What is it like being a maid in India? Zohra Bibi, a mother of three from a village in West Bengal, who worked at Noida’s fancy residential complex Mahagun Moderne till just the other day, will tell you. Her story is as disturbing as it is familiar, unfolding in a manner not very different from hundreds of such cases that have made it to the papers over the past many decades. You know this story: An upper-middle class home, an entitled madam or sahib, a battered, humiliated maid, left to die, or to be found in a deplorable condition.

Journalist Tripti Lahiri’s meticulous nonfiction narrative, Maid in India, captures just this universe. A crisply effective book, timely as it is, it lays out, layer upon layer, the lives of domestic workers in homes in and around the capital – from the stately homes in Lutyens’ Delhi and the new highrises of Gurgaon to the more congested confines of Uttam Nagar. But Delhi, in these pages, is not an isolated example of a city teeming with maids from Bengal and Bihar and Jharkhand and Assam, but a microcosm of the workings of class, opportunity and social mobility.

Entitled spaces

But we begin in Goa, where Lahiri spends a few days at a birthday celebration with a circle of close friends, where she witnesses some very uncomfortable truths. There’s a baby, and a nanny, and the very delicate matter of having the nanny do her job while not making any of the guests – the older ones in particular – squirm in their seats about sharing the table. Sounds familiar?

These are issues in our own homes that have been staring at us forever, refusing to be acknowledged, conditioned as we are to behave this way, to strut about feeling as entitled as we are suspicious. Lahiri’s personal keenness – and struggle – to figure out why and how we treat the women who work in our homes the way we do, and the larger questions this raises, is what drives this book. How do we make, or break, class distinctions at our dining table? Even if we treat domestic workers well, do we draw boundaries somewhere? How do we decide how much to pay them? Do we follow the abysmal “market rate”, or do we grapple, as Lahiri does when she says she careens wildly “between wanting to be better than my peers, and yet finding myself worrying, as so many of my class fear, that I am being ‘taken advantage of’”.

But beyond these questions is a story of great transition, of many different worlds meeting, colluding, colliding. As she joins the dots, taking us from the villages the women travel from to the city and its neighbourhoods they travel to, she writes a story of poverty and modern pressures, of social mobility and freedom, of class and caste divisions and modern forms of slavery.

Insider, outsider

The book, divided into several parts, with a firm sense of place and context, is a balance of quiet reflection and facts-backed, constructive outrage based on a wealth of stories. Over many years of research, Lahiri gathers dozens of stories that make up this intricate web of domestic workers. We meet the placement agents, maid trainers, employers of varying income groups, social workers, and the domestic workers themselves – cooks, nannies, cleaners, housekeepers – and their families.

She peeps into their lives beyond what we ordinarily get to see, at times going undercover with placement agency executives narrating, in vivid detail, what goes on behind closed doors at “matchmaking” meetings between a maid and a prospective employer. What is more important, food or cleanliness, quizzes a man sizing up a maid to see if she is an appropriate fit in his palatial, marbled house. Food is obviously not the right answer to the outrageous question. On other occasions, Lahiri tags along as part of rescue missions to help workers get out of situations that can only be described as slavery.

Maid in India also flips the coin to show us the lives of domestic workers who’ve had better luck, who’ve moved up the ladder to become well-paid, fairly-treated professionals in respectful homes. Though few, there are maid placement agencies – such as The Maids’ Company – who are invested in establishing a culture of better pay and treatment for the domestic workers they train.

In this maze Lahiri constructs and deconstructs. At one point, we’re in Chakkarpur, Gurgaon.

Preeti Chauhan, a diminutive Jat girl, has never known the luxury of having a maid...In 2014, when we meet, she is responsible for assessing the table-laying and other skills of new recruits to The Maids’ Company, and teaching them how to win over a new madam.

...At a morning session in January that I observed Preeti lead, a new recruit has just finished laying a table and it is almost entirely wrong...The upper-middle-class Indian household, according to Preeti’s warnings, appears to be presided over by a capricious and whimsical creature, prone to flying off the handle, known as ma’am, or sometimes madam. As Preeti proceeds with the course, asking her somewhat timid pupils how ma’am is likely to react to such-and-such faux pas, it begins to seem to me that madam is a close relative of the Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland, but of a considerably weaker constitution....The implicit warning is that even if sir or madam drop the glass all by themselves, you will still be blamed for putting it in the wrong place.

While not preachy, Maid in India, very often, holds a mirror to ourselves. The reflection is ugly. But Lahiri’s writing is inquisitive and engaging, lightening the burden of privilege, so to speak. It isn’t just a rant either, noting practical faults in the system which can – and should – be fixed urgently. Such as the fact that there are hardly any rules regulating the recruitment of domestic workers. In 2014, Delhi made a start, notes Lahiri, by issuing an executive order with rules for placement agencies, but didn’t follow through fully. “In this vaccum, the demand for maids at any cost – or rather, at the lowest cost possible is spurring crimes that range from trafficking to being kept in near slavery-like conditions. Worse, all this takes place behind closed doors of a home. Occasionally, though some of the malpractices comes to light.”

Criminal homes

Lahiri picks up some of the lost threads of crimes that once made headlines to reveal what happens after the limelight fades away. Like the one involving corporate executive Vandana Dhir in Vasant Kunj, back in 2013, whose domestic worker was discovered with bite marks and bruises all over. In the same year, Dhananjay Singh – then a BSP MP – and his wife Jagriti Singh were arrested for the torture and death of their domestic worker Rekha. Lahiri tracks down Dhir’s worker, and Dhananjay Singh (and briefly encounters his wife in court), too, who is currently out on bail, politically far less powerful but no less entitled when it comes to his staff.

But Lahiri isn’t coy about how we are all guilty of in some way of various forms of injustice. “People who claim to be free of caste bias don’t allow women who clean bathrooms to cook for them, citing hygiene. And left-leaning professors at elite Delhi universities, who usually lament the effects of privatisation and unfettered capitalism on the Indian workforce, suddenly highlight the importance of paying the ‘market rate’ when they think a friend is paying her maid too much,” she writes.

Nowhere does she find the classist contempt for the “maid type” more in-your-face than on online Facebook groups, an increasingly popular – and often, desperate – hunting ground for “reliable” maids and nannies these days. When an employer posts a photograph of a plump young woman, who looks North Indian and is light-skinned, dressed in a short kurta, the comments that follow range from “pretty!” to “she looks like from a good family!”. Judging from her looks, they claim she is not a maid. One woman warns: “By body language she did not looking like a maid, you must check her ID proof.” Old – and terrible – habits do die hard.

Maid in India: Stories of Opportunity and Inequality in Our Homes, Tripti Lahiri, Aleph Book Company.