Moving to India. Step 10: Become an Employer

23 Dec, 2008

Working abroad has been a wish of mine for some time now. Xebia offers me the opportunity to live and work in India. Through this blog series I will keep you informed of the progress and challenges of this project.
When moving to India it is almost inevitable to become an employer. One of my colleagues predicted that this would be one of the most enjoyable advantages of living in India and I have to say that so far he has been right. In our case we employ a cook, a cleaning lady and a driver. We are very satisfied with their services.

When we moved into our apartment, the land lord explained that we have a ‘security guard’ living on the premises for which a small monthly fee is added to the rent. This turned out to be more like a handyman that lives on the top of our apartment complex together with his wive and two children. He was involved in the construction of the building and has been living there since its completion. We don’t have many tasks for him; apparently we can ask him to do our shopping, but since the small shopping center is just a few hundred meters from our house and we buy our groceries from Paul who offers home delivery for free, we usually enjoy the walk and do the shopping ourselves.
The cook
They also explained to us that the security guards wife cooks and cleans for some of the other tenants and that she might be able to provide these services to us as well. It turned out that her schedule is quite busy and it would only allow her to cook for us between 5 and 6 in the afternoon. Would this be convenient for us? In an Indian context cooking between 5 and 6 is not convenient, since dinner is normally later at night, between 9 and 10. In the Netherlands eating between 6 and 7 is fairly normal and since I usually reach home around 6, we stick to our Dutch habits.
The land lady was a bit concerned about the kind of food that the cook would be able to prepare for us. She only cooks proper Indian food and this might proof too spicy or not to our liking. We ensured her that we would like to try the cooks services for a few weeks. Thus it was decided and after the Gas company had established through thorough investigation that we did not have another party delivering Gas to our house, we were able to connect the stove and she could start cooking. The food turned out to be very nice and not spicy at all. Whether she adapts the spiciness for us or the Indian home cooked food is just not as spicy as the food that tourists always eat is still undecided.

After the first week we were really very happy with the cook. She cooks rice, lentils, chapattis (flat round breads) and some type of vegetables every day. There are many types of lentils and she can prepare them all. She also has quite a good repertoire for vegetables. Sometimes she cooks paneer (cheese) in spinach sauce or potatoes. Sometimes its is cauliflower with garam masala. Very tasty. I also take the food from last evening to the office for lunch next day and some of my colleagues have expressed their envy at the healthy home cooked food.
After five weeks, we decided that we would go out for dinner at least once a week. One of the things that originally compelled me to come to India was the delicious food: kebabs, chicken makhani and tandoori naan are all very tasty. The cook only cooks vegetarian meals. We never asked her to cook any different, but there is no meat shop in the shopping center and we have the impression that nobody else in the apartment complex ever cooks meat. Smells of juicy roasted chicken never reach our nostrils. But the main reason to have some unhealthy restaurant food once in a while is not our urge for meat; however many types of lentils the cook cooks, to our Dutch/European trained stomachs it still is rice, lentils, chapatti and vegetables every day! The Indians always laugh at our bread-only meals. How can one eat so much bread during the day? After having a straigt diet of rice, lentils, rice, lentils and rice and more lentils for a few weeks I kind of see their point, but from the opposite direction.
The cook, Gaatri, doesn’t seem to mind. She is a very happy lady and often sings to herself while she cooks. Mostly we’re not at home when she comes to cook, but she always greets us very happily with a ‘Namasgar’ from the kitchen. She doesn’t speak any English at all and the fact that we don’t speak Hindi (much) doesn’t prevent her from talking in rapid Hindi to us whenever we try to communicate the fact that we won’t be needing her services tomorrow. For this particular purpose, communicating when we want her to cook and when not, we have installed a calender in the kitchen on which we indicate with big red crosses which days her services are not required. When we first installed it, we wrote the weekdays in Hindi above the Dutch names, and we all happily understood each other. The one thing I’m most curious about, but unfortunately unable to ask her, is what she thinks of the images on the calender. Every month is a new image of a cow feeding on some nice, lush fields in the Dutch country side. Cows in Delhi never feed happily on lush fields. The walk the streets and rummage through some garbage. Even though the cow is a sacred animal in India, to us the cows in the calender appear much happier than the cows that occasionally block the roads between Delhi and Gurgaon in the morning. I really wonder what she makes of all this…
The cleaning lady

