In R. K. Narayan's short story "A Willing Slave" (which I read as part of his 1982 collection Malgudi Days), the old lady known simply as "the Ayah" takes care of many responsibilities, but her main duty is to look after the young girl Radha. The story says:

Her main job, for which she received two meals a day, fifteen rupees a month and three saris a year, kept her active for over twelve hours in the day.

Being paid in rupees is natural enough, and being paid in meals is not strange for a house servant. But being paid in saris? Does "saris" in this context mean the garment, or is there another meaning? Was it normal in those days in India for servants to be paid in clothing, or does this tell us something about the relations between the Ayah and her employers in this story? I don't fully understand the cultural significance of saris, so I may be missing something here.

1 Answer 1


"Saris" in this context indeed refers to the garment.

It might help to think of the three saris that the Ayah received every year to be a perquisite, rather than a part of her regular salary. It is customary in India, even today, to provide a small bonus to one's employees before important festivals. Most likely the bonuses that the Ayah received were in the form of saris rather than cash.

The Ayah would also not have to spend too much money on herself for new clothes if she was receiving three saris every year, so the arrangement probably suited her as well.

Some of the most important Tamil festivals include Pongal, Puthandu, Navaratri and Deepavali, and the Ayah probably received new clothes for some of these occasions. In fact, it is traditional to shop for new clothes for the entire family specifically to celebrate these festivals. One can expect the markets to be filled with fresh stocks accompanied by heavy discounts. It might very well have been cheaper and more convenient for the mistress to buy an additional sari for the Ayah along with the bulk purchasing before a festival.

Another point worth mentioning is that since the Ayah was residing under the same roof as her employers, the mistress would probably feel obligated to provide new clothes for the Ayah too when purchasing new clothes for the rest of the family, since she was a part of the household in a way. Certainly there would be an aspect of social pressure in creating such a sentiment, considering the unfavourable reaction in the family when the Ayah failed to return immediately from her trip to her home in Saidapet:

[Radha's] mother and others were furious. ‘She has perhaps been run over and killed,’ they said. ‘Such a blundering, blind fool. I am surprised it didn’t happen before. She must have taken it into her head to give herself a holiday suddenly. I will dismiss her for this. No one is indispensable. These old servants take too much for granted, they must be taught a lesson.’

It is also possible (but less likely, in my opinion) that the three saris the Ayah received every year were not bonuses for any festival, but were instead gifts of old saris belonging to the mistress that were still serviceable. It would be less wasteful to give them to the Ayah compared to throwing them away.

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