Friday, 9 December 2011

The significance of staff

The culture of having servants is one aspect of living in India with which I continue to struggle. I had seen this coming as long ago as my very first post, when my mini-struggle with Santosh the guard over who was going to open the gate when I arrived home ended in my abject surrender. I still find it difficult. I'm from a very ordinary, middle-middle-class background and I've never earned enormous amounts of money, so I still find the idea of having staff rather excruciating.

Not to say that it isn't also very nice. I love having a driver, for instance. Anil is absolutely brilliant. He knows everywhere, he manoeuvres us through the hellish Delhi traffic like a magician, and he's unfailingly good humoured and reliable. I try not to call him at weekends (when I prefer to use the metro or auto rickshaws) but there's no denying that he's made my working week massively easier.

I would also struggle without Vineeta, who keeps my apartment looking half-decent in the face of the constant Delhi dust. The place is big - too big for me, really, but I've been grateful for that when I've had friends visiting - and on top of work and my other commitments keeping it clean would be a challenge. One which, let's be honest, I'm not particularly inclined towards meeting in any case.

But these are very practical considerations. Vineeta and Anil make my life manageable and reflect how my life is different here from in London - a city where I wouldn't need a driver even if I could afford one, and where my tiny flat was perfectly manageable even for a non-domestically inclined person (read: bit of a slob) like me. What I've come to realise, though, is that having staff is less of a practical matter in India than I'd previously supposed. As much as anything else it's about status.

My landlord, for instance, finds it very bemusing that I don't have a cook. Now, I could take on a cook. But I'm very capable of cooking basic meals for myself, and when time or inclination does not allow, there's a wealth of cheap and tasty food available very easily. I don't keep a regular schedule, so having someone come and prepare my meals at set times is not terribly practical. And I'm very protective of my personal space. I can just about cope with knowing Vineeta is there every afternoon, but having a cook waiting for me when I arrive home is not a thought I relish.

The point is, I don't need a cook. But Mr Mehandru thinks it very important that I should have one anyway. I am, by default, a sahab here - I have a status in society that demands reflection in the number of staff I employ. A part-time maid and a driver just doesn't really cut it. I can't help feeling that my obstinate refusal to take on more employees reduces my status in Mr Mehandru's eyes.

The function of staff as a marker of status was starkly illustrated to me recently on a work visit to one of the government ministries. During the meeting, one of the officials mentioned a report that would be useful for our work, and offered to share it with us. Happy to accept, we followed him to his office after the meeting and sat down, expecting to have the report and be on our way in a couple of minutes.

Instead, he sat down behind his desk and telephoned a colleague, instructing her to come to his office. We then waited for 15 minutes, making awkward small talk, until his colleague turned up. She then sat down at the computer immediately behind our interlocutor, and began to search through his files.

After a while, it became very obvious that she had no idea what or where the report she was supposed to be locating was. After ten minutes of aimless wandering through file lists, she printed off what she hoped was the report and showed it to the official, who studied it for a minute before telling her that it was not what he wanted.

Five minutes more aimless searching followed before she was sent off to do something else by our helpful friend, who then sat down at the computer himself. Two minutes later, he had located and printed the report and we were on our way, me with steam coming out of my ears by the time I got to the safety of the car and was able to vent my frustration to the amusement of my colleague.

I think this was the biggest single example of culture clash I've come across here. For me, keeping professional contacts needlessly waiting in this way would be unthinkable. For the official, it was more important to emphasise his status - that he had people to do basic tasks like printing reports for him - than to get the required information quickly.

I find myself wondering what would be the impression if this were reversed. In the UK, most officials would surely just print the report off themselves if they knew that would be quickest. Would Indian visitors come away thinking they could not have been talking to anyone especially important if they had to do such basic things for themselves?


Sonya said...

I understand your feelings.. and i only have a once-a-week cleaner to concern myself about. An expat colleague and I were talking at great length and in a very concerned manner the other day about how much we should pay our cleaners while we are away on our summer holidays. Then we punched ourselves in the faces for considering that to be a genuine life problem.. The whole thing is still so weird to me (but, like you, I am not a great lover of household chores). xx

Anj said...

Check out the Christmas edition of The Economist, which has two articles exactly about this issue.

Hope you're well otherwise! A