Since the cook was to busy to do the cleaning for us, we asked them to if they knew somebody else who could do the cleaning. They had a relative that would be able to do this for us. We don’t now how this lady, Nela, is related to them, but often when she comes to our house, the cook and her spend some time chatting in our kitchen. Of course we don’t understand one bit from what is being said, but it appears to be just normal chit-chat. The cleaning lady is a small shyish woman, but she cleans the whole house very efficiently in one hour, sweeping all the floors and cleaning out the bathroom. Cleaning the house this thoroughly every day is quite necessary in Delhi, because it is a very dusty city since the dessert of Rajasthan is not very far away.
To us this is indeed a very enjoyable, affordable luxury. In the Netherlands, I would not be able to afford such a service, but in India it seems we are all very happy with the arrangements. The land lady told me that the cook and cleaning lady are quite happy with us as customers, since we’re never there to tell them what and how to go about their business. In most apartments (including hers!) the lady of the house will always be there to tell them to clean that part of the floor again or to use hot water for doing the dishes and so on. In our apartment they are left to them selves and they sure know how to do their business. I’m also a bit relieved by the fact that they operate completely independently. I was a bit concerned to have ‘servants’ in the house. How are you supposed to threat them? I’m not used to giving commands (although my girlfriend disagrees on this). Now I never have to and the household seems to run like clockwork.
The driver
In comparison to the luxury of a cook and a cleaning lady, having a driver is a complete necessity. We live roughly 20 kilometers from my office and somewhat the same distance from the orphanage my girlfriend works in. So this means I am traveling about two hours every day and she even more. And in the rare instances where I have to hire a travel agency to get me to the airport because I’m meeting someone important, I reach out to Limo Find, and get a limo to escort the guest. As for everyday commute, we were able to find a driver right away. He is a relative of one of the office boys that works for Xebia India. He’s quite a young man, but he is very dependable and very friendly. He keeps addressing me as ‘Sir’ and my girlfriend as ‘Madam’. He reaches our home every morning around 7 o’clock and starts with removing the dust from the car. We leave for the office around 7:15 or 7:30 reaching there around 8. They drop me and the driver brings my girlfriend to the orphanage, another half hour drive. There he waits while she conducts her therapy sessions and after lunch they go back home. In the afternoon he returns to the office to pick me up. Then we reach home between 5 and 6 and that completes his working day. So on a normal working day he often works 11 hours, but he never complains about this.

We are very happy with this driver. The only thing we’re sometimes not so happy about is… his driving style! He uses the clutch not very smoothly and he breaks very hard. This is quite uncomfortable at times for passengers. Of course it is far more important that he steers us safely every day through the busy Delhi trafic, but it could be so much nicer if he would improve his driving skills. I’ve tried to explain to him that it would be better for his employment position to improve his skills, but so far to no avail. I’m not sure whether it is due to the language problem (his English is better than most, but that doesn’t mean much) or inability on his part. One other thing is that he is not a very confident driver. He steers through the hectic trafic very cautiously, which is good, but sometimes he’s just plain slow or hesitant, which is bad, because it can also lead to dangerous situations. Furthermore Indian roads are not the best place to be hesitant. The other road users have no problems pushing their vehical past yours left and right if you give them an inch, or even if you don’t. Whenever things go not as smoothly as he or we would like, he is very quick in saying ‘Sorry Sir!’ or ‘Sorry Madam!’ and I always feel it is sincere, even though it doesn’t help much.
Taking all this into account, we have grown quite attached to our little driver. I still have the silent hope that he will improve his skills giving time and all will be even better. The most important to me is that I feel I can trust him. Let’s hope that feeling remains (touch wood).
So here we are: employing a cook, a cleaning lady and a driver. A few months ago, I could not have imagined what that would be like. Two years ago I would have thought it very decadent. Right now, I’m getting used to it and I have to say it is very pleasant.
There are many more things happening and I’ll try to find some time to write about it.

