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Diwali bonus time … what a difference a year makes

In Being Ma'am on October 24, 2011 at 2:31 pm

Buying Diwai sweets has somehow become my job even though I manage about 4 staff and Dean manages about 35. Last year I was pulling my hair out with the stress of it all. This year Dean and Raj wrote the list, Dean set the budget, Raj and I went into two shops and managed to come out with sweets for everyone. It took me about 2 hours. Last year it took about 2 weeks! I think I may be getting the hang of India.

Everyone seemed happy except from the garbage wallah who said, “thanks for the sweets but I’d rather have some money”. He got a big fat, “no!”


I have a dishwasher

In Being Ma'am on October 7, 2011 at 10:24 am

It’s a machine: That’s important to clarify as most Indian dishwashers are people.

If you are not an expat in India you may be thinking, so what? If you are an expat in India you may be jealous or you may just think I’m mad. It arrived three weeks ago after much fuss:

Fuss #1 – persuading Dean we needed a dishwasher:
Dean didn’t think that we needed a dishwasher because we could pay a person to do it for us. This brought to light a few serious issues: 1) Why did I bother to ask him anyway, 2) what do I care what he thinks and 3) why doesn’t he listen to a word I say? So after I explained, calmly and rationally, that this would help me reclaim my home and would therefore benefit both of us (and then threatened to leave) he came round.

Fuss #2 – splitting the water supply and fixing two taps:
I had the misfortune of having the worst plumber in the whole world in my house who wanted to charge me for making everything he touched worse. Then I found an OK plumber to do the job and I was ready to roll.

Fuss #3 – persuading the man in the shop to let me buy the dishwasher:
No, I’m not kidding! This is not unusual in India; people will let you walk out of their shop without making a sale, even though it’s there for the taking; it’s a perplexing issue. They only wanted to sell me the display model; the concept of keeping it on display in order to sell more dishwashers was lost on them. After persuading the man (and the 10 additional men who were ‘helping’) that I didn’t want to buy the display model, that I wanted a new one from the factory and that I was happy to wait 2 days for it, I paid my money.

Fuss #4 – delivery and installation:
Of course  it didn’t get here on time but it was only one day late and who really expects goods in India to be delivered to schedule? The men from the shop came to deliver it and then they called the man from the factory who came to install it. I’m no expert but I think there may be some efficiency gains to be made here. The water pipe was too short so I had to buy an over-priced extension. The electricity cable was too short so I had to find an extension from one of the cable and adapter thickets that lie in hidden corners of my home.

Fuss #5 – getting dishwasher salt etc.
It turns out that there are no freebies with Indian dishwashers; the factory man wanted to sell me a starter back for an exorbitant amount so I told him no thanks. In the end this actually this wasn’t really much fuss; I didn’t know where to get it, I asked the expat community, they told me, I bought it. Aren’t they great?!

Yippee … turn the dishwasher on …

Fuss #6 – the new tap leaks:
*$@<>$%^&*(“!!! The OK plumber came back: He didn’t do a brilliant job but it was late in the evening and I was too tired to argue.

Yippee … turn the dishwasher on …

Fuss #7 – the dishwasher blows the electric circuit:
*#!@?;{~&^!!!!!!!! . I had visions of having to take the bloody thing back! But it turns out we are running 3 amp fuses on all our home circuits. So with the help of Shyam, the trusty electrician, we have a new fuse and the dishwasher even has its very own socket.

Yippee … turn the dishwasher on …. ahh … no more washing up for me.

Being a domestic goddess ain’t all it’s cracked up to be!

In Being Ma'am on July 18, 2011 at 4:51 pm

So how about plans to replace the housekeeper? Well there aren’t any. What? An expat wife cleaning her own toilets? … Er no, there’s still someone to do the cleaning, but I have decided to do the rest i.e. cooking and laundry. Sounds easy right? I mean who doesn’t do that in the UK? Well it turns out it’s not!

Following the ‘if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em’, school of thought and to appease my husband, I have started to cook Indian food. Dean likes a curry and takes a tiffin to work each day. It’s the deluxe 4 tier model which means 4 different dishes; protein (usually meat), veg, daal or beans and a carbohydrate (chapati or rice). Forget sandwiches and a drink – this lunch is in a league of its own.

Next there’s the washing up: I don’t have to do the washing up, I could get the maid to do it but there’s a lot of it and she has other work to do. If she did the washing up, she would either do less of the other stuff or have to spend more time working, neither of which suit me. Because I’m cooking I need my pots and pans ready when I want them and I don’t like dirty dishes sitting around, she would only do the washing up once a day so logistically it doesn’t work either.

