The Help

I’m reading a book called ‘The Help’ about life in Mississippi of 1962. The book jacket says ‘…Where black maids raise white children, but aren’t trusted not to steal the silver…’ That sure struck a (rather guilty) cord – Especially in context to my current situation over the past 3 years as a working mom of a 3 year old. 

Nuclear families, the increasing number of working mom’s, increasing cross country pollination, busy self absorbed lifestyles and the traffic situation in Bangalore means a decreasing support system from immediate family – once characteristic of Indian family set up’s. Working couples in India are now increasingly dependent on hiring help to look after their children, cook, clean house… 

Although I had never really registered or given much thought to this situation before, when I myself hired help to look after my child, I began to realize the importance and predominance of paid help in our children’s life. Often to the extreme. 

In the quest to ‘do more with life’ and live a more fulfilling life, I often see the balance between work / ‘me-time’ and quality home time / time spent with children getting tipped precariously towards the former.
I often see kids tagging along with their maids all day all through the working week and then some – at birthday parties, during weekends, holidays, late at night, early in the morning, being fed in the parks…  

While this will have obvious consequences to the way in which our next generation turns out, reading the book also made me think about our attitudes towards our paid help in India. Another excerpt from the book: 

Rule # 2: Don’t you ever let that white lady find you sitting on her toilet. I don’t care if you’ve got to go so bad it’s coming out of your hairbraids. If there’s not one out back for the help, you find yourself a time when she’s not there in a bathroom she doesn’t use. 

Rule # 3: When you’re cooking white people’s food, you taste it with a different spoon. You put that spoon to your mouth, think nobody’s looking, put it back in the pot, might as well throw it out. 

Rule # 4: You use the same cup, same fork, same plate every day. Keep it in a separate cupboard and tell that white woman that’s the one you’ll use from here on out. 

Rule # 5: You eat in the kitchen 

Rule # 6: You don’t hit on her children. White people like to do their own spanking. 

How many of these ‘rules’ are we guilty of imposing on our help? In most houses, several I suspect.
I feel shamed to think that the India of 2010 seems equal in attitude to the Mississippi of 1962… While our attitudes are more progressive than the previous generation, we still have a long way to go in building an equal opportunity society in India.
And the scary part is – Are we willing or even capable of making this change?

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3 responses to “The Help

  1. I tried so hard to treat my help as an equal. I refuse to keep a separate plate and glass and have tried to get her to sit at the table (albeit after we’ve finished – oops!)…Funny thing is, she prefers to be separate. The table makes her very uncomfortable, and she chooses to eat from a separate plate and glass. It takes two hands to clap and a whole lotta broad minds to make things different.

    • Yes.. I remember 7 years back when I was just married and hiring help for the first time.. I went through several before finding one who stuck. At that time, S said to me only half jokingly that the maids were leaving because they were probably confused with me and their relationship with me… That they preferred our parent’s generation with all their idiosyncrasies. But I wonder…

      I remember my grandma’s maid – She stayed with her for more than 15 years I think…
      She used a horrid toilet in the garden (no lights, barely standing space..), used separate (chipped) cutlery, ate her meals sitting on the kitchen floor.. the works..
      And they were really thick (or seemed to be) – chatting away through the day… till the day she quit – and said a lot of nasty things to my granny – on the lines of how she had always hated working for her…

  2. The first part of the post really struck a chord with me. How can we have work-life balance when we are at work 9 hours. Add commute time to that. How many waking hours are left after that anyway? Whatever is left is taken by the children. Me-time is non existent.

    Agree with Ayesha. Our maid too is not comfortable with the table. But she doesn’t use a separate plate/spoon etc. And many times, she eats before I do.

    But yeah, I don’t think I’ll like it if she hits the kids. It is indeed sad for them – living in another person’s house, by their rules. Taking care of their brats who might bite/kick you but you can’t spank them.

    I wonder too about the kids’ psyche. They see this inequality and learn from it. When I returned from work the other day, little Nikkie took my bags from me and dumped it on the maid! She is just 1.5 years.

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