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Just A Guy
Just A Guy
13 years ago

Wow, sounds like you have landed in paradise and being pampered by a cook, maid and driver. Very nice, even if it is only for a few privileged few. BTW, have you seen the disparity in living standards there? While a precious few are wallowing in luxury, the bulk of people are living near or below the poverty line. Just open your eyes to things beyond kebabs and chicken makhni and you may see some thing better to blog about. At the very least, you should visit the homes of people who work for you. See how pleasant it is for them.
No need to get defensive about how these people would starve if you didn’t employ them. For generations, these people were kept at a disadvantage and downtrodden.
Reading your blog makes me sick. Please blog about something less painful than how you are slowly losing your humanity and enjoying being waited upon by some poor fellow.

Cristiana Bardeanu
13 years ago

@Just A Guy: I think you’ve never actually been there. I lived in Ethiopia with my family when I was young: we went there because my father wanted to help the people as a doctor in a hospital. At first we also did not hire anybody because of the “idealistic” reasons you state. That was wrong, as it turns out. The locals were angry with us for not wanting to share some of our wealth: we were keeping people out of a job. Don’t forget that in a poor country jobs are few and far between, and labor is cheap. It’s a simple question of demand and supply. The money our cook, gardener and guard earned was very good compared to what they would earn with other jobs: in the case of our gardener and cook it allowed all their kids to go to school.
So Just A Guy, I think it’s time you widened your own horizons. Why don’t you actually go and visit India before naively judging others?

Maarten Winkels
13 years ago

Hi Just A Guy,
Thanks for your comment. I can see where you come from and to some degree I agree with your viewpoints.
I don’t think that employing my cook, cleaning lady or driver makes any difference to the millions that live below the poverty line in India, but not using their services would certainly not help anyone.
While in India, we try to actively help people that are less fortunate than ourselves and there are loads of them. Even though we try to do our best, I’m not as naive to think that however much we invest in time and money will ever make a difference on the enormous scale of this country. I will blog (and I think I have) about the things we are doing to improve living conditions for some people that we encounter.
I use this blog series to write about all the things we encounter while living here. The things I wrote about in this particular blog are things we live with every day and everybody that will ever consider making a move like this will have to deal with. Although the poverty and painfulness of everyday life of many Indians is certainly something we encounter on a very regular basis, writing about these things doesn’t seem very useful to me. Anybody that comes to India will see his share of that and will learn to understand it to some extend (or leave on the next plane).
From your comment I cannot tell the level of luxury your living in, but from the fact that your can use a computer to respond to a blog on the internet, I think it must be some light years above that of the people you worry about so much. Now, I fail to see the difference between living anywhere in the world or in India in this luxury when there are so many people in this world that do not have these privileges.
I think everybody should think about how he or she can best contribute to the solutions for poverty and other global problems. I certainly have and it will be the topic of a future blog post. It will have no relation whatsoever with the topic of this blog.
What are your answers to these everlasting questions and problems? Do you really think any answer that you or me can come up with will ever make the slightest difference?
-Maarten Winkels

Shrikant Vashishtha
13 years ago

From my own experience I feel that the dynamics of poverty is not that simple as we’d like to feel. In communist nations it’s glamorized and as individuals a bit of romanticism is attached to it. Most of the times when we try to do something for poor people, some kind of self-gratification is attached to it. The feeling of normalcy and selflessness doesn’t exist in general.
So talking about visiting them and their places may bring a kind of feeling of self-gratification inside but it doesn’t help much to the people. Unless you know the real cause of poverty, some help in tits and bits doesn’t work.
I’ll put an example here. Sometimes back (2 years) when I was traveling on the roads of Noida (satellite town of Delhi), I found some children begging barefooted with very minimal clothes. This was in a weather of 4-10 degrees. I found myself too privileged and thought helping those kids with buying some shoes for them. I went there next day and bought some shoes for them. However it became a kind of nuisance when a lot of kids and teenaged boys and girls started turning up. In the end I bought some 15 pairs of shoes for them. It was a good day I thought as I could do something for them. However next day when I was travelling through the same street, no child was wearing those shoes. The cycle of poverty is so vicious that they might have sold those shoes also. So the moral of the story is – unless you focus on real problem (root cause) and do something about it, small things which you think will work, do not work in real sense.
We try to help poor people but all that help will be and can be momentary for all practical purposes. All one can do is to bring some smiles. And I think that should be enough. One can be a good employer and a good human being while dealing with them and help them when possible with the means available for example.

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