My Butler: James Xavier

As many of you know, I had a butler while living in Delhi. His name is James Xavier. Having a butler is one of the more outrageous things I’ve experienced. As an American, one of my main points of reference for butlers is from the Seinfeld episode when George and Jerry pitch their sitcom idea to network execs. In George and Jerry’s show, a judge sentences a man who has hit Jerry's car to be his butler. It’s unusual to think of butlers in America. To be fair, many Americans have hired “help” in the US, but very few people have a “butler.”

I hired James on a full-time basis, and it was a great decision in terms of improving my time in India. James cooked amazing, spicy Indian food, cleaned, did laundry, worked as my personal Hindi translator, ran errands and most importantly, ALWAYS had my back.

Arguing and haggling is a way of life in India. Some arguments, as was the case with my landlord, extend beyond a single person and manage to include entire families. I can be pretty persuasive, but I’m no match when it comes to negotiating with seven people born into three different generations. No match, that is, until I enlisted James’ help. Every time I got into a rickshaw with James, I started to negotiate. One of the worst parts of traveling around Delhi is dealing with rickshaw drivers. You are almost always forced to argue with the driver, insisting that he use the meter, something that he (and it is always a man) is already legally required to do. James played good cop to my bad cop.

I would typically stand over the rickshaw driver and give him the Johnson Treatment, while James reasoned with him in Hindi. I’d come to each negotiation guns blazin’, yelling something to the effect of, ‘You are shaming your entire family by trying to cheat me.’ Then James would pipe in with, ‘You are cheat! This man is cheat!’ He would yell a little more in Hindi, and then we’d get a fair price.

At other times, when I needed a pick-me-up, James was always there to agree with me, regardless of what he thought. A great example was how I tolerated (or rather, didn’t at all) the heat. Every morning, I would wake up, take a shower and have my coffee outside on my porch. Generally, I would start to walk outside before being hit by a massive wave of choking heat. I’d yell out, ‘OH MY GOD, IT IS SO F***ING HOT HERE.’ James would then come out with my coffee, agreeing faithfully, ‘SO HOT, SO F***ING HOT Mr. Rob.’ If I ever confided to him that someone was being very friendly or perhaps being a jerk, James was always there to agree with me.

I love spicy food and to my surprise, the food in India (or Thailand) was not all that spicy. I sent James to a special Western market to get Frank’s Hot Sauce, my personal condiment of choice. He would always compliment me by saying how brave I was and how I was a very special person for eating such ‘chilly chilly food.’ James had cooked for a number of Europeans before working with me and assumed that Westerners didn’t eat spicy food. He was afraid to add spices, because he thought I would get upset with him.

I didn’t exactly need a person to help me on a full-time basis, but I wanted to make sure that James was around to translate as situations presented themselves. This left James with a lot of free time. At the beginning, he would occupy his time by pretending to do work or by simply relearning things. After insisting a hundred times to him that he was welcome to do whatever he wanted if he didn’t have work to do, he finally started to listen. At first James would make himself Chai and hang out on my living room couch, reading his Bible. If I didn’t mention it, James was a devout God-fearing Christian, not a Hindu. Later, after he realized that he had what he described as a ‘job like dream,’ he began to occupy himself by preening and grooming in front of the mirror. He did this for hours at a time. I learned that if I needed James, I should first look to the mirror in my bedroom, then to the mirror in the hall bathroom. James Xavier, the butler, loved looking at himself.

Once I decided to leave Delhi, I honored my promise to James by creating a website for him to market his services. You can check out his website here: Chef James Xavier. He received scores of calls and in the end, his whole family managed to get new jobs from the site. Incidentally, he also made me take multiple pictures until he got the perfect shot that truly ‘captured’ him.

Before I left, I asked James to record his thoughts about working with me. I promised I would not listen to them until he left. I’m posting his audio here: Link to Audio in New Window

My favorite things about the audio recording:

1. James acted as though my MP3 recorder was a phone. Stating at the beginning “I am James calling.”

This, by the way, was how our phone conversations went: James: “Hello.” Rob: “What’s up James? It’s Rob.” James: “I am James.” Long pause while I try to figure out what this means. Rob: “Hey James, I need you to pick up coffee from the market.” James: “I am James.” Rob: “OK, are we clear?” James: “Hello, sir.” Rob: “OK, so you are going to pick up coffee?” James: “OK, sir.”

2. The non sequitur nature of James’ thoughts.

3. James’ declaration that I am “1 in 100 man,” followed by the reconsideration that I am maybe “1 in 10 or 20 man.”

4. James’ saying that he is so sad that I am leaving. It makes me a little sad right now, thinking back on it.