Hmmm the pile of ironing is rising before me like a Gurgaon skyscraper. Most of our clothes need ironing because they are mainly cotton or linen. I had convinced myself that it was possible to wash and iron everything in a day because drying is not a problem in India. Of course it is possible but only if you have nothing else to do.

So why am I putting myself through all this. Especially as I don’t have to?

Domestic staff is a way of life in India. Most expats in India have domestic staff. It also seems the norm for expats globally. However expat life is also generally dependent on one member of a couple (usually the wife) giving up work. So here’s the rub; like many other expat wives, I became a housewife at the same time as having no housework to do.

For me that statement is literally true; I moved into a home that was already set up so I have always had a full contingent of staff. There have been a few reshuffles but I have never not had a housekeeper, until now.

I knew I would need some help on my journey here. So I packed what I now consider to be a piece of gold, a book, “A Portable Identity: A Woman’s Guide to Maintaining a Sense of Self While Moving Overseas” by Debra Bryson and Charise Hoge. They offer practical tools for dealing with the most significant change that occurs when you follow your husband overseas; your change of identity or “Who am I?” It strikes me that being a housewife with no housework is something of an identity crisis.

I think ‘home making’ is something I’m pretty good at and, apart from washing up (which I detest), I quite enjoy. In the UK I wouldn’t have put it right at the top of my list of priorities but it was something that I did. When you follow your husband abroad the familiar goes out the window; it’s disorienting and challenging. However this is a familiar role that I could have pursued, but I didn’t. I can’t change what happened then (and I don’t want to) but I am ready to reclaim the role now.

One of the things that occupies me is the potential lack of achievement in my expat life, both day-to-day and over the assignment. As an expat wife nothing I do is strictly defined (unless I define it). By contrast cooking a meal is definite. In a life where achievement is rare, that is a big deal.

I struggle with scheduling my time. Housework has to have a schedule otherwise it mounts up. My ironing suggests that I need to do some work on this! I have a theory that settling into the routine of housework will add structure to the rest of my ‘working’ life.

I have a year’s worth of experience of being a Ma’am. One of the things I have learnt is that it only works if I have things my way. It sounds harsh because I am talking about other human beings but there is no room for creative decision-making in domestic staff. They can’t place your vase over the other side of the room because they though maybe it would look better over there or play around with the timing of dinner to achieve greater efficiency. It has to be what, when, where and how you want it. It is directional management. I think doing it myself will make me clearer about what I want and therefore better able to pass this on to my future housekeeper, if there is one.

So being a domestic goddess is hard but good. However I still reserve the right to give it all up in favour of G&T drinking at some future date!

Chartered Institute of Ma’am

In Being Ma'am on July 13, 2011 at 6:25 pm

As I sit here labouring away at my Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM) qualification I am distracted by the realities of my real life at the coalface of domestic staff management: I have just sacked my housekeeper: I am uneasy about the situation I find myself in: If only there were a qualification I could take to help me deal with its many challenges.

It seems likely that my housekeeper fabricated the delivery of three tankers of water, over the space of nine days, and pocketed the Rs800 (£11) per delivery. In total that’s about 30% of her monthly salary. As a result I have let her go without salary or severance pay and with no reference.

I quizzed her extensively on the circumstances of the ‘deliveries’ and concluded that she was not telling the truth. However, who am I to decide whether she is telling the truth?  I am not independent and there is room for doubt; the matter was brought to my attention by another member of staff, the evidence against her, although considerable, is circumstantial and she continued to protest her innocence right up to me asking her to go.

Asking someone to leave your home if you do not trust them is a matter of personal protection; not paying money owed or writing a reference is a punishment. So now I am jury and judge. There is a clear power inequality in this situation but in reality there is no alternative (there’s no domestic service arbitration service in India.)

I have all the power. I’ve decided to punish someone even though I have some doubts about her guilt. This is what makes me uneasy. On the other hand, no one said the exercise of power was easy. I had to deal with the situation, I had to make decisions. I did all I could to assess the situation fairly. As a result, I came to the conclusion that she did it. Having come to that conclusion I punished her: I hope that she is clear of the consequences of her actions and is dissuaded from doing it again. With regards to not writing a reference, in reality, I think this may do her a favour as she escapes the possibility of getting a bad one.

Diwali bonus time …

In Being Ma'am on November 9, 2010 at 4:18 pm

… hmmm … what’s Hindi for bar humbug?

Diwali in India looks a lot like Christmas in the UK; everyone has time off work, you give gifts and there are pretty lights everywhere. It doesn’t seem quite so commercialised as Christmas which is good but as India develops I expect it will become increasingly so. There is one aspect that I just don’t like; there is huge pressure to give EVERYONE gifts and money.

