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Maid in India

28 September, 2010

The Jolly family just achieved a significant milestone. We just celebrated three years on the ground in India, and as we contemplated the various pitfalls, accomplishments, disasters (and near disasters), friendships, three moves, three schools, three office locations and overall roller coaster ride that is India, we ended up talking about the number one conversation topic at birthday parties – Maids. The very first week that we arrived in India, one of our neighbors mentioned to us (under the guise of being helpful) that “people move to India because of the maids, and people move out of India because of the maids”.

We laughed it off at that time, but over the past three years, have realized exactly why the gentleman made that comment. We have known several people of who have been victims of that statement, and are now much happier in their home countries than they were under the grip of their domestic staff in India.

I am sure many of you question why in the world am I writing about my or my family’s experiences, usually negative, on a VC site. That is a valid question.  The reason is that for a VC, especially an IBCAD (you will have to read other posts to figure out what that acronym stands for) like me, to be able to understand and function in a given market, especially one as complex as India, and therefore make investment decisions, he/she needs to have a fairly good idea of “on the ground” realities about everything from living in India, doing business in India, and comprehending and overcoming challenges, be they geographic, religious, lingual, cultural or otherwise. So, hold on to your horses, because there is method to my madness, in this article as well. I would love to hear from those who disagree.  But hopefully you will enjoy this.

Before I talk about the maids, let me focus on the drivers (there are clear roles and responsibilities in our household. I handle the drivers. My wife deals with the women). To be honest, I like the fact that I don’t have to drive, although I have started a morning ritual of dropping my kids to school myself in the morning. Over the last three years, we have been through 15 drivers. Each one was unique in his own way, but some simply stood out: one driver asked for an advance of Rs. 5000, which we naively gave and the guy never showed up for work (completely robbery from a completely set of newcomers to India.

Since then we have not advanced any money to anyone); there was one who was married with two teenage girls and was having an affair with the maid two doors down from us (our own soap opera/reality TV show); one showed up drunk (I had to slap him);  most didn’t know a thing about cars except the brake, clutch and accelerator (these guys could have been driving with flat tires on rims and said that there was nothing wrong with the vehicle); one was slightly oversized and used the car as his own airconditioned second home to the extent that we all needed blankets; more than half were let go because they didn’t know Bangalore geography beyond a 10 km radius around their Taluk.

We currently have a driver named Shrinivas who thinks he is our father. By the way, every driver we have every hired has had “sh” in his name, which my five year old finds funny, as he rattles off the names (Mahesh, veeresh, purushottam, santosh, ashok, shankar etc. etc.)Most of the time when we ask to go somewhere to get something (flowers, for example), Shrinivas’ response is usually, “Why sir. Why you go there. You need to go to Dodaballalallchikabalapur where there is a flower market every third Wednesday at 4 am. You save money there. I will go there at 3 am on that wednesday and bring you flowers”. 

One part of me gets annoyed, but the other is thankful that we have a solid resource like him. He is also related to the Kauravs (hey, why not weave in some mythology while I am at it). I am convinced he comes from a family of 100 siblings. Every time we ask him if he knows someone in an obscure place, his answer is always “yes”.  He has brothers who are in the police, in the chief ministers’ office, at the Times Group, and one who has an ink cartridge refilling business. I made the mistake of sending him to get HP cartridges for my printer, and of course he came back with, “Why sir. My brother is in this business. He will fill it up cheap”.  Interestingly enough, I learn a lot from him about rising quality of life across presumably a broad spectrum of Indian society. He recently came to me since his old Nokia phone was having battery issues and asked if I would be willing to subsidize the cost of a new phone. I said yes, but up to Rs. 1000. I thought he should be able to get a fairly good low end Nokia for about that much. He came back having bought a Micromax Q7, which was about Rs. 5000 with full qwerty, Bluetooth, color screen, high resolution camera, dual sim etc. etc. He was happily showing it off to me, and then had the courage to ask me for the additional Rs. 4000. I smiled and said “Why sir” (in his Kannada accent). 

He understood that there was no additional VC money coming his way. Like some of DFJ’s entrepreneurs, he has overspent in hopes that DFJ would simply write another check to make up the cash shortfall. Like some of our entrepreneurs, he was also disappointed.

Shrinivas had an interesting complaint about his new phone. His complaint was that there wasn’t room for more than two numbers that could be stored for any one contact.  He himself has four SIMs (idea, aircell, reliance and airtel), and uses the one that has the best deal going.  Aside: I would discount the 600M+ Indian mobile subscriber number that TRAI is touting. The real number is probably closer to 450M(ish) which is still very significant.

Recently, there was a festival called Lakshmi Pooja. Srinivas is extremely religious and sometimes I feel he is a global citizen celebrating every festival, irrespective of religion, since he keeps asking for random days off on Eid, Ramzan and even for Honnukah and Yom Kippur.  In any case, he insists that at every Lakshmi pooja, he has to buy something new as a tradition (which is a fairly capital intensive festival). Last year he bought a motorcycle. This year, I was amazed when he drove to work in a brand new Maruti-Suzuki Dzire, which is a Rs 5L+ car. My wife and I looked at each other, and thought that perhaps we should be working for him rather than the other way around. He had a nicer car, and I actually had the idea of having him drive us in his car.

