The Help

When we first arrived in India, we were so busy getting to grips with finding a place to live and overcoming culture-shock that we did not have a lot of time to think about getting servants.

At trailing spouse coffee mornings, I was advised that getting a good driver is one of the most important elements involved in whether or not our stay in Mumbai would be happy.

There’s no doubt that we struck it lucky finding M and Mrs M. They have taken wonderful care of us and made our lives much, much easier. The downside, however, is a lack of privacy and an avalanche of unsolicited advice. The most recurrent of which involves curd. Eating curd can cure all ills and should always be the first port of call, apparently. My favourite words of wisdom passed down from the non-English speaking Mrs M to me were that “person’s with no set schedule are inclined to become lazy.”  Yes, yes they are. Yipee!

Still, the most tricky element of having servants is trying not to get too embroiled in their lives. For some reason, we often find ourselves in the role of agony aunt and uncle. One of the trailing spouse publications cautions that as “Sir and Madam”, you may be called upon to attend family occasions or even name babies. No one said anything about arbitrating a spat between Mrs M and a family friend over alleged cheating of how much we were being charged by the car hire company. No one said anything about giving advice to M’s eldest daughter regarding her secret boyfriend.

Personally, I think it would be good for S to have a boyfriend but that is without taking the cultural context into account. Even though she is being educated at English-speaking college, it is true that if gossip starts regarding her “virtue”, her ability to find a “good” husband will be almost impossible. For a father with 5 girls, this is no small matter. Which is where I came in. As a newly married woman, I was asked to speak to S. I sweated about this for days. What on earth could I say? Where I come from having boyfriends before marriage is normal.

In the end, it turned out to be a storm in a teacup. Apparently the only interaction S and the mystery boy had actually had before the local gossips got involved, were a few conversations outside a classroom. The secret boyfriend turned out to be nothing more than an unrequited crush.

The consequences though, are astounding. S was promptly formally put out on the marriage circuit. She went through the process of meeting prospective suitors. An informal agreement with one family has already been reached. The only upside is that the family have agreed that S and her husband-to-be should both finish their respective educations. Which means the marriage will not take place for another few years.

It’s at times like this that I feel the cultural divide like a rock face.

What do you think?

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