My father started his life in Standard Chartered Bank in Calcutta, as a clerk. Whenever anyone asked him what do you do for living, he said, “I’m in service”. To me, it seemed like a vague answer. I often wondered about his answer, but never really asked him – was everyone not doing a service to each other anyway?

A society is built on the concept of exchange of services amongst its members. 

It turns out that my current family is so concerned about not exploiting other people’s poor conditions, that we never hire anyone for doing household cleaning or gardening. It is also true that a bit of investment of our time can easily cater for those needs with a DIY (Do-It-Yourself) approach. We call for someone’s help when it’s totally out of our jurisdiction. Furthermore, it is true that a bit of physical labour is good for maintaining the health of computer-worms like us! 

In contrast, I grew up in a very low middle-class household, where even a simple clerk’s family could afford to have a maid. How was that possible, then?

In a country of more than a billion people, one did not need to be a king, or a merchant to get domestic help. One always finds someone else who is somewhat worse off to get help from. You pay them some small amount to make your life a lot better. In our case, we had refugees from Bangladesh who seeped into West Bengal through hundreds of kilometers of common border. They were the labourers as maids in homes, workers in the factories – they were even rewarded to be present in the political rallies when various parties wanted to advertise their support on papers.

When my mum was of my age, I recall her hanging onto the grills of our verandah day after day, with a gruelling wait for the maid during the evenings. The latest hour of the maid’s knocks on the door had already gone past. While I was watching the sky becoming beautiful in the twilight hovering over the concrete jungle of Calcutta – she would grumble and get onto the cleaning of utensils, sweeping and mopping the floors. She reckoned that it had to be finished on the day, and can’t wait for the next. She thought “cleanliness is next to godliness” – no matter what.

It might feel odd or even wrong to have the refugees as maids now, but that had been the case in those days. My mother always helped them above and beyond their salary with food, and other supplies. I reckon if a service is well-paid for and received with gratitude, that may actually be okay. For example, I don’t do farming to get food on my table, I buy it. So, there need not be any prejudice to buy service from someone when they are paid enough and treated with respect.

Growing up in that particular setting, I found everyone bargaining for everything, trying to save small amount of changes on every individual occasion. Given the lower middle-class background, that actually makes sense. However, if all services and prices were correctly set by the government, neither one needs to bargain, nor one needs to be cheated. Isn’t that a win-win solution?

To make it more streamlined, I think we should have minimum wages for every service, and some rules and regulations around it for all the domestic help and other unregistered little services that we get around the corner everywhere in India. That will contribute to a better lifestyle for those, who provide such services.

A whole generation need not struggle to make ways for advancement of the next one. Unfortunately, lots of refugee women go through this life of labour, not stopping for a moment during the day – some even stay apart from their children and their families that they support. Only goal in their life – the kids need to get access to a better life through education, no matter how their life roll on.