Longing for that familiar, magic touch of ‘Thayamma’

Despite being settled overseas, the Tamil diaspora loves to recreate the life they left behind in India. Here’s a glimpse of their lives, celebrations and struggles on foreign shores.
Longing for that familiar, magic touch of ‘Thayamma’


If you get up in the morning, walk to the door to pick milk and newspaper delivered at home and relax on the sofa while scanning through the newspaper as you await the domestic help to arrive to wash, clean, cook, and do the dishes, then you most probably do not live in the US. The typical mornings at any Indian immigrant household in the US is quite contrary to this routine that is familiar back home.

Having a domestic help is not a luxury that is affordable to an average American. If you do not stock milk and coffee, you may not start the day with that refreshing cup of coffee. If you remain in bed waiting for the aromatic coffee brewed by the loyal cook you hired, you may have to continue in bed starving for the next night as well. It is only true that even while living in the most sophisticated and rich parts of the world, one cannot escape missing the comfort provided by ‘Thayamma’ (local slang for domestic help).  

For most young Indian immigrants who land on the US soil after a rewarding education and attractive job in hand, not finding domestic help for dusting, mopping, washing, folding cloth and cleaning bathrooms is a reality.

If the partner does not participate in chores but is demanding, it is all the more painful and pushes one to even doubt the marital choice made. Why do we need maid service when there is dish washer and vacuum cleaners to do the job? Really? The silent tales shared by the immigrants young and educated, who have always been pampered with help until moving here, can probably paint the scene much better.

But the good news is that times are changing and an increasing number of immigrant families is able to engage cleaning services. Many professional cleaning service providers have mushroomed, and competition is bringing the fee down. “Ten years ago, cleaning services were unaffordable. I remember paying a hefty $250 for about four hours of cleaning a townhome. Today, we can hire help for the same work at around $70,” observed Anu Matha, who lives in New Jersey.

The service charges vary according to the requirement and the area of the house. Owning a large single-family house will mean shelling out more for the cleaning service. If going through a company, the cost could be higher. But they send professionally trained people, backed by insurance that can cover any damage to the property during cleaning. Hiring individuals may require monitoring the work.

Indian cooking leaves stains in the dishes that the machines find hard to work their magic. “If hosting a party at home, cleaning and preparing the house is an elaborate process. Together with the cooking that is on our shoulders, it becomes more of a burden than fun. Cleaning after the party is the most daunting task. Luckily, of late we are able to hire some help during and after parties,” said Rekha Raj, an entrepreneur.

“Commuting to work for two hours each way and coming back home to cook and clean is a nightmare. When the cleaning service is available at reasonable prices, we do engage them. Yet we cannot have them all 365 days. Their help is only supplemental,” observed Sangeetha, an IT professional.

“The cleaning service lady who comes once a week insists that we keep it neat for her to clean the next time. But I always prefer to keep it her way rather than going without help,” added Sunitha Ram, the mother of two-year-old twins.

There are also helps available for part of the jobs, like just doing dishes or cutting vegetables, cleaning the bathroom or folding the cloth, all for a reasonably low fee. Indians volunteer for cooking but they are not available for cleaning service jobs.

It is not these chores that are expensive. Another service difficult to afford is that of a driver. What we are so used to in India cannot even be dreamt of when in the US. The very first thing that one wants to get is the driver’s licence and then buy a car. Even if one has not learnt to ride a bicycle, one has to learn to drive the car. It is a requisite for living here. But here, too, there is respite with Uber taxi service becoming popular. Also, there are local taxis available on per ride basis for short distances. When such help comes from known references, it is handy for working parents to drop and pick kids from school without affecting their own work schedule.   

Mowing the lawn, snow cleaning the driveway, trimming trees in the yard or fixing the simple leak in the tap might seem like jobs to be done by hired professionals. Not really. If you are the homeowner, you are expected to be well trained in plumbing or gardening as well. Are the Indian immigrants who are predominantly engineers well equipped to handle these? Yes, and no. In the initial days of owning the home, it is fun to handle these chores, as it also means huge savings. But things have begun to change as organised help is available at affordable fees. 

All is certainly well, though the truth remains that seven days a week magic touch of the ‘Thayamma’ will continue to be missed in their lives. But these immigrants are sure impacting local job landscape while attempting to paint newer contours in the US economy.

—The author is a journalist in New York

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