I am led to believe that one month’s salary is a standard Diwali bonus – think about it – that’s a whooping 8% – not bad for just doing your job. I have had advice to the contrary via my expat network where someone told me that sweets were the norm not money. Am I being taken for a ride just because I’m European?

For our household staff we started at a month’s salary as a maximum: Our housekeeper got a month’s salary (because she negotiated it as part of her contract) and a box of chocolates, as did our gardener, our new maid only got sweets because she’d only been in post for 3 days, our security guards only got sweets because I don’t pay them I pay a company so I reckon they should get any financial bonus from their company, I forgot about the dustbin men so I gave them a month’s salary when prompted (they asked for it).

Today the postman came to ask for his Diwali bonus. I said words to the effect of, “forget it”. I did explain that as I have no financial relationship with him I do not consider a financial bonus appropriate and I don’t have any sweets left. I expect that will get lost in translation.  He may have asked because he thinks it’s reasonable to do so or he may have asked because I’m a westerner and therefore a soft touch (or a combination of the two) – I don’t know. The postal service is pretty erratic anyway, I wonder if I’ve just made a mistake. We’ll see.

Dean’s staff all got a month’s salary, again just for doing their job, and a box of chocolates each at £4 a pop. I can’t help thinking that there is something not quite right about Diwali bonuses.

Staffing burp!

In Being Ma'am on August 29, 2010 at 2:00 pm

The staffing hiccup earlier this month started a chain reaction that came to a conclusion on Friday … I have a new housekeeper, Swapna. A swan of a sentence; you cannot see the furious kicking going on underneath. The kicking was the angst of not having the home set up I wanted, the actual practicalities of finding new staff, the stress of getting anything done in India and the resulting arguments with my husband.

After our inside maid resigned, my other staff started to make moves to replace her; someone knew someone who knew someone. I had an overwhelming feeling of being out of control. I wanted to make the appointments in my own home. I also wanted to appoint an English speaker. I suddenly became aware of everything I couldn’t do because I couldn’t communicate with the staff in my home. I also became aware (perhaps unfairly) of all of the limitations of my housekeeper including the fact that he was male. I wanted an English-speaking, female housekeeper.

I knew that the moment had come for change. Fortunately Bill took me to Delhi for the day to meet Kelly and go shopping. Between the three of us we came up with the theory of what that change might look like. The practicalities of implementing it have proved a bit more problematic and have been emotionally draining for me. In addition Dean has been ‘getting it in the neck’ although of course, that is his job!

Initially Dean was at best unenthusiastic about changing housekeeper. During our trip to Mt Abu he begrudgingly agreed. I think that Dean was principally concerned with the personal cost to Vishnu of asking him to leave. However as I was slipping into a depression and threatening to leave India, even Dean could see that the personal cost us and our relationship of not making changes would be higher.

Unfortunately I was ill the following week. That didn’t do India any favours – it’s very easy to think a country is dirty, smelly when you are suffering from food poisoning (which I have never suffered from before). During that week, on the advice of my expat network, I managed to visit a staff agency in Delhi to see about a replacement housekeeper. They weren’t very helpful. Further advice, e-mails and asking around followed but still no replacement. Even though I knew I was moving in the right direction I was still feeling ‘strung out’, moaning to everyone and giving Dean grief.

The week after that, again on the advice of others, I visited the ‘maid shop’ at the American Women’s Association (AWA) at the Embassy: They have a register of domestic staff looking for employment with expats. They only take staff with experience and check references thoroughly. Every Friday between 9am and 1pm, staff looking for work arrive and wait. Expats looking for staff also turn up, look at the files, interview anyone they are interested in and arrange for a ‘trial week’. I interviewed 4, had a shortlist of 2 and asked Swapna to come for a week’s trial on Monday 23rd.

In the mean time we gave Vishnu notice. We stressed that it was not to do with the quality of his work but was because I wanted an English-speaking female housekeeper. This was all translated to him via Raj, our driver. Raj was upset by the situation too and has tried very hard to find Vishnu a new job. Amazingly (and I am amazed) he managed to get Vishnu a job with the firm who provide our security and Vishnu now guards our house at night! I’ve sacked our outside maid because we paid her too much and she didn’t appear to want to work any harder. Also, I’ve never really understood the need for a separate inside and outside cleaning role. So I now have one person to do both and that person is Vishnu!

So am I now in control? Well maybe not completely but one thing at a time, or as Swapna would say, “slowly, slowly”.