Hired Help

1967 Bombay coolies






We’d just moved into our first home in Pune, India and were happy to be assigned a place outside the fenced estate with a little space to develop grounds and garden of our own.  We’d only ourselves and a gigantic temporary bungalow with no furniture to contend with.  Our shipment from Australia arrived several days later, but our tranquil lifestyle was soon to evaporate.


On arrival in India August 1965 we’d been appalled to see people keep servants to work in their homes.  In Australia it had been a point of pride for people to take household responsibilities on board as a family, and the thought of actually having “slaves” in our home cut across every moral principle we cherished. Not much later we’d give in to environmental pressure and employ people in our home just like everyone else.


Our conversion would be a gradual process.  On my first train journey a sea of red shirts exploded at the taxi door and fought magnificently over luggage to be taken onto the railway platform.  I protested vigorously and grabbed my luggage.  Firstly I didn’t want to lose my luggage in the melee to people who may take off with it; secondly it was against my principles to use someone to carry my luggage anyway.  It seemed to me demeaning to take advantage of people and expect they bear burdens which I could easily manage myself.


But my Indian associate gently took luggage from my hand and passed it to the winner of the skirmish, whispering a word of explanation as he handed it over.  Then he turned to me and remarked this was the only means by which these red shirted men could support their families.  My so called moral principles were preventing people from legitimate gainful employment.  I fell in line behind my adopted red shirt and followed meekly to the train.  My red shirt proved to be very useful as he took the squatter in my assigned seat by the scruff of the neck and installed me instead, depositing luggage on the rack above with effortless ease.  I decided I’d henceforth follow custom and employ red shirt coolies.


We’d only been in Pune a week when an office administrator approached with a suggestion the young person by his side at our front door was a suitable one for us to employ.  It was too soon for us to sacrifice our “moral” principles and take what appeared to us to be a slave.  Once again we were put on a guilt trip.  This young person needed work we were told in no uncertain tones, we were better off, and as everyone did their part and employed household help it would be totally misunderstood in the community if we didn’t do likewise. Being cultural novices we found ourselves with an instant addition to the family. Now while it was clear to us we were supposedly obligated, no one had taken the trouble to explain this to our new help.  We apologized profusely to the administrator who’d brought them to our home, and after a second, third and forth chance at his suggestion he had to finally agree this was not working.


Word spread rapidly that there was a vacancy and a long lineup appeared at our doorstep with three or four supporters each in tow to vouch for their honesty and diligence.  This was overwhelming, but we clearly saw so called “moral” principle or not we had to understand community pressure and the logic behind it, and do our part in employing the unemployed.


We next employed a lady from a nearby village whose name in English translation meant “peace.”  Now the ladies parents must have had a healthy sense of humor in giving that name at birth.  Shanti was anything but peaceful and there was a constant commotion in the yard as she beat servants in surrounding bungalows into submission and sent itinerant Walla’s scurrying for cover.  The line up at the door evaporated and we were left with the task of managing only Shanti.  For a while the various Walla’s stood at our front gate wailing mournfully to catch our attention while Shanti glowered at them with arms folded from the front verandah.  Eventually we selected Walla’s we wanted to do business with and warned Shanti to give them access.


At that point we were informed a bungalow had become vacant inside a secure estate and were given the option of moving in.  Having experienced some rather frightening night experiences with villagers who’d had too much of the happy juice, and a notable attack by a pack of dogs on an itinerating cat not fast enough to climb a tree we decided to move.  The memory of that screaming cat being dismantled by the pack will never be dislodged.


By this time we’d acquired a Hindi teacher whose job was to make us instantly language proficient.  We didn’t become language proficient in one week as obviously expected, so the Pundit was given permission to instruct us for several months.  The trouble was this scholarly Bengali Pundit was attempting to teach us Hindi in a Marathi language area.  No wonder we and he struggled through that assignment.


Now that we’d acquired the rudiments of an Indian language it was thought we were ready for some more cultural immersion.  I did puzzle our Indian visitors for a while inviting them to sit on the window instead of a chair, and auto-rickshaw drivers wondered why we pointed left when issuing instructions to turn right, but eventually we got the hang of it.


