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.
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