We always said our domestic staff were part of the family. Now I see that was a lie

If you are well-off in Kolkata it’s easy not to see things. As a child, I used to love watching the sun set over the city’s glinting horizon from the windows of the 13th-floor apartment where I grew up. I didn’t look at the slums below. And until the coronavirus pandemic, many of us gave little thought to the fact that our own homes contained a stratum of impoverished workers: servants and maids, cooks and drivers, breathing the same air, now dying the same deaths.

I can’t imagine my own life without Saraswati and Nageshwar. Saraswati was hired 42 years ago to help my mother change my sister’s nappies, to hush her tantrums and make the household its tea. She was spiritedly maternal, scolding us when we didn’t eat properly. Nageshwar’s affection was quieter. No one, not even he, remembers when my mother employed him, but “more than 20 years” is something we have all been saying for over a decade. It has been years since anyone called Saraswati an ayah (maid) or Nageshwar a naukar (servant). When asked, my parents and I are fond of saying “They are both like family to us.”

Servants and nannies, cooks and drivers, breathing the same air, now dying the same deaths

I never interrogated this claim until 2019 when I moved back to the family home after a few years living in Mumbai. At the start I revelled in the comfort of never having to lift a finger. In Mumbai I had employed a cleaner part-time, but we hardly ever met. In my parents’ flat, Saraswati and Nageshwar were always there, diligent and attentive. Saraswati spread an extra layer of butter on my toast each morning. When making my bed, Nageshwar made sure he smoothed every last crease. They treated me like a king.

Before long, our domestic arrangements started to strike me as odd. I had always thought of our flat as one unified place. Now I realised that it was divided into two zones. My parents and I occupied the bedrooms, reception and dining area. The balcony was where Saraswati dried our clothes and Nageshwar ironed them. In the kitchen, which I rarely entered, he and Saraswati sat on the floor and ate rice that was cheaper and coarser than ours. Saraswati rolled out her mattress in the living room every night, and Nageshwar slept outside in a tiny room, one that the building plan labels the “servant’s quarter”. He came into our bedrooms only when it was time to clean them.

When the pandemic hit, the status of Saraswati and Nageshwar came into even sharper focus. After Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, announced a harsh nationwide lockdown in March last year, Nageshwar approached me looking desperate. He was used to travelling to the neighbouring state of Bihar every month to give his daughters his salary. How would he get it to them now?

Two weeks later, when covid killed the owner of a flat above ours, Nageshwar asked me if “covid” was just another word for death: if the coronavirus scare was some sort of conspiracy to panic people. He seemed to be unnerved, and wanted to be with his family. It finally dawned on me that our flat was Nageshwar’s workplace, not his home.

Earlier this year, Modi began boasting that India had beaten the pandemic. Shortly afterwards a second, more destructive wave raged through the country. On April 21st my mother came to tell me that every other resident on our floor had tested positive for coronavirus. Both my parents woke up with a fever three days later. I heard Saraswati cough in the kitchen. Nageshwar said his body hurt.

We got tested: everyone except me had the virus. By the time we received the results, my father’s oxygen levels were so low that he needed to go to hospital. Even the private facilities were running out of beds, but through our network of family and friends we eventually found him a spot. Then I thought about the rest of the household. What would happen if Saraswati and Nageshwar became seriously ill?

It finally dawned on me that our flat was Nageshwar’s workplace, not his home

The reality, I realised with shame, was that in all the years they had worked for us we had never offered Saraswati and Nageshwar any medical insurance. Our family doctors had seen them for minor ailments over the years, but we had never planned what to do if either of them needed a modern, well-equipped hospital. It was too late to get insurance now. We agreed that the appallingly underfunded public health-care sector wasn’t an option if their conditions worsened – we would pay the bill for private treatment.

I invited Saraswati and Nageshwar to stay in the flat’s spare bedroom while they recovered. They both said they preferred the floor to the bed. They wouldn’t even accept food brought to them on our plates: they wanted to use their own. Nageshwar’s phone buzzed all the time with concerned calls from his daughters. For the first time in my life, I saw him not as efficient but as beloved.

Their reluctance to break down class boundaries was echoed in our own middle-class social circle. When I asked a doctor to write a prescription for Saraswati and Nageshwar she laughed, and later told my mother that she found my concern for the “staff” a bit over the top. On hearing that our domestic help had tested positive, a concerned relative asked me on the phone: “Do you think Saraswati will still be able to make your mother some tea?”

“Do you think Saraswati will still be able to make your mother some tea?”

By the time my father had returned from hospital, Saraswati and Nageshwar were recovering. Saraswati returned to her daily routine – collecting milk, making tea, washing plates – with extraordinary cheer. Nageshwar, though a little teary, claimed to be back at full strength. To both my relief and discomfort, the old order re-established itself.

We started to hear accounts of how others in the building were faring. Most did not get their help tested. “They are worried about who’ll do the work if they test positive,” my mother said. I was furious, but stayed quiet. If there’s one thing I’ve learned during this ordeal, it’s that I am in no position to moralise. ■

Shreevatsa Nevatia is a journalist based in Kolkata, and author of “How to Travel Light: My Memories of Madness and Melancholia”


additional images: getty/alamy

courtesy The Economist