Book review: Maid in India by Tripti Lahiri
In Athgama, a small village in Jharkhand, Suruj Kujur wakes up at 4am. An hour later, she leaves her hut to make her way down to Gumani river, from where she will begin work—hauling baskets of sand, each weighing 25-30kg, from the riverbank to a truck parked uphill. She does this for 12 hours, hauling over 4,000kg of sand, breaking only for a short lunch, to earn Rs110 at the end of the day. Her eldest daughter, Fullin, moved to Delhi to work as a domestic help a few years ago, and seemed to have left the abject poverty and unimaginable hard work behind. Until she was discovered in her employer’s bathroom with ears swollen, bald patches on her head, body covered in bruises.
Fullin’s story—of the grisly fate she encountered in an attempt to escape what had seemed worse—is one among the many that Tripti Lahiri details in her exhaustive book, Maid In India, centred around the domestic-help market in Delhi. “If Kolkata, as the former capital during colonial times, is where people looked to understand Raj-era British and Indian attitudes to servants, Delhi is where we should look to understand where they stand now...,” she writes. It’s also a city of extreme social mores, where young girls from poverty-stricken villages in Assam, Jharkhand, Odisha and West Bengal come to seek employment as domestic helps. While some are lucky to find good homes, a majority face overwork, abuse and often become mere numbers in the records of missing people.
In the introduction to the book, Lahiri provides a short historical trajectory of India’s domestic-help market, from the tiny share employing servants for most of independent India to the burgeoning employer base post-liberalization in 1991, as fortunes soared. “Particularly for the growing numbers of women who work in urban India, ‘work-life balance’ depends increasingly on having help,” she says. She writes of Delhi’s elite Gymkhana Club, which may have become more egalitarian by replacing the terms ‘maids’ and ayahs’ with personal attendants, but bars them from entering the front lawns nonetheless.
Lahiri’s writing is pointed and incisive, using a combination of acute reportage, statistics and analysis to depict the many inherent class disparities that form contemporary India. “Borders between countries are marked by fences, but borders between classes are marked out by where you may sit, where you may go to the bathroom, and where and with whom you may eat,” she writes.
Maid In India is divided into seven sections, excluding the extensive bibliography and reference notes at the end. In the first, she traces the backstories of the domestic helps to their home towns, from Doparia in Bengal to Kokrajhar in Assam. It’s here that the book pulls you in, with Lahiri’s storytelling explicitly capturing the mood and socio-economic dynamics in these tiny villages. A significant chunk of the book is dedicated to the domestic- help brokers and placement agencies that have mushroomed in every part of the city. From grooming young girls in how to clean marble floors to serving etiquette, they’ve fashioned a business off the women’s inadequacies.
Lahiri also brings forth the varied perspectives of employers in Delhi’s many areas, from the nouveau riche of west Delhi and Gurugram to the elite in the south and Lutyens’ Delhi. There’s Deepak Khosla from Khan Market, whose family of eight employs a dozen helpers that include security guards, drivers, cooks and nannies. At the other end are the Prakashes from Mayur Vihar, an affluent couple in their 60s who do all their work, including sweeping and mopping, themselves. Particularly disturbing is the account of a former member of Parliament (MP) who, along with his wife, was charged in a case of murder of their domestic help.
The author also includes a chapter on her own relationship with her domestic help a decade ago, realizing with horror how she was paying her barely Rs20 an hour, immediately making amends. The last section, in which she includes case studies of people who have risen up the economic ladder but still struggle with their social status, feels disconnected and excessive.
Maid In India is not an easy read, and will often leave you seething, or feeling sad about the society we have morphed into. As Lahiri puts it, “The maid becomes a metaphor for all the ways in which life in India is full of disappointing and exhaustive encounters and on whom, in the privacy of one’s home, it is acceptable to vent these frustrations.”