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Broom to vroom
One of the contestants on the latest season.
Oof Masterchef India is Khoku Patra, a 20-something girl originally from Midnapore in West Bengal who cooks for six households in the capital. During the Holi episode of the reality show that aired recently, celebrity judge Sanjeev Kapoor called Patra's bharva paneer (stuffed paneer ) "pathbreaking". Patra had made paneer patties encircled by thin bell pepper rings, and as the captain of the 'blue team', she won that day's cooking challenge. The 10-year-old who had come to Delhi with a friend so that she could earn enough money for her family back home had indeed come a long way. In Delhi, Patra initially worked as a helper and later as a book-keeper at a kirana store. After a few years, she graduated to cooking for a few households in Delhi's Greater Kailash I. Her skills improved remarkably, but the spotlight she enjoys now would never have found her if it wasn't for the encouragement she received from some of her employers who told her to take her talents to the next level.
It all began when one of her employers, Mrs Khera, saw her chopping onions at an extraordinary speed and joked that she should take part in the reality cooking show. Patra, who has studied only till class two in a village school - found out what Masterchef was and asked her employers to get her registered. They sent an SMS to the channel and got a reply. "Then she was hooked to the idea, " says Anshuman Khera, a manager with Connaught Plaza restaurants and one of Khoku's six employers.
Along with being an exceptionally good cook, Khoku is indeed lucky - especially when you consider the semi-feudal relationship that most Indian householders have with their domestic help. An egregious example of this is the not uncommon sight of young maids minding children at posh restaurants - standing at attention, often not offered even a glass of water - while their employers polish off an expensive meal.
Yet, stories like Khoku's are not unheard of either. She is not even the first domestic help to have made it to Masterchef India. In 2011, Manoj Gurung participated in Masterchef at the behest of his employer. "He had been working with me since 2009. He was smart, hardworking and wanted to open his own restaurant. My friends and I used to love his cooking, especially his Vietnamese rolls, " says Gurung's erstwhile employer, who wanted to remain anonymous. He helped Gurung perfect his recipes and bought him presentation trays for the audition, and helped him get a passport, which was mandatory for entry to the show. He managed to get into the Top 15 but not beyond. "In the show you need to cook well and also act well. They need drama. I couldn't do that, " says Gurung, who continues to cook and take catering orders. He has worked extensively for expats and can rustle up anything from a spicy Thai chicken curry to French onion soup and chocolate gateaux. He is planning to start a restaurant in Delhi in partnership with Tanushri Mishra, a homemaker from Delhi and fellow contestant from Masterchef season 2.
The traditional power equation between domestic job-seekers and employers is shifting gradually but inexorably. As workers gain expertise, become enlightened about their rights, assess their indispensability to urban households and learn to assert themselves, the creaks of a changing balance of power can be heard in petulant complaints from employers like, "Oh, 'they' are acting very pricey these days. They want Sundays off!" or "She refused to have the stale chapatti. My mother always gave her maids leftover chapattis and they never complained. "
Such voices are, thankfully, in a minority today. It is far more common to hear of an employer who is buying her maid's health insurance or another who is paying for his driver's son to enroll in a computer course. When Bangalore-based Sameer Shisodia heard that his maid Lakshmamma was borrowing money at ridiculous interest rates, he offered to give her an interest-free loan of Rs 20, 000. "The interest alone comes to Rs 400-600 per month, " he says. "It's insane for her to pay so much, so we decided to step in. " Shisodia, a hospitality entrepreneur who runs 'Linger - Do Nothing Vacations', has properties in Coorg, Chikmagalur and Gokarna. Here too, the staff, including caretakers and cooks, is encouraged to learn new skills. "We encourage them to take on higher level responsibilities they're not 'trained' or educated for, such as storekeeping and accounts, " he says. "Each has a lot of freedom in his domain. We give them monthly bonuses, paid out once a quarter. And it's amazing how well they've responded to more freedom and responsibility. "
The multiplicity of options available to both job-seekers and employers today is creating a positive, more professional scenario, says Sean Blagsvedt, the founder of babajob. com, one of India's first online job-search platforms for the informal work sector.
"Today, if a cleaner or housekeeper is not happy with the pay and conditions offered at a house, she can look for a job in a mall or a supermarket, where things are more formalised, " says Blagsvedt. He feels today, there is more freedom on both sides and higher expectations as well. "The market is entering a stage where both jobseekers and employers have to like each other and have a good working relationship. The domestic sector is trying to adopt the best practices of white-collar jobs, and becoming aware of benefits that must be sought and given. " Babajob advises domestic employers to put their expectations down clearly and create a contractual agreement with domestic workers, which helps avoid arguments later.
Gauri Singh, the Gurgaon-based founder of The Maids Company (TMC), a professionally managed hiring agency, agrees that the increasing formalization of the sector will ultimately benefit workers, though her company does more hand-holding than the average placement agency can provide. TMC has around 200 maids on its rolls, and keeps a vigilant and protective eye on them with monthly checks from a supervisor and frequent intervention when the maids report a problem. The company also trains staff before they are sent out into the field, giving them tips on basic stuff like grooming and hygiene. It also has a team of "supermaids" who accompany new recruits on their first few days at work to acclimatize them to their new environment.
Singh, a social entrepreneur, started the organisation two years ago to help rural women - many from eastern states like West Bengal and Odisha - pouring into Gurgaon in search of domestic work. TMC doesn't believe in providing live-in help, and that's a conscious choice. "It's very difficult to monitor and help in a livein situation, and there is a shift happening where maids don't want to go as live-ins. They hate the social isolation it brings and they hate not being in control of at least some hours of their lives. Part-time work is better for everyone;also, it creates a scenario where formalizing is a distinct possibility, " says Singh.
In Bangalore, Saritha Hegde, a 43-yearold manager at an MNC, has sent her livein maid Sheela to a baking class run by a well-known Bangalore homemaker. "They have tough lives, " she says. "Often, they have potential that is not realised because they have to fight with an alcoholic husband, look after three children and earn a decent living for the family. " Hegde hopes that Sheela will eventually start baking bread in her free time to supplement her income. She is also planning to enroll her in driving school so that she can double as Hegde's driver. "When we train them, we empower them."
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