Domestic Disarray : Life in India: Surviving the Servants

Times Staff Writer

Cathy Kirk had been in India only two months when her cook, a woman Kirk had once lovingly described as an “angel of mercy,” locked herself in her room and refused to come out.

After more than a month, the cook emerged from the room, but only under threat of police action.

During the siege, the family’s other servants--the laundryman, the sweeper, the gardener--feuded among themselves. Domestic mutiny pervaded the Kirk home in an expensive residential neighborhood in New Delhi, the Indian capital.

While her husband contemplated calling the police to roust the barricaded cook, Cathy Kirk found herself a chastened Cinderella, stuck in the dreary kitchen scrubbing her own dishes in boiled water. She longed for the simpler, servantless, life in her native Montreal.


Simplicity of Appliances

“At home I had my appliances,” she said. “I would vacuum and put the dishes in the dishwasher and the clothes in the washing machine. That was it.

“Now I have the dhobi (laundryman) coming and asking, ‘Do you want the towels washed today, madam?’ The wallahs (salesmen) are constantly at the door. There is more confusion than there is work.”

About the cook who refused to leave: “We were all suffering from Delhi Belly (dysentery). Mary walked into our house like an angel of mercy. Very helpful. Very organized. A nice English-speaking Christian lady. After a week she began to resent my presence in the house. Very, very slowly she started taking over. She didn’t get along with anyone.”


Like others before them, the Kirks had come to this overpopulated, work-starved land expecting relief from life’s daily drudgeries. India, after all, is a land of servants, a place where even servants have servants.

Sweep, Wash, Cook

Almost every foreign family here--and every Indian family from the middle-class on up--has servants, sometimes as many as a dozen men and women who sweep the sidewalks, wash the laundry, scrub the toilets, dress the babies, drive the car, tend the garden, walk the dog and cook the meals, among other chores.

The Kirks were not seeking an obsequious white-gloved staff with courtly manners. They did, however, anticipate life being a little more--well--graceful. Instead, they found that having a house full of help does not always help. Having servants, they learned, can be hard work.


Actually, the Kirk family’s plight was not as dramatic as that of a former New York Times correspondent here who caught a disgruntled servant poisoning his family’s food, or of a U.S. ambassador whose daughter ran away with the driver.

In fact, serious breakdowns in maintaining large staffs of servants are common. Even the highest levels of the diplomatic community occasionally suffer minor catastrophes.

A recent dinner held by U.S. Ambassador to India John Gunther Dean was disrupted momentarily when distinguished vegetarian guests, including new Foreign Secretary A.P. Venkataswaran, were served turkey a la king.

After the dismayed Venkataswaran left his full plate on a sideboard, many of the assembled guests were treated to the sight of Martine Dean, the ambassador’s wife, angrily and loudly reprimanding the servants for their gaffe in placing meat dishes in the vegetarian line of the buffet.


To help avoid such situations, the American Women’s Assn. of New Delhi maintains a servants’ registry office to help families find servants and manage them well.

Betty L. Smith, the wife of a U.S. Embassy employee, works as a volunteer at the registry. “A lot of people, especially first-tour people,” she said, “come to us and say, ‘My household is out of control. What can I do?’ ”

Registry Tells Story

If Cathy Kirk had consulted the servants’ registry files before she hired her troublesome cook, she would have found a long record of problems recorded by previous employers.


“Mary (the cook) is prone to disputatiousness,” one former U.S. diplomat here wrote. “We terminated her for excessive arguing with the lady of the house. After her termination she spread an accusation around to the effect that we took some cash that someone had sent her.”

Another previous employer wrote: “We had to have the embassy security staff remove her from the premises.”

Such problems are apparently not uncommon. “See that gal over there,” said Betty Smith, pointing to a woman studying a file in the office. “She came here (to India) last summer and she has already had 10 cooks.”

For foreigners, servants are necessary because many of the conveniences that Westerners expect--major appliances, supermarkets, potable tap water--do not exist here.


A large household staff is affordable because human beings are among the cheapest commodities in India. The saddest truth about overpopulated India is that men and women have always been available and willing to do work that might be done other places by labor-saving machines.

Therefore, the machines were never developed in India. Besides, India’s unpredictable electricity makes operation of such appliances problematic, even if they are imported.

Sanitation Adds Work

Also, poor sanitary conditions in India substantially increase the number of household chores. Tap water and dairy milk have to be boiled for 20 minutes before they can be drunk. Fruits and vegetables must be washed, soaked in an iodine solution, then peeled before cooking.


The relentless fine-grained dust that blows in on hot summer winds from the Rajasthan Desert requires constant attention. The heat itself is a factor, averaging more than 107 degrees Fahrenheit in New Delhi in May and June.

Finally, without knowledgeable servants to help, shopping in the crowded bazaars could take hours and cost many times what the experienced servant would pay the vendors. One young woman who did not hire a cook found herself paying top prices for rotten buffalo meat and once bought “young spring lamb” that turned out to be rather elderly goat.

Of all the diplomatic missions here, only the large Soviet community makes any attempt to oppose the use of servants, although the objections are often just a matter of semantics.

“We don’t have servants,” a Soviet journalist based here said. “We have some people living with us. My family has a chowkidar (watchman). But we don’t believe in the master-servant relationship.”


