My American friends simply cannot imagine domestic life in India with servants. Servants are ubiquitous, and not just for the fabulously wealthy. This AP piece examines some tensions in the relationship between the naukars (servants) and the sahib-log (employers) in light of some recent murders, automatically blamed on servants, in the capital. [H/t Bill.]
And yes, anytime I'm back in India, at some point or the other the conversation ends up being about servants, and how hard it is to get good help these days, and how one can't get too close to them, and basically how lazy everyone is. I can only imagine the hysteria that is being whipped up by these tragic and hyper-publicized murders.
And while I'm quite used to the reality, and know how to comport myself properly as a sahib, I don't think the whole set up sat very well with me. Or so I'd like to think. As a kid in Delhi, I recall this elderly lady who'd show up every afternoon, and, instead of ringing the doorbell, would cry out in a loud voice, her Hindi thick with a village accent, "Memsaab, darvajja khol de!" ("M'am! Open the door!"). Her job was to clean the toilets. I noticed that when my grandmother would be staying with us, this lady would have to enter through the back door. When I asked my mom about this, I was told, "Well, she's a dom, and your grandma doesn't like her to enter through the front door." I remember asking, "Um. What's a dom?" This was my earliest introduction to the realities of caste, that great millstone around the Subcontinent's neck. As a teen in Bombay, I was horrified to learn that our 22-story tall condo building had a separate elevator for servants. It was called the "service lift" ... and servants had to use it. Unless they were accompanying a child of their employer, in which case they could ride in the normal elevator. I think I tried to get the building to change this policy, but was only patronized as an idealistic teen.
It's a different world. Years of living in the US, as well as a relatively egalitarian upbringing, make me even more of a stranger when I return "home."