similarly, drivers, watchmen, cooks, etc are addressed as bhaiiya or brother. Nursing assistants in hospitals who are not qualified are called maushis  or mamas depending on whether you are a woman or a man. If the person addressing the worker is much younger as is the case of children, they are encouraged to call them chacha, kaka, dada, mama any other honorific normally reserved for elders in the family. Even one’s mother is not spared as older women are respectfully called mataji.


While I’m all for respecting those who serve or help us and treating them with courtesy, I was taken aback when one of the ayahs in the lift told her young charge who was bawling his head off,  to look at what didi was doing and pointed at me in an effort to distract him from his original intention of bursting her ear drums. I glanced quickly at the mirror in the dimly lit lift and realised that with my wisps of hair escaping from my rubber band, well worn T and un-polished nails I needed to change my look lest I be mistaken for another maid. 

There was a time when maids wore cast offs by their employers or were given a “uniform”. However, today, to overcome the ” right of admission reserved” rule applicable in most establishments, maids are not only dressed in jeans and T’s but are also sent to beauty parlors to get their hair, nails and eyebrows done thereby making it hard to differentiate between master and servant.

This only means that shabby chic won’t really work unless you want to be mistaken for the household help!


A granny who always sees the humour in life and tries to do things differently. When others make cupcakes, this granny makes banana fritters. When she’s not busy chasing her grandchildren who love making her run around, she indulges in her passions of reading, writing, meeting friends and watching movies. And somewhere between all this she enjoys travelling and cooking!

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