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New Delhi Diarist; My Servant Problem

In the four years that I lived in India with my wife and twochildren, friends back home were always asking about the servants.How many did we have? (Five, not counting part-timers.) What didthey do? (Just about everything.) Did I miss doing the laundry?(Are you kidding?) I understood the interest--and the envy. Likemost Americans who do not run hedge funds, my wife and I weren'tused to such pampering; when living in our Maryland suburb, we hadconsidered ourselves lucky that we could afford a cleaning servicetwice a month. But servants go with the territory in India. With atouch of guilt, we were determined to enjoy the good life while itlasted.

If only it had been that simple. The staff of our rented bungalow inNew Delhi was typical of our neighborhood, a shaded enclavepopular with diplomats and foreign businessmen. We had a maid anda cook, of course, as well as a driver and a rotating cast ofchowkidars to sit outside the front gate and protect us frommarauding basket salesmen. The head chowkidar, Ashok, doubled asour Man Friday. Need an item from the drug store, or perhaps arailway ticket purchased in advance from Delhi's teeming station?Press a buzzer and he would magically appear to receive hismarching orders. We also employed several part-timers, including amali to tend the small garden and a dhobi who came in twice a weekto do the laundry. There was even a guy whose main duties consistedof exercising the dog and, every afternoon, running a squeegee overthe marble surface of our driveway.

You can get used to this kind of thing. For four years, I rarelywashed a dish or made a bed, and I can't say I pined for eithertask. In our own defense, there was a case to be made that servantswere something of a necessity for an American family trying tomaintain a semblance of normal life in India. In the absence ofWestern-style supermarkets, for example, shopping for groceriesresembled nothing so much as a treasure hunt, with the prizesscattered among tiny stalls in a vast covered bazaar. This couldtake hours and was not as quaint as it sounds. On one of her firstattempts, my wife, Gail, was dismayed to find the butcher wieldinghis cleaver while squatting, barefoot, on a fly- covered choppingblock. After that experience, we were happy to delegate theshopping to our cook, Joseph, not only because it saved us time butalso because, as a Christian, he knew where to find good beef (achallenge in mostly Hindu India, where cows are considered holy andprotected from slaughter in most states).

The servant we counted on most was Ashok, whose designated role aschowkidar didn't begin to describe the central place he occupied inour lives. A gentle, eternally pleasant soul in his late thirties,Ashok was married to Asha, the maid, with whom he had a young son.The family lived in a small apartment over the garage. Among hismany other duties, Ashok paid the utility bills, a simple enoughtask back home but one that in India required a trip to eachutility company--and a lengthy wait in line--to hand over the moneyin person. He also helped preserve our sanity by supervising theceaseless parade of non-English- speaking repairmen who troopedthrough the house to fix its chronically malfunctioning plumbingand wiring.

But all this coddling came at a cost. For some weeks after ourarrival, Asha would frequently barge into bedrooms and bathrooms,sometimes at awkward moments, and often looked more perplexed thanembarrassed when we gently shooed her out. It took us a while tounderstand that, in a country with three times the population ofthe United States in one-third the space, people simply had adifferent attitude toward privacy than we did. Gail finally dealtwith Asha's intrusions by making a Do Not Disturb sign for ourbedroom and coaching her in the finer points of knocking. Afterthat, we had the opposite problem. So literally did Asha take herinstructions that, even if she could see that we were nowhere nearthe room she wanted to dust or supply with fresh linens, she wouldostentatiously hammer on the door and wait for several secondsbefore going in.

Call me ungrateful, but servility rubbed me the wrong way. I justcouldn't get used to the idea of being the sahib, to the bowing andscraping it inspired on the part of the grown men and women whoworked for me. The night chowkidar made me feel like an idiot everytime he greeted me with a snappy salute and a brisk, "Suh!" (Was Isupposed to salute back?) And I hated the way that Asha, in apantomime of humility, would flatten herself against a wall everytime I came within sight, even if I was on the other side of theroom. My father, visiting from the United States, was sometimesperplexed to find, after returning from a trip to the bathroom orthe kitchen, that the newspaper he was reading had been neatlyfolded and put away. There is such a thing as too much help.

In some ways, running a house full of help was like owning a smallbusiness, or perhaps being the mayor of a small town. There wasalways a minor crisis brewing. One involved a night chowkidar whohad a habit of sleeping on the job. The logical solution was tofire him, but in India that is easier said than done. One of mypredecessors in The Washington Post's New Delhi bureau haddismissed a chowkidar on similar grounds, and the guard hadresponded with a lawsuit that was still in court a decade later.Gail finally resolved the matter by snapping photographs of thesleeping guard, a blanket tucked comfortably under his chin. Whenconfronted with the evidence the next morning, he left with a fussbut no threats of litigation.

Since moving back to Maryland last year, my wife and I have had tomake some adjustments. More than once, I have wished that I wereback in New Delhi-- usually while circling the hardware-storeparking lot on some trivial household errand that previously wouldhave been delegated to Ashok. On the other hand, there's somethingto be said for self-sufficiency. A couple of months ago, I mowedthe lawn for the first time this year. I found I rather enjoyed it.

By John Lancaster; John Lancaster was South Asia correspondent for TheWashington Post from 2002 to 2006.; /end