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Journalist, Author, Columnist. My Twitter handle: @seemagoswami

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Helping hands

These days it is easier than ever to outsource your life

Growing up in Calcutta as a little girl, the high point of my year was the annual visit of my aunt who lived in London and could be relied upon to arrive laden with presents. But as I grew up, I came to realize that this was the high point of the year for my aunt as well. Not just because she loved us and missed us – which, of course, she did – but because this gave her some much-needed respite from domestic chores.

While in London, she had to do the cooking and wash up afterwards, make and unmake the beds, vacuum the house, and even give the toilets a good scrubbing, in Calcutta all these tasks were the responsibility of cooks, maids and cleaners. So, for the month that she was here, she could sit back and relax while the endless work that is involved in running a house, was delegated to paid help.

You don’t know how lucky you are in India, she would constantly tell my mother. And my mother, with her gift for pessimism, would grimly reply that it was only a matter of time before India went the way of England as well. By the time I grew up, she informed me, it would be impossible to get household staff. People of my generation would have to do what my aunt did; take care of the household chores ourselves.

Well, in a way, my mother was right. It is getting increasingly difficult (and much more expensive) to get help these days as social mobility kicks in – and that’s just how it should be. But strangely enough, even though domestic help is getting harder to find, people like us are doing less and less for ourselves. In fact, as I look around at my peer group the thing that strikes me the most is how we have managed to outsource most of the drudgery associated with everyday living, taking advantage of two-job families and the disposable income that comes with it.

The most visible symbols of how we have outsourced our lives are such taxi services as Uber and Ola. Even those of us who have cars, don’t bother to take them out every day (or, for that matter, hire drivers to lessen our burden). Who wants the hassle of maintaining a car, battling road rage as you try and negotiate traffic, finding parking space wherever you go, and renewing insurance every year, when you can tap into an app on your phone and get a chauffeur-driven car at your location in a matter of minutes? There can’t be a more fuss-free way of going to work, heading out for the evening, getting back home, or even running errands.

Except, of course, that even those errands have become fewer and fewer over the years. There is, for instance, no need to go shopping for groceries or fruits and vegetables. Yes, you guessed it, there is an app (or rather several) for that. And if you don’t want to go digital, you can simply phone your neighbourhood store and get all you want delivered at your doorstep at no extra cost (though it’s always a good idea to tip the delivery guy).

If you are fond of cooking, you don’t need to do the drudge work of prepping your ingredients. There are apps that will source all the ingredients for the meal of your choice, clean them, chop them up, and send them to you in a pretty little box. If you are on a diet, there are apps that will deliver healthy meals for all days of the week.

And if at the end of a long day the last thing you want to do is toil in the kitchen, there is always Swiggy, which will bring the cuisine of your choice to your doorstep. No need to employ a cook, whose repertoire is necessarily limited. Now, the whole restaurant world is your virtual kitchen and you can order anything you like at any time. Serve yourself on paper plates and you won’t even need to do the washing up.

In fact, given the kind of services that are available to us these days there is very little reason to put ourselves out at all. You can download tutoring programmes that will help your kids with their homework when you can’t. There is no need to leave the house to catch a movie; you get the best of programming on streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hotstar, which you can enjoy from the comfort of your couch.

There may be a dearth of household help in the market, as young men and women opt out of domestic service. But that gap had been filled by such housekeeping services as Urban Clap (disclaimer: I have never used them and have no idea how good or bad they are) that will, for a reasonable sum send over a team of workers to your house to give it a good going over. You can choose the frequency  and the range of services and have a spanking clean house without the palaver of managing domestic staff.

So, I guess in a way, both my aunt and mother were right. My mother, when she pronounced the imminent death of domestic help. And my aunt, when she claimed that we in India had no idea how lucky we were.  

We may no longer have in-house staff like we used to, but we still manage to outsource our lives quite efficiently – and cheaply. Though how long that will last is anybody’s guess.

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