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What are India’s elite households without their armies of maids, cooks, and drivers?

Reuters/Parth Sanyal
The real homemakers.
By Tripti Lahiri
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Business editors may know the last closing share price and market capitalization of India’s top firms, but Sunita Sen knows their true bottom line: what their CEOs pay the help, what they feed them, and just how many servants each family employs.

For her, a particular bungalow on the erstwhile Aurangzeb Road or a mansion on Prithviraj Road is not associated with the politician with a tendency for putting his foot in his mouth or that businessman whose invisible hand is all over the budget. Instead, Mrs Sen thinks of them as the places to which she sent the nanny from Orissa, the cook from Uttarakhand, or the nurse from West Bengal.

Elite Indians can employ rather a large number of servants. A family of four can easily have an equal number of help. For a brief period, I, an able-bodied person with no children, had two or at least one-and-a-half—a part-time cook and cleaner, and a driver.


But these numbers pale in comparison to the staffing of families in what must be the top one per cent of the one per cent, according to Sunita Sen. There’s that family who founded a leading hospital chain frequented by medical tourists from Afghanistan and Pakistan. “They have twenty-two servants,” she tells me. There’s that major real estate developer around the corner from the posh hotel whose birthday parties are sometimes entertained by top-tier American pop stars (“twenty-seven servants”). There’s the telecom mogul who probably paid crores of rupees for his Lutyens-style bungalow (“at least fifteen”). Voter rolls confirm these numbers, showing as many as thirty-five to forty registered voters at some bungalows, with a variety of last names from different parts of India, and associated with different religions, making for remarkably cross-cultural and multi-faith households. With that many adults, the numbers of people, including children under eighteen, living at these residences could be as high as seventy or eighty. A few of the bungalow residents append “SQ”—short for servants’ quarters, as the housing complexes in the back gardens of these sprawling homes are known—to their voter’s ID but most are more circumspect, just listing the house number.


Their servant bathrooms are always filthy.

Most of the capital’s residents pass these homes covetously, craning for a glimpse into them. But Mrs Sen is not impressed. For starters, she tells me this about the mansions with the most servants: their servant bathrooms are always filthy. “Because a lot of servants are there, everybody is using, girls, boys,” says Mrs Sen, her hair pulled back in a low ponytail, coughing as she talks, hugging a brown cardigan around herself on a still chilly January day. “If there are four [loos], and there are twenty-five servants, you can well imagine? Who will make it clean? She will say ‘you do it,’ he will say ‘you do it.’ It is better to have flats like us. We have two bathrooms, one for the girls, one for the boys. And weekly one person cleans it.”


In the late 1980s, Mrs Sen’s belief that she might be able to make money finding maids for people probably seemed outlandish to her friends and acquaintances. There were just a smattering of other concerns offering this service. They included a group run by nuns in South Delhi; a Punjabi lady; and later, a retired military gentleman in the Bengali neighbourhood of Chittaranjan Park joined their ranks. At the time, domestic workers were mostly hired through word-of-mouth. A friend’s driver’s wife or neighbour’s maid’s sister-in-law might be looking for a job. Civil servants who moved into a government flat, which came with attached quarters for domestic help, often found the people working for their predecessors were keen to stay on so they could hold on to the housing, even if the civil servant’s wife wasn’t offering a salary. People with relatives in a small town or village could always get cheap help—the child, perhaps, of someone working for their relatives back home.


As the economy speeded up in the 1980s and 1990s, young professionals moving to the capital to study or work often eyed the somewhat comfortably proportioned (and undoubtedly more economical) servants’ quarters in older Delhi homes as ideal starter apartments, leading to the eviction of domestic help. In the new millennium, these homes and their quarters have been redeveloped into large, marble-laden apartments, and the space earmarked for the use of the help has diminished into a tiny room, mostly likely on a hot roof, built from materials vastly inferior to the ones used in the main home.


To find live-in workers, it was increasingly necessary to reach out to ever-poorer parts of India, to people for whom a mattress or a carpet under a fan that worked all night would be a luxury. Many employers living in cities—now second or third-generation city dwellers themselves—no longer had such remote connections. But Mrs Sen, through her network of agents, did. As others copied her, they created a new niche in the economy: the placement agency. Thousands of these agencies exist now, in every large Indian city, charging a fee that is usually equivalent to a month’s salary to supply domestic help.

In recent years, again reading the tea leaves, Mrs Sen has rejigged her business.


In South Delhi, even the well-off typically pay about 10,000 to 12,000 rupees for full-time, live-in housekeeping help.

Now she no longer supplies cleaners, occasionally supplies cooks and mainly focuses on childcare, made up of japas, who are short-term nurses for infants, and nannies, whose pay can be double or triple that of a cleaning woman. Depending on her level of experience, a japa can earn at least Rs20,000 for forty days of work beginning just before or soon after a baby is born. The most experienced and reassuring ones might be paid more, with expectant mothers tying up their services months in advance through word-of-mouth or online forums. After the japa’s forty days are done, Mrs Sen provides nannies whose salaries, in early 2014, were around 16,000 rupees and upwards a month, increasing every year. In South Delhi, even the well-off typically pay about 10,000 to 12,000 rupees for full-time, live-in housekeeping help. In the East Delhi complex where my parents and other retired diplomats live, Rs7,500 is typical; outside that complex, many families in the area likely pay much less. Only a very tiny group of expat employers are likely to top the wages sought by Mrs Sen, offering somewhere between Rs20,000 to Rs35,000 to the English-speaking help they hire, with an even smaller number paying above that.

Mrs Sen’s clients can afford the fees and salaries she expects, of course, and many families are ready to pay more. These employers tend to have incomes of at least Rs25 lakh a year and in many cases, more like Rs50 lakh a year, making them a rarefied fraction of India’s elite. But water finds its own level, and families who are not yet part of the one per cent but who still want full-time help need not fret. There are now multitudes of Mrs Sens, a few of them even more expensive, but most of them far, far more economical.

Excerpted with the permission of Aleph Book Company from the book Maid in India: Stories of Inequality and Opportunity Inside Our Homes by Tripti Lahiri.

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