When we joined Woodstock, they told us during orientation that it is generally expected that we will employ an ayah to manage our household. It’s part of the local culture to hire these women and it’s a needed source of income for these families. So therefore we should feel free to hire an ayah, despite the fact that we may instinctively find the idea classist, awkwardly colonialist, and just generally backwards. Though it is not really a necessity for many of us, most expatriates at Woodstock end up employing local women in this manner: to cook, clean, and maintain the home. In some Indian households, the ayah is so entrenched that she even performs some childcare duties and may work for a family for decades.
Local women must have a grapevine through which they all find out which houses have new staff in them, and then they begin the sales calls. For our first few weeks here we had frequent knocks at the front door. Most of them speak very little english, so when you answer the door, they’d just say, “ayah?” Lately these knocks have begun again, because word has gotten out that the Bethraham household is ayah-less.
When we arrived in India, Amy, our only friend at Woodstock at the time, offered her ayah to us. According to Amy, Sunita wasn’t a good cook or a particularly experienced ayah, but she came from a sweet christian family that needed the income and therefore would be very appreciative of the work. Since we didn’t want a cook and just wanted someone we could trust to do a few chores, we hired her in short order and she has been working for us since last fall.
Not long after we hired her did we realize she was not actually a very good ayah. Every time we ate the delicious homemade bread or baked lasagna at our neighbor’s house we were reminded of it. Every time we found another broken dish (or immersion blender) in the trash (or in the bushes) we were reminded of it. When I taught Sunita how to iron and she giggled through the lesson before melting one of Bethany’s nicest saris, we were reminded of it. But we were patient and gave her opportunities to improve her work. We even wondered if she might be able to take some cooking/baking lessons from our neighbor’s older, more experienced ayah. This professional development would benefit Sunita in the long term and Bethraham in the short term. Alas, we never got the chance.
Shortly after Around the World in 80 Days ended, Bethany stayed home one day to rest and catch up on various things. On her to-do list was a conversation with Sunita about a backlog of work-related topics: which chores to do on which days, how and when to prepare food, etc… But what began as a simple conversation about mopping suddenly escalated into an inexplicably violent argument. Sunita flew off the handle and began mouthing off at 100kph, ranting and raving about who knows what. Even when the neighbor and the neighbor’s ayah were called in to translate and mediate, she remained obstinate and livid. Finally, Bethany gave her the choice of calming down, coming inside and finishing her work or turning in her key. She chose the latter.
Ever since, we have been in charge of our own household for the first time since arriving in India. We fold clothes the way we like them folded, and we stack dishes so that they actually dry. It takes some time each evening, but it’s nice to have a sense of responsibility and control again. Recently Sunita’s husband (who works at the school) asked me if we would hire Sunita back and I told him we were going to go without an ayah for a while. His eyes got big and he laughed like I just told him we would be going to the moon for summer break. “But how can you do the work?” he asked, genuinely perplexed.
We’ve been through many strange seasons with Sunita. As in any language-impaired professional relationship, there were many mysteries about her work, such as “how does she keep breaking things?” and “what’s so funny about ironing?” and, “why would you sweep and mop before you dust?” She also would arrange our furnishings in odd ways, despite our efforts to teach her otherwise. When we allowed her to begin preparing some food for us, she would make very oily, very odd dishes, including one cinnamon roll type concoction that substituted tomato sauce for cinnamon and sugar. Also, she would do things like cook shrimp (which are not cheap in Mussoorie) and leave the pan on the counter, so that by the time we got home late in the evening it was no longer safe to eat. The most maddening thing is that we never knew when she would cook and what she would use or how she would use it. And no matter how many times we said not to cook unless we we asked her to, she continued to follow her own whims.
When Sunita was in the throes of firing herself, she said something to the effect of, “but I thought you were supposed to be christians.” Naturally, this hit hard, as our hiring her in the first place was in part an effort to show the love of Christ to “the least of these“. But the longer we’ve been here, the more difficult it’s become to define that relationship. Yes, most Americans have resources that these local families only dream of. But factor in a Woodstock salary and the disparity drops. Factor in India cost of living vs paying a mortgage back in the US and the disparity drops further. Factor in Western naivete and the disparity again drops. Indian homeowners treat their ayahs very harshly and have been known to fire them simply for sitting on their boss’s couch during the day. Westerners, with all their silly hangups about poverty, racism and equality, are much more forgiving, so much so that ayahs are known to take advantage of their white employers. “If you give them an inch, they’ll take a mile,” we’ve been warned on several occasions. Indeed, working for Americans is the ultimate cushy ayah gig, much like selling Rajasthani puppets to American tourists. It’s like shooting fish in barrel.
To make matters more complicated for us, we’ve learned through the grapevine that Sunita’s husband has been habitually unfaithful, putting their family in a state of crisis. Perhaps as a step toward restoration, or perhaps to give the impression of it, they’ve begun attending St. Paul’s. They sit in the back each Sunday with their 4 restless kids even though their English are not sufficient to follow the service. After one service recently,
she and Bethany had a mediated, clear-the-air conversation which helped bring a measure of hugs and understanding, though we have decided for the time being not to hire her back.
Is this the right thing to do? Would it be more loving to pay her to do poor quality work at our expense? Or would she be a better, more lucrative, ayah in the long run having learned that following your employer’s instructions is a good idea? How exactly do you define poverty? When christians are commanded to care for the poor, does that include someone who holds a steady job with health insurance, free housing, and who owns two working vehicles, all while living in a place where such things are luxuries? And finally, are we too good to do our own dishes??
There are no easy answers. I could begin to speculate, but I have to start a load of laundry.