|Girl power: (Above and top) Shalika Kunwar with her au pairs; (below) the Ghoshal-Mohanty family which has been talking to au pair candidates from Europe
Pix: sarath paleri
In many affluent urban Indian households, its now bye bye old faithful ayah, or maidservant, and hello, young, foreign nanny in residence.
By definition, au pairs are young foreigners who do domestic work for a family in exchange for room and board, and a chance to learn the familys language. Traditionally, an au pair combines nanny duties with other household chores such as cooking, cleaning, grocery shopping, school drop offs, sometimes even taking care of the elderly and walking the pet dog. Apart from boarding and lodging, she also gets a fee.
However, Indian laws dont allow foreigners on tourist visas to work here. Earlier, the government didnt bother much if they did, but now it doesnt grant visas to au pairs who wish to work here. So families that want global exposure for their young children are finding unusual ways to work around this.
Take Bangalore-based Bhupinder and Shalika Kunwar, who host young women travelling to India in return for supervision of their young children. We go through a barter system, smiles Shalika, a businesswoman and mother of two sons, Aryaman, 11, and Aridhmaan, aged four. Kunwar and her husband, Bhupinder, an information technology consultant, pay for their guests tickets. In turn, the guests teach the children new languages and foreign culture. There is no contract or fee involved.
The Kunwars are on their ninth companion, Anna from Russia. We vet some of the candidates on the au pair sites. We talk to their parents, for both sides need to be reassured that we are like-minded people. Once we become friends, we call them over, says Kunwar.
In turn, many young people who want to take a break from academics and have a yen for travel find this an ideal and cost-effective way of seeing new places and cultures. In fact, India appears to be a preferred destination in many au pair sites (www.aupair.com, www.newaupair.com, www.greataupair.com, to name but three). One site alone has as many as 20 Indian families who are seeking au pairs registered on them — an indication that the practice of hiring au pairs is not confined to just a few families.
Fiona S., from the US, has a bachelors degree in pedagogy and child psychology. She came to stay with a Delhi-based family with three pre-teen children who contacted her on an au pair site she had registered at. I had made up my mind to come to India with or without au pairing. But this worked out fine. I dont take wages but I get to mingle with the kids and see India at the same time, she says.
Suniti Ghoshal-Mohanty, entrepreneur, has a four-year-old son and a daughter, aged eight. Her husbands job is in Delhi and he travels to Bangalore to visit his family every weekend. In essence, I am a single parent. I have staff but I need someone who will be a playmate and companion for my children, teach them etiquette, help with their homework and do fun stuff. An au pair is a member of the family, she has her own bedroom and will socialise with our friends and family. If I drink wine, so does she, says Ghoshal-Mohanty, who has been talking to au pair candidates from Slovenia, Germany, Turkey, Romania and Russia, and from Sikkim, Goa and Trichy in India.
For children of working couples such as the well-heeled Kunwars or the Ghoshal-Mohantys, having an au pair means that there is someone to help with the childrens homework, teach them the merits of using a tissue, discover the fun of baking a cake and become multi-lingual. Shalikas sons have a wall of flags and a smattering of foreign phrases from Romania, Bulgaria, the UK, Czechoslovakia, Russia, Estonia and Germany — some of the countries that their nanny-helpers have come from.
None of my girls watches TV. That is a big plus point, says Shalika, pointing out that Indian serials dont appeal to the young women women who come over. She also wont consider anyone who has too many Facebook friends or is too religious.
Fiona says that at least in India she doesnt have to do housework or clean toilets. In other countries that is part of the job sometimes.
As host family, the Kunwars take care of all their expenses just as a regular family would. We are still in touch with most of our young friends and their families. Talvi, the girl from Estonia, used to call Bhupi, dad, and me, Mom. We may even sponsor a part of her education, says Shalika affectionately. While joint holidays and solo paid-for vacations are par for the course for their guests, the Kunwars do not allow any of them to visit Goa alone.
The Ghoshal-Mohantys are yet to decide between a Sikkimese au pair and a Lithuanian nanny. There are visa restrictions and expenses and I am not sure I want too many changes for my children, but I would love to learn a new language along with my children, says Ghoshal-Mohanty, who views this exercise partly as a cultural exchange programme.
If she opts for an Indian au pair, then it will entail a contract and a possible minimum monthly fee of Rs 20,000.
Friends and families also have to adjust to a house guest who is part help, part family. A couple has to have trust in their marriage if they want to opt for live in au pairs, says the Delhi-based couple who hosted Fiona. A cousin remarked lewdly that the husband was lucky to have such an exotic helper in the house.
Kunwars have an interesting reason for choosing foreign women, mostly Caucasian and from Europe, as their au pairs. Indians tend not to be assertive with white foreigners. We want our children to get over this kind of race awe. Americans and Europeans tend to be more blunt with their opinion. Through this kind of cultural exchange my children will also learn to say, Sorry, but I dont like it, says Kunwar.
The Kunwars are now talking to a young soccer-loving Brazilian man as their next house guest. He would be an ideal companion for Aryaman who loves football, Kunwar muses.
For the willowy Anna, the choice to come to India was the right one. Earlier discussions with Canada fell through and a trip to Turkey was a disaster. At least here no one tried to marry me off to their son, laughs Anna, who will miss the kids, papaya and chikki when her stay with Kunwars ends this month.
(The names of some people have been changed to protect their identities)