Cultural Perspectives on Female Maids in India

“Sideways on a Scooter” by American journalist Miranda Kennedy is about the complex relationships between women in India. Shortly after completing this book, I watched “Lakshmi and Me,” a PBS documentary about filmmaker Nishtha Jain and her relationship with her young maid, Lakshmi.

Here is the trailer for “Lakshmi and Me”:

It was fascinating to read and then see the complex relationships between the female employers (called “Didi,” meaning elder sister) and their maids from two cultural perspectives. Kennedy, an American, struggles with the lack of privacy and the politics of who does what when it comes to housework.  She quickly learns that caste and gender dictate jobs – so one female employee is responsible for garbage collection, another for cleaning.  The male employee serves as her driver. When handing over the house key to her maid Radha, she realizes that she is handing over much of her privacy and that she must learn to let this go.

Jain, Lakshmi’s employer, hardly seems to notice Lakshmi as she cleans around her. She is clearly more accustomed to the cultural expectations of her maid. Jain considers herself a feminist; As a child, she refused to do housework unless her brothers were also required to. She feels she is a good employer to Lakshmi because she doesn’t dock any pay when a glass is broken or threaten to fire her if she is unable to work. By asking her maid to grant permission to film her, Jain realizes she is crossing a line in their relationship.  I won’t give away the journey they take together, but it creates an incredible educational resource on the power of caste, the belief in destiny and the role of women in the evolving India.

Kennedy describes the unique rules of the caste system by providing specific examples of her own staff and some interesting historical references.  Complementing this is Jain’s coverage of the women’s struggle in India to be treated with some basic human rights as workers.  Where Kennedy has the room to write extensively about the issues from her American lens and to put them in the larger framework of the social pressure on women to marry and have children, Jain’s film brings the realities to life in living color from an Indian perspective.  It is shocking for western viewers to see Lakshmi sitting on the floor while a chair is vacant within inches of her. Even more difficult is Lakshmi’s statement about feeling cursed to be born a girl.  She wonders aloud what she did to deserve such punishment.

We don’t have the ability to hear the first person voice of Radha, Kennedy’s primary maid.  However, we do have a sense of how difficult her life is as a widow raising two children.  Radha’s decision to allow her daughter to study, only to marry her off to the first reasonable prospect, is jolting for Kennedy as a western woman.

Educators exploring India’s caste system and the role of women will find these two tools particularly effective if used in tandem. We read the American’s perspective on women of different castes and life experiences in Kennedy’s book and experience her cultural errors as she adapts to her new home.  Kennedy’s snafus are the kind that we see in any country where there are class and gender struggles.  Her early chapters about wanting to do things herself and trying to relate to the lives of her staff simply as women reminded me of being a teenager in Mexico and wanting to practice my Spanish with my Mexican homestay family’s maid.  I had a hard time not wanting to help her or relate to her on some level.

Jain’s documentary brings the story of the “Didi” and the maid to life. The vibrant colors of India, the realities of Lakshmi’s home life, the struggle to be treated as more than destiny are staring you in the face.  Lakshmi’s gorgeous smile and gentle, youthful energy are hard to ignore.

You can view “Lakshmi and Me” here, free on hulu.  You can read more about the film here.

Kennedy’s book can be purchased below.