Living in an unequal world

Ambika Shaligram
Wednesday, 7 June 2017

In conversation with scribe Tripti Lahiri about her debut book Maid in India

An Aleph Book Company release, Maid in India is a book about ‘Stories of Opportunity and Inequality Inside our Homes’. ...We eat first, they later, often out of food portioned out for them; we call them by their names, and they address us by titles: sir/ma’am, sahib/memsahib...

In conversation with scribe Tripti Lahiri about her debut book Maid in India

An Aleph Book Company release, Maid in India is a book about ‘Stories of Opportunity and Inequality Inside our Homes’. ...We eat first, they later, often out of food portioned out for them; we call them by their names, and they address us by titles: sir/ma’am, sahib/memsahib...

In India, in cities especially, we cannot do without domestic help. They are the cog which ensures that our houses run smoothly. And, in return, they are offered — salary, food and if the employers are nice, education for their kids and opening of bank accounts.

Tripti Lahiri, Asia editor of Quartz, based in Hong Kong, addresses the issue of inequality in her first book, visiting families and chatting up their servants. Excerpts from the conversation:

One expected the book to be pedantic or academic. But it’s not. Was the humane tone deliberate?
I’d say yes, because I’m not an academic and I wanted the book to be about people and their stories: getting ahead, having this or that dream for their lives, and sometimes, despite their best efforts, falling behind. These are things we can all relate to. I also had the experience of sharing a home, via my parents’ domestic help, with people from remote parts of India I didn’t know a lot about.
 
In the acknowledgements section, you said that you perceived writing books to be a pursuit of erudite people. Now that your book is out, do you think these erudite people are going to take note of it?
Such a good question! I would say I want a lot of different kinds of people in India to read the book — employers of different income brackets, but also workers or at least their English-reading children, and also those who are curious about the lives of other fellow Indians.

But ours is a segregated book market, and as an English hardcover, I know that perhaps the reach is going to be more limited than I would like. One thing I want to do over the next months is take it and read it in Hindi to groups of people that I interviewed as they are not English speakers. I’ve already done that on one occasion, and we had a discussion over it as well. I think it was a good experience, for me and them.

You did the interviews in 2014. But it took three years to bring out the book...
I worked full-time on the book and travelled and did reporting in Delhi and eastern India in 2014 and 2015. I spent the second half of 2015 writing the book and submitted the manuscript in early 2016. My publishers wisely rejected that version. I spent a lot of time rewriting it last year — mostly on weekends, as I had a full-time job. The final edits wrapped up in April and we put out the book this month.

How did you zero in on the families to speak to? And, did you take a journalistic approach while working on the book — to stay neutral and not take sides?
I began by following up on people who had surfaced in (and then disappeared from) newspapers, in crime stories about police complaints and court cases. I also spent time with non-profit organisations and companies that interacted with employers and workers, to find people who seemed interesting and open to sharing their life experiences with me for the book.

Will the scenario be different in Mumbai, Pune or Bengaluru where there is less scope as compared to Delhi, to have a live-in maid?
I think the scenario is different to some extent in that pay might be better in Bengaluru and Mumbai. And generally when one is a part-time worker and going to their own homes after the work day, their situation is going to be better. That’s so because they are not under the control or watch of one family of greater power or means than them. However, millionaires, billionaires and placement agents are not uncommon in those cities either. So I’m sure there are people there who will be able to relate to the experiences in this book.

How different is it in Hong Kong?
The minimum wage for full-time domestic work doesn’t seem that high to me, given what an expensive place it is. But there are some ways in which the law is better than that in India at the moment. All the workers get a fixed day off and you can see them on Sundays sitting in public places and having a picnic. And yet, earlier this year, I saw a newspaper report on a woman who took her maid to court for having eaten some apparently very expensive meatballs that were in the fridge. So there is something about this relationship, no matter where it’s taking place, that often turns toxic.

Will it be difficult to find domestic help in the near future?
In India? Probably not, at least if you only want part-time and you are well-connected to pockets where women wanting to work, live. People might have to pay more than they are used to paying so far. There are efforts underway, particularly in states from where a lot of migrants come, to protect their residents when they leave to work and that might change, hopefully for the better, how live-in workers are recruited and treated.

Follow the writer on Twitter @riceandpickle

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