We were told servants are not just servants.  There is a hierarchy and a clear distinction in duties of those who one proposes to employ. A watchman only watches and does not run errands.  A cook only cooks and should not be instructed to clean floors.  A Mali only does gardens and should not be expected to do anything else.  A driver only looks after vehicles and it would be downright insulting to expect him to do anything else but stand by the vehicle polishing it now and then waiting for someone to drive to town.


Further, it was expected an expatriate would listen to each of these categories as if they were the most trusted confidants of the bunch, the others to be distrusted.  To reinforce that bid for ascendancy each secretly reported on the others lapses. We took it all with a grain of salt and ignored attempts to put the others under suspicion.


It was unthinkable to employ one person to combine all those activities together people reported.  However we made it known a cook cum cleaner and a Mali were all we were able to afford, then after much negotiation we settled on employing three in the home.  All concerned considered this to be a win win situation and we managed a fragile peace in our household for the remaining twenty years in India.


“© Copyright Ian Grice 2013 All rights reserved


18 thoughts on “Hired Help

  1. A very [provocative piece Ian and something which your grandchildren will enjoy. As we become increasingly mechanized, dishwashers, washing machines, driers, self cleaning ovens, high powered vacuum cleaners, microwave ovens, reliable automobiles, automatic car washes, non iron fabrics, air conditioning, electric water heaters, etc. many of the traditional household tasks disappear or become virtually redundant. I saw those of my parent’s generation who lived in larger homes in the UK reliant on domestic help: nowadays it is a rarity except in the huge mansions. Thank you for putting this into words and for this discussion. Cheerio, Jane


    1. Yes we do have all those labour saving devices and that is both good and bad isn’t it? Good because we have time to earn and survive in today’s fast paced world without coming home to a labour intensive household chore. However its safe to say most of the billions of people we have in the world now lack any or most of those labour saving devices. The bad part is our fast paced modern life style produces stress and resulting health problems and added to that the household part of exercise that used to keep us happy and healthy is replaced by a quick jog around the block before we crash for the night or head for a stressful day at work. I wonder what the lifestyle of our coming generation will look like in another 20 years? We have hip and knee replacements the flavour of the month now. What will they be replacing in future? lol


      1. You are surely right that my modern day labor saving devices are not available to billions however I see them as the wave of the future just as they were not available to our forefathers, or in my case, parents. As for the knee replacements; been there and done that, might have even been due to stress relieving jogging – how did you guess? I’d prefer NOT to have any other replacements thank you. Cheerio, Jane


  2. I can imagine the culture shock!
    I grew up with family retainers who had been sent with my grandmother when she got married! Then I moved to a plantation home with trained household help for every task, including a butler who would speak only English!! I could’t help wondering how long we were going to hold on to that pseudo colonial lifestyle, but I wasn’t complaining, especially when someone else was paying their wages 🙂
    The move to the city was a chance to regain our privacy and I was one of the strange few that had no servants at all for nearly a decade!! Part of the reason was the inability to find people of the standard we were used to, and my OCD demanded! I now have a young lady who helps with the cleaning for a couple of hours a day, and I help educate her children in exchange (apart from her salary). Needless to say we love and respect each other lots 🙂


    1. No matter where you go around the world you are in for a culture shock of one kind or another. Sometimes people blame the host culture for not doing things the way we were used to as we grew. Those kind of people are rarely accepted in a host culture and I’ve seen it so often with foreigners who just can’t adjust and failing to do so and more importantly failing to find rapport with the ones who own the culture they are railroaded out of their position and sent home. Rightly so! I’ve equally seen cases of people who have emigrated and in their adopted home feel discriminated against because they can’t get jobs of equal status they had in their own culture. I think one has to concede they have a lot of cultural assimilation to do before they can expect to be as competitive as those who were born into that culture. Those who have the patience fit in and achieve their goals eventually. Those who don’t spend the rest of their life shouting discrimination which is their way of explaining why they didn’t make it. Adaptability is the key to success.


  3. Wheeled luggage and baggage carts at some stations have all but eliminated the need for coolies who often demanded unreasonable amounts.


  4. My wife and I had a wonder woman look after our young kids, wash clothes, clean house and on occasion cook meals. We eventually helped send her daughter to nursing school and we remain grateful to each other. Today domestic help expects pay higher than the salary of a young church employee or a retiree. We would love to find one to help in our home even for a few hours a week, but industries have spoilt that for us.


