Living in India tip #7: How to negotiate with vastly smarter people, such as your maid.

by neo

Moving to India has caused Neo to make 180 degree shifts in many of his core opinions (not as dramatic a shift as Neo’s boss though, who once remarked that she’d like to see the company make a 360 degree shift in direction.)

Here’s one example: When he lived in the US, Neo believed that maids in India were underemployed, overworked and exploited.

He was wrong.

Here’s the reality of what Neo’s maid “Lakshmi” does – get paid large sums of money to stare into space for hours. (Which, now that Neo thinks of it, is not that different from many of the software engineers in his team.)

As Neo sits here trying to write a post that will bring Happiness and Zen into the lives of all six of his readers, Lakshmi is working hard at achieving The Perfect Blank Facial Expression While Riding a New York City Subway.

Neo and Lakshmi clearly have a difference of opinion over Lakshmi’s duties. It’s like one of those optical illusions: it’s the same image – but where you see a duck, someone else sees a dinosaur using a laptop.

Neo thinks that Lakshmi’s job is as follows:

  1. Cooking
  2. Cleaning
  3. Getting paid handsomely for the above activities.

Lakshmi sees the exact same job as follows:

  1. Travelling to her village to help any young woman in Tamil Nadu give birth, since apparently Lakshmi is the only Officially Licensed Lamaze Instructor in the State of Tamil Nadu.
  2. Hanging out in her village until the new mothers have recovered from the childbirth, or until the newborn babies have learned how to drive, whichever is later.
  3. Returning to Neoville to relax and recuperate from the 310 illnesses she claims to have contracted during her stay at her village, most with no visible symptoms, and many that are believed by the WHO to be extinct.
  4. Getting paid handsomely for the above activities.

And she is paid handsomely. Besides a fat salary, free housing and food, the Neos have given Lakshmi a cash “advance” that is approximately equal to the next 4,334 months of her salary (or nine years of Neo Jr’s college), and an HDTV-ready TV set that would work perfectly with the Roku and Netflix subscription that she is sure to request next. (Neo tried to convince Lakshmi to accept a cheaper but equally feature-rich LG TV set instead of the Sony Bravia that she preferred, but Lakshmi, like Mrs. Neo, is allergic to Korean products). In addition, Mrs. Neo gifts Lakshmi new sarees on all important festivals, such as Sundays.

There is a subtle advantage to Lakshmi owning approximately 69% of Neoville’s assets: she can be trusted with the Keys To The House. This is a grave responsibility, but, as Neo has argued, it is not the sort of job function that requires any actions beyond staring into space. And even if Neo thinks that the full-time position of “Holder Of The Keys To The House” can be eliminated without adverse material consequences, Mrs. Neo thinks that this job is critical: “I feel safe having her around in case we need anything.” – which is disturbing because Neo thought that was his job function.

Now Neo, being the seasoned software executive that he is, has tried several advanced psycho-motivational techniques he’s learned from reading Seth Godin’s blog, such as firing Lakshmi. Here’s the conversation:

Neo: “We don’t need you any more. Please pack up your stuff and leave.”

Lakshmi: “ammaaappaaeeeeeirukaaaaa”

Neo wasn’t sure she had understood, because Lakshmi did not pack up her belongings and tearfully head for the exit. Instead, she continued to stare into space with a concentration that Neo thinks can be richly monetized by claiming that she is a swami, and then charging people to visit her at Neoville.

Neo felt that there might be a communication gap, given that Neo does not speak a single word of Tamil, and linguistic analysis has shown that Lakshmi speaks a dialect of Tamil that is so highly advanced, it is impossible for the untrained ear to make out where one word ends and the next word starts. And so Mrs. Neo, the resident Tamil expert, stepped in to translate:

Mrs. Neo: “Avar sollurathu kekkaatheenga. Namma apparamaa pesalaam.”

Lakshmi: “ammaaappaaeeeeeirukaaaaa”

The result was exactly the same as before, i.e. no change in Lakshmi’s posture or expression. So much for Mrs. Neo’s “Oh, don’t worry about living in South India Neo, I’ll handle the language problem.”

For now, a compromise has been reached: The Neos gave in to one of Lakshmi’s persistent demands: they agreed to pay the schooling expenses of Lakshmi’s older son, who is 14 years old in the same sense as Shahid Afridi is 16 years old.

In return, Lakshmi has agreed to one of the demands made by the Neos – that she relocate herself to a different area of the house whenever the immediate area around her needs to be cleaned by the expensive new maid who’s been hired to do Lakshmi’s work while Lakshmi is busy holding the keys to Neoville.

(Neo’s frantic mails to Seth Godin have gone unanswered.)


Epilogue: Last Sunday, as Neo stood on a stool in his balcony, hanging hundreds of washed clothes (most of which he felt had never been worn by anyone in the household) on the clothesline, he spied Lakshmi delivering a monologue outside his house to a group of five other maids, all of whom were in varying stages of rolling on the road in laughter.

He asked Mrs. Neo to try and hear what they were saying and translate. Mrs. Neo listened intently, and then said, “Maybe you should stop wearing those khaki shorts.”

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