Are you being served?

by Dianne Sharma-Winter - Heart of India
( September 7th, 2011 )

Indian servants

It all started in the most innocuous way. Morning fresh full of sunshine and optimisim, I greet the doorman on the way into the building where Far Horizon has their offices. He returns a friendly salute. I smile at the cleaners and remark on her bracelets, I wipe the bench in the tea room. It’s not until the tea boy tries to take the kitchen cloth from me that I remember that I have failed Indian etiquette 101. The tea boy is absolutely distraught to see me doing his job, I wrestle with him briefly and then gracefully let go the cloth. Good Grief man, it’s nothing! such a small thing, such a big fuss I mumble on in my mysterious Kiwi accent that no one in the office can understand.

servants in India

Another day another incident in the tea room brings home to me very sharply the demarkation lines of employment in India. One of the office staff arrives in the tea room to find a sink full of dishes and no clean cups with which to make himself a microwaved coffee. Flummoxed, he searches every nook and cranny of the cubby hole tea room all the while shouting for the tea boy. I watch him with amusement, it’s a flash back to pre bra burning days when men in the west were yet to be introduced to the concept of shared duties in the household.   After five minutes of shouting and shuffling back and forward in front of the empty microwave (which by now could have been rotating and beaming unhealthy microwave microbes into his coffee) the tea boy still hadn’t arrived. (This is probably because he was somewhere else in the building and unable to hear the roar from the bowels, but all the same he is obviously expected to have the ultra sensitive hearing of a bat), I offered him what seemed to me to be a pretty obvious solution.


He stared at me blankly as they do when confronted with my brand of  fluent English. Taking advantage of the situation and still being solution focussed, I mime the washing of a cup. WASH THE CUP YOURSELF MAN, YO MAMA AINT COMMIN’!

He looks at me as if I had suggested that I sold his mother in the bazaar.

O FOR GODS SAKES, I say, LET ME DO IT. I pick up a cup from the sink and start to wash it. Horrified he demands that I stop, a thousand “no’s” rain down on me.

IT”S THE BOY’S JOB, he insists.

After laughing fit to bust at strike two against me in Indian Etiquette 101, and to pass the time while we wait uselessly for the tea boy, I begin a little lecture on time management. If for example he had been able to give himself permission to wash the bloody cup himself then he could be safely back at his desk by now and probably being productive. Instead ten minutes have already passed while he stood and shouted with no result. Also, NO ONE would have seen him demean himself by washing the cup as apart from this random foreigner there would have been no witnesses. In this way a five minute cup of coffee has already taken twelve minutes with no end in sight. It could be twenty minutes or more before he got his coffee, what did he think of that? I think I lost him somewhere in the middle of that speech and anyway I had finished my coffee and was back to work. I left him there waiting but at least he had stopped shouting for the poor over worked tea boy.

After this little lesson, I began to notice things. I notice that every office worker in the building walks straight past our uniformed door man without acknowledging him at all, that the cleaners never look anyone in the eye, that the drivers are called by their first names and that servants are treated… well, appallingly. At least it seems so to me. When my friends heard that my living situation provided by the company also included the services of a ‘servant’, they all breathed out in envy. I still have a problem even saying the word servant, the entire concept is anti my egalitarian background. I would much rather do for myself, cook for myself and clean as well but this Does Not Look Good at least in urban India, I can’t remember anyone having a problem with that when I lived in the villages, in fact I think I earned the respect of the local women when they saw me sweeping and cleaning and ‘doing for myself.”

Here in the city it seems everyone has a servant, a driver, and a woman who comes in to clean all the nasty bits that require the input of the lowest caste of all. On one hand, it creates employment on the other hand servants are low paid and often exploited. It’s a fine line to tread, I know because I have read White Tiger a story about a driver with ideas above his station and how it all went terribly wrong. But there has to be a middle ground, I think it starts with something as simple as a Good Morning. The doorman has become quite emboldened by my cheery greeting and often wishes the unseeing office staff in my wake the same Good Morning, I watch them hesitate and then sometimes respond with the same or else a nod at least and see their bemused smiles sneak into the corner of their eyes.

Sunshine spreads like this only.

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