    1. Sounds more like Australia these days. Unless you are well into the upper income bracket here you couldn’t afford to employ on a daily basis. Maybe a couple of hours would be the limit. lol. India has made giant strides since we first landed in Mumbai August 19, 1965 and its good to know there are more opportunities for the traditionally poor there. It would be hard for both husband and wife to work, care for a family and negotiate that traffic back and forth to work in doing so without hired help. Good to hear from you Gordon. My regards to your highly respected Dad.


  5. I’ve been waiting for this story of your life in India for years. When I saw the title, a lifelong dream came true. And you didn’t disappoint in the telling of it. More please.


  6. I was laughing a bit as I read this, then I saw Eric’s response and realized this was the reason I was laughing. My experience in Singapore was reflective of your own and his. Though I must admit, I didn’t have the moral issues having had help in the household for many years prior to my time in Singapore, just not living in. My physical limitations created a situation where if I wanted to work I had to have help, especially with two teenage boys.

    I loved the descriptions of who does what, the hierarchy is interesting and your solution even better.


    1. I forgot you’d been to Singapore. We love that country and the people are marvellous friends. The food is excellent. You can get international meals that cover most of world cultures, but their local meals in the hawker stands beat all the fancy trimmings of 5 star hotels. Hired help in Singapore is more expensive than the countries of Southern Asia but I take your point that you can’t work 24/7 without that help.


  7. I can understand your initial reluctance and even mild outrage at employing servants. I felt that way too but by the time we had our third child, I gave in and employed a live-in help.

    Singaporeans employ about 750,000 live-in maids – and some employ two or even three – making it about 700,000 households out of slightly more than a million. Most of the housemaids come from the Philippines and Indonesia, and a sprinkling from other ASEAN countries. This has allowed married women with children to pursue full time careers.

    We see this as practical and even helping the housemaids share our standard of living with regards to living facilities, eat the same food and quite often visit places of entertainment, movies and so forth with their employer/families.

    We’ve had housemaids since 1991. After their 2-year contract, all of them returned home with enough savings to buy a house and/or start their own little businesses.

    However, this has not diminished our ability to be self reliant. When our help is away on her annual vacation – all three children do their household chores. When Alicia went to Brisbane and Adamson to New York City – they had no problems handling their own chores, laundry, cooking, washing etc – Lisa and I made sure of that part of their upbringing. The youngest, Amelia, is equally self reliant.

    Interestingly, having another woman in the house has not led to marital infidelities as initially feared by several quarters. It does say something nice about Singaporean men as a whole and the strength of marriage and family values here.

    I do use porters when travelling in India and always found them honest and hardworking. They are eager to please and my Indian friends always admonish me whenever I ‘over pay’ anyone.

    That snippet about the cat caught by a pack of dogs – that’s horrendous.

    Thank you for sharing this episode, Ian. The representations by referees pushing their candidates and Shanti’s behaviour – spot on 🙂


    1. Yes having travelled in the Asia Pacific I understand just how important it is for both parties to work to pay for very own high priced accommodation. I’m sure the value of your home in Singapore would buy two or three houses here in Australia for example. I also understand how important it is to have access to good home help and Singapore is full of people from both Philippines and Indonesia who need the work desperately. Hong Kong is in a similar position. The number of maids down at Star Ferry on maids day off would have you believe they are the owners of Hong Kong. lol. The bottom line is we would not have been able to carry the heavy responsibilities both of us had in India if it were not for our faithful helpers. We did not realize that at the beginning of our service there.


  8. I was wondering as I read this how much it would cost to have so many working in your home. What an interesting story this is. I would have a difficult time letting someone do all the work in and around my home. Seems you and your family did well after you got accustomed to the way things were. You lived there a long time. Another great and interesting story sweet Ian. Hugs


    1. Actually in terms of dollars it wasn’t much, though we paid more than the average foreigners much to their annoyance and didn’t have much left over at the end of each month. Looking back over that early period I would have to say the Indian people we worked with were very kind and nurturing. I’m sure we broke many taboos initially but they were most tolerant and we love them immensely for that kindness.


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