Inside, Outside Sweepers

Most families with servants are likely to employ a cook or bearer to supervise the household, an inside sweeper to clean the floor and bathrooms, an outside sweeper to clean the walks and porches, a laundryman and a gardener. Many will also hire a driver to face Delhi’s dangerous and chaotic traffic and a night watchman to sleep in front of the compound gate. Families with small children usually have an ayah, or nanny.

Usually the cook, bearer, driver, nanny and inside sweeper are full-time employees while the others may work for several families.

The reason for so many servants is historically rooted in the Indian caste system, which permitted only certain castes and sub-castes to perform certain tasks.


Charles Allen, in his book on 20th-Century British colonialists in India, “Plain Tales From the Raj,” gives the example of the British woman in Ranchi who asked her gardener to remove a dead bird from her flower bed.

Refused Dead Bird

The gardener and all of the other servants in turn refused, saying that their castes prevented them from touching dead birds. The woman was forced to hire another temporary servant, a member of the low dome caste, to remove the bird.

“Status, and a highly developed sense of demarcation,” Allen wrote, “also contributed to the general superabundance of domestics, who were there not because you needed them but because they were very strict about their own little trade unions (castes).”


However, in recent years, many of the caste and caste-related work restrictions have broken down in India. Staffs of servants in urban middle-class households are actually much smaller now than they were during the time of British rule.

Salaries Attractive

Salaries of the servants range from a high of $175 a month for a first-class cook to less than $30 a month for a beginning sweeper.

Low by Western standards, the salaries are still very good in comparison with other Indian wages. In India, the per-capita annual income is less than $275.


An experienced cook makes considerably more than a middle-level Indian government clerk. Servant jobs in foreign households are prized and hold high status in the community. The servants registry has files on several thousand experienced men and women seeking household work.

Many of the servants are remarkably accomplished by any measure. Senior servants usually speak and write English as well as one or two other Indian languages. The Muslim cook for one American family speaks excellent English and French and writes poetry in his native Urdu. Another cook spends his spare time in the garden grafting roses and fruit trees.

Despite the adjustment necessary for Western families unaccustomed to the presence of a household staff, there are certainly times when having servants is an exhilarating and even liberating experience. Morning tea served on trays to family members still in bed is a high point in any day. Cooks and bearers can make dinner parties delightful events in which the host and hostess can freely participate in the conversation instead of having to scramble around the kitchen--like a servant.

Astonished at Status


Americans are often astonished--simultaneously repelled and attracted--by their instant status as lord and lady of a household staff. Sometimes they even begin describing themselves as sahib and memsahib, Indian words for master and lady that became synonymous with the white colonialists during British rule but are now used to describe all persons of rank and privilege.

However, life with servants is seldom perfect.

For one thing, every additional servant means a bit less privacy. Under the constant weight of humanity--with 750 million people, India has one-sixth of the world’s population--privacy is a precious commodity. Lovers long for a moment alone without a gawking audience. Families learn to cherish Sundays, usually the one day of the week all the servants take off.

Having servants also means the addition of managerial responsibilities, including hiring, firing, health care, vacation scheduling, housing and even clothing. Many foreigners, particularly Americans, are not prepared to handle this management responsibility.


“We are not comfortable having people waiting on us,” said James McGunnigle, a 20-year veteran of the U.S. Foreign Service. “We seem to spend an awful lot of time--I know my wife does--running around making sure the servants are doing the right things. Having servants doesn’t simplify life as much as you think it might.”

Although experienced India hands warn against it, it is almost impossible not to become involved in the personal lives of servants, particularly those who live in the residential compound with the family.

The employers are invited to weddings and cremations of their servants’ families and are unavoidably involved in the other highs and lows of existence here.

After a little more than a year in India, one American family had experienced the death of an infant child of cholera in their servants’ quarters behind their home.


Another servant stole the new household bicycle in an attempt to placate the greedy in-laws of his sister who were demanding more dowry. The bicycle was apparently not enough to satisfy the in-laws, and the sister of the servant was murdered, burned to death in one of the many so-called “bride burnings” that plague the lower level of Indian urban society.

A third servant in the same household was severely injured in a motor-scooter taxi accident on his way home from work. He survived only after the American woman visited him in the public hospital where he was being treated, saw the flies clustered on his wounds and had him moved to an expensive private hospital where he remained for several months.

Lives Become Entangled

In this way, having servants in India increases rather than decreases involvement in the country. Like it or not, the lives of the servants become entangled with those of the employer.


In Indian families, this involvement is even more evident. Bimla Bissel and her husband employ eight servants, but only the cook has his own living quarters. “The others,” she said, “find a place in the main house wherever it is available and sleep there.”

When Bissel’s father died recently, all of the servants were given the same funeral clothing and shawls as the family members. Because of this extra proximity and nearly familial standing, the devotion of servants to their Indian employers and vice versa is usually greater than that enjoyed by foreigners who leave the country after stays of three or four years.

“I look at it from the servants’ perspective,” Bissel said. “They have to try to make the most out it. After three years, the family is gone and the servants have to go out on the market to look for another job. By this time they have learned to live with higher expectations.”

By that time, meanwhile, the foreign family may have learned to live with lowered expectations.


Said Cathy Kirk, “I just want to have someone to dust and clean the floors and make the beds when the kids forget.”