The moment the world discovered I was expecting, the most common and oft-asked question was, “Have you got help? Have you found a maid?” Apparently, maid-less in Mumbai equals having no life.

It’s trite that on my sabbatical I would be reduced to writing about baby maids, but there is a point to the rant. Pritish Nandy’s recent column on the greed of people (A Nation of Banias) echoes what I have been thinking for the past few weeks. There is something strange happening to the world of working people – and that defines our new middle class. The best comparison is to the maid market.

At a recent evening tete a tete, a friend advised me about a maid, Suvidha, affectionately known as Su, who is magical with babies, but just needs to be given a sense of importance. “Without you, I am nothing – you are my whole and soul, you make my world go around….” These words must be in effect repeated often to the said maid, to ensure that she sticks around. Or there’s Deepali, who came from a Calcutta bureau to take care of Baby, began fighting with the entire family after a fight she had with someone one the phone (love gone bad?), slammed doors around the sleeping baby, banged Baby’s legs, shook her head when holding her, and made her wail no end. We happily bought her return ticket and couldn’t wait to see her go. Another day maid, Sushma, lied about her hours of work on the very first day – because she got a call for another night job. So, she planned to abscond early, go home take care of her kids and then run a full night duty elsewhere. So when would she sleep? Would she manage a baby on no rest? Valentina, came with references and a well-stamped passport. She had just flown down from Switzerland the night before, and after touring much of Schengen world, was looking for a job that would take her to greener pastures yonder. Another claimed to be a governess, she wouldn’t clean, she would play with the baby. So was the mother supposed to clean while the governess played? Another one called Deepa came with emotional baggage from a bad childhood and child marriage (scary stuff), but touted working at ‘big houses’, name dropped and spoke about how she would work where there were at least 3 maids handling one baby. The mother would watch or party. Not used to being responsible, she brought with her a boisterous temperament, mood swings and a dollop of immaturity an carelessness. Another young girl hopped onto a train from Calcutta, begging and pleading for a job (she had no experience) because she needed the money. And then there was Manu, dear Calcutta Manu, who spoke about perfumes, matching nail polish, gold jewellery, mobile phones and air tickets.

And all of them have one thing in common – they are interviewing you. You may well please yourself thinking you are maid shopping or looking for the right fit, but there really isn’t much in your hands – they are house-hunting (size does matter), and will take the call depending upon the wealth, material comforts and perks offered by the house. Not only have their salaries tripled, as a prerequisite, they want to be provided with additional help for themselves – watch them boss over the rest of the household-, a mobile phone, jewellery, perfume, saris, the same quality soaps and such as used by the mother, air tickets to be ferried back and forth from their home as and when they please, frequent and fancy trips (preferably abroad, but if in India then exotic places only). And only the best must be used for Baby – they even judge you on the brands of products and appliances you use. “The one from ‘foreign’ is the best didi. Don’t use ‘local’ – ask someone to bring it for you.” If you can’t provide any of the above, you are on probation. They also want to know how many people in your house, what age group, what kind of child (temperament and such) and how often the child wakes at night. As  27-year-old Deepa openly said, “I am looking to buy a house in Calcutta. I give myself five years in Mumbai – and am looking around for the perfect house to spend those five years in, before I make my move back.” She also (two days into work) yells at the household help (who’ve been around decades) to keep the noise down, buy a pressure cooker that makes no noise, and in effect ensure that she gets ‘rest’ since she’s been so baby-busy. Surprising, when she sleeps more than the mother.

At the end of the day, you need to market your house, family and child to them, to lure them into staying; and thereafter begins the rat race to keep them happy. If you suggest a method to the madness of keeping your baby clean, happy and peaceful, they take objection and feel insulted. Of course they know better what is best for your baby. Even if they have just arrived the previous day. If you think otherwise, and dare to show it, they walk.

I’m told, maids have certain predefined lines: if they have scoped the scene and don’t wish to work there, they invent an excuse of a cold (so they can’t be around Baby) and beg off time to start. They then disappear. Or, if they’ve worked with you, they speak about their child’s wedding so that they can get you to gift them stuff like gold or money.

Also, they are trying to one-up the mother. They think it is a job well done if the baby responds to them rather than the mother. Deepa proudly told me, “The baby would eat from my hand only. If the mother fed her, she would turn away and look for me. The mother begged me to stay, to not leave, for the sake of her baby; but I couldn’t handle her mother-in-law’s interference any more. It was a perfect place, otherwise. So I moved on. And yet, I love children – I’m very attached to all of them. I got so much love there.” See the irony there? From all the gossiping (read: bitching or showing off) about other houses these maids are wont to do (annoyingly in the middle of burping or putting Baby to sleep), you realize that there is a trend of women, who quit nursing, who want to get back to their own lives and who then become highly dependent on their hired help. It gives the help an unhealthy sense of importance, and the effect on the child is something for another blog post. But who’s to judge a parent’s choices?

One realizes that a woman resuming normal life after motherhood is as good as her hired help. Does that mean that we must join the race to keep the maid? At what stage do we succumb to the insanity that has become a part of the child-upbringing-world? As I shopped for maids (or so I thought) a friend remarked, getting someone to help you get a maid is worse than getting a friend to help you with a guy you’ve both fallen for. No one likes to share maid numbers, what if they need someone too? Demand exceeds supply and people tenaciously and jealously guard their maids (from poaching) and refuse to give out any information, lest they may need one in the future.

It has given rise to the Bureaus. Whether they are formalizing a system for the better or leading to a lot of issues, is yet to be seen. These are offices of great self-importance, they run a maid delivery system based on the insane demand and take commission on every placement. Some even ask for a non-refundable registration fee up front and then keep you on your toes, calling them for a maid – a few times a day, everyday. There are contracts, they interview you, they check YOUR credentials…there are even scams galore, eating into the desperation of harassed new parents. And what do you know about the women who are given access to your home and child? Who knows where they have been, what they are carrying, what issues they are harbouring? Suvarna, my local masseuse maid points it out – “You need someone you can trust, bhabhi. We know the local maids, who knows about these bureau ones? You know what the world is like, nowadays….”

A few days of the runaround, and I gave up. I believe there be a greater joy and more peace in raising your child yourself, rather than having the stress of finding the right help. So what if it leaves you knee-deep in diapers and burp cloths? Parenting is all about learning the ropes the hard way. That’s how nature intended it. Maybe that’s the way it’s meant to be. And besides, I hear it’s uber cool to be managing Baby yourself, having a maid take care of Baby is so not nuclear-21st-century-gobalista.