That same day, we decided to go to UB City, an upscale mall promoted by that highly introverted, little known billionaire, Vijay Mallya.  We happen to be strolling around the mall post lunch when we noticed that a shoe store was going out of business and had a 50% sale sign. We decided to walk in and check it out. We were surprised to find our driver, Shrinivas in the showroom trying on shoes.  He had parked the car and was strolling around UB City as well. He was a little surprised to see us also, but indicated that people working at the store were his friends (amazingly, he didn’t refer to one of them as his brother). The salesman confirmed that he was indeed’s Shrinivas’ friend and indicated that Shrinivas “had bought shoes there before”.

That statement in isolation would not have been all that unique, except for the fact that this was a high-end mall, and the store was selling Keens and Merills, which are among the most expensive casual shoes from the US. The phone, the car, the shoes…I am guessing I should be a little concerned about Shrinivas. But he is the type of guy that everyone arriving in India needs. He knows the city inside out, he is your handyman, your man Friday, your resource to find everything from nuts and bolts, high end electronics and some leafy produce that only exists in one hole-in-the-wall place in all of Bangalore. We also found out that he owns property in North Bangalore (which probably answers why he has money to spend, but doesn’t answer the question why he needs to work for us).

Back to the maids…One thing we realized after being frustrated for the first 1.5 years in India with the continuous issue with hiring reliable staff was that we simply had to accept the revolving door policy. And now that expectation has helped us maintain some sanity, in that we are ok with either firing maids or having them leave after a few weeks or months to be replaced with another temporary resource. It’s annoying, but like many other things in India, you simply have to accept the reality rather than fight it.

Just like the drivers, let me offer some memorable moments when dealing with maids – twice, our maids have stolen (although the issue is that it cannot be clinically proven). We learned in our second year that one of the key contacts to have in India is the police. Hence, we have made that key contact and have made it clear to the domestic staff that we know the cops, so they should not try any funny business. I talked about Shrinivas earlier. But the maids are also benefitting from increasing quality of life. In Bangalore, perhaps more than anywhere else, the entire domestic staff ecosystem is being turned upside down by the fairly sizable expat community. There is a double whammy for the non expat types. One, there is almost a status symbol among the domestic help diaspora associated with working for the “white man”. I know that’s a strong statement, but it has become increasingly apparent to me that it is true.

Second, given that expat expenses are typically borne by their respective companies, individuals don’t particularly care how much the domestic staff gets paid, which has spoiled them. And finally, the foreigners don’t necessarily care as much about the north of south Indian food. Their culinary requirements tend to be simpler than those of IBCADs like me, or the resident Indians.

To give you a specific example of being, we recently did a complete “control alt delete” with respect to our in-house domestic staff (maid, cook etc.). We worked with multiple “agencies” to find talent. Good news is that there was a flow of prospects. Bad news is that the quality got increasingly worse with time. One cook came in and said (and I quote), “madam, I want Rs. 10000. I will cook for three hours and leave. I want Sundays off as well as government holidays. I also want to be dropped off every day at home”.  It was another Indian moment when both my wife and I laughed, since crying was not an option. It’s good that wealth is trickling down to the masses, but the irrational exuberance seems to be flowing to their heads.

The domestic staff behavior is not too different from the dilemma that IT companies often face – high churn, expectation of raises every year, retention issues. I have family members in Punjab who have had the same maids and drivers for over twenty years working for a fraction of what we pay in Bangalore. Another interesting dilemma my wife and I face in Bangalore is the language. We don’t speak Kannada, but we often catch the staff whispering in their native tongue. It’s clear to us that often they talk about us, since they stop talking as soon as we sneak up to the kitchen or wherever they seem to have congregated.

It got to a point where I decided to reach out to my north Indian relatives and see if we could get a live-in nanny from a non-Kannada speaking part of India. That way there are two clear benefits. The lack of Kannada and geographical knowledge/connections would keep the individual more loyal and less likely to move elsewhere. And second, there would be no behind our back conversations due to the language gap. We found that there are three tiers of nannies available – untrained, semi-trained and fully trained. The fully trained one cost Rs. 3000 per month.

Compare that to the Rs.10000 ask for 3 hours of cooking daily. It’s a phenomenal delta. The other piece of advice we kept getting (but didn’t want to practice) was that one cannot think of domestic staff as part of the family. The more respect (with please and thank you’s) that you give, the more spoiled they get and take you for a ride. Being from the US, it’s not natural for us to talk down to others or treat them truly like servants. But my wife and I now find ourselves in a situation that the only way to get the staff to listen is by being more authoritarian rather than diplomatic, courteous and friendly. 

The point of the article is not to moan and groan about the pitfalls of finding and retaining good domestic staff, but use the above examples to shed light on both sides of the coin. On the one hand, I love the fact that I am having an impact of half a dozen folks directly with the drivers, maids, cook, gardener, etc. etc. getting paid much more than they used to even a few years ago, and being able to send their kids to a school as a tangible benefit, for example. But on the other hand, it also highlights the expectation creep that seems to have taken hold and significant variation therein from one region (which may not have an expat migration) versus another (that is filled with expats).

Regardless, it is clear that both from the domestic population that is becoming more affluent and therefore able to impact the livelihood of others, as well as the scores of expats and NRIs moving back, the quality of life is going to continue to improve for many in the lower strata. So, even though I continue to live with the frustration of domestic staff issues, the VC in me sees the glass half full. The increasing quality of life and greater consumption by that same strata of society will be driving factors for India for decades to come.

 


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