The incredible story of India’s modern butlers

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Every year dozens of eager students graduate from butler school in India to learn the art of laying out the right tie with a suit and dealing with drunk guests and suspicious wives.

Meet the real butlers of the 0.01 per cent 

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You’re on a cruise with a sheikh and his 20 leggy model friends, and his wife shows up.

What do you do?

Inside a smart room propped with tables and silverware, a few dozen men are pretending they’re aboard a cruise ship. A young man in a suit is pretending to be a pregnant Arab woman. Another is her very drunk husband, the sheikh. A row of liveried men are being told they must find out the Arab lady’s needs without directly addressing her. It’s rude in her culture. Yet another row of serious-looking men must figure out how to stop the soused sheikh from creating a scene.

Sights such as this aren’t uncommon twice a year in Dehradun, when about 20 people pay Rs 75,000 for a two-week class on learning the art of being a servant — or buttling, the slightly ludicrous verb used to describe it.

Rajnikanth Subramanian, who goes by the more tongue-friendly Raj, has buttled for the likes of Nelson Mandela and Cindy Crawford, and now passes on his learnings to students of the Royal Indian Butlers institute, which is affiliated with the Guild of Professional English Butlers in London. He teaches everything from the correct greeting when welcoming a guest to packing suitcases the right way. Butlers in training learn how to deal with drunken dinner guests (inviting them to leave the room to answer a phone call that mysteriously goes dead is one trick), how to inspect laid-out tables, the best way to clean crockery, air out suits, and so on.

“I dislike working for new money. They can be quite clueless,” sniffs George.

“Our butlers get placed all around the world,” says the achingly polite 39-year-old. “We only accept those with a hotel management degree and who look presentable.” The grooming requirements of a high-class butler are no laughing matter: He must have neat, short hair, no visible tattoos or jewellery, be able to wriggle into all types of tuxedos within seconds, get regular mani and pedis, and never outshine his employer.

“We are seeing a butler boom globally,” says Sara Vestin Rahmani, who runs an elite butler school and placement academy in London called Bespoke Bureau. “The demand is doubling every year.” Which makes sense: There are more millionaires in the world than ever before. And Russian oligarchs, Middle Eastern oil barons and Asian moguls buying up expensive real estate in and around London are now exporting the Euro-aristocratic lifestyle back home. Which includes having a butler around. There are several elite schools like Bespoke Bureau in the UK, some of which, like the British Butler Institute, have recently opened offices in Delhi and plan to expand into India and other parts of Asia.

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Every year dozens of eager students graduate from butler school in India

“While America and the UK are old markets, the most demand  now is coming from the UAE and Asia, where it’s becoming a status thing for the nouveau riche. And after the original, traditional English butler, Indians are in great demand. They make excellent butlers. They speak good English, have a lot of patience and come from a culture of hospitality,” Rahmani explains.

China is currently the biggest market in Asia for butler services — unsurprising, since it now has the second highest number of billionaires in the world. There, a butler is not just the newest asset to show off but often a guidebook to living in a stratified society. It isn’t unheard of for a butler to instruct his newly rich employers on how to behave or even what his duties entail.

“I dislike working for new money. They can be quite clueless,” sniffs George (name changed). He’s a polished 33-year-old from Calcutta with a Masters degree in economics, who speaks English, French, German and Bengali, and has worked as a butler in hotels and households in Dubai since graduating from university. While his friends joined banks and brokerage firms, George thought the idea of working closely with the likes of Prince Charles or Aga Khan was far more stimulating. (He is, of course, far too discreet to mention who his actual employers are. That and, as is often the case, he’s been made to sign a confidentiality agreement.)

“This type of manservant 2.0 is very common among the city’s elite,” says an e-commerce retailer from Delhi.

Not everything he’s learned came from a course at butler school, though — he’s picked up a lot on the job as well. Like how to look away when a box of joints is being passed around, or the trick to getting a reservation at Zuma with a half hour’s notice and even who to be loyal to when being interrogated about an employer’s affair with a leggy model (always with him; madam has her ladies’ maids for spying).

But modern butlers aren’t just slavish doormats. They set conditions to the jobs they are expected to do, and are entirely unashamed of their job description. They do, after all, earn around $20,000 to $40,000 annually, which could well reach 60 to 80 grand within five to six years — sooner if a butler learns a few dirty secrets or gets poached by one of his boss’ billionaire friends.

“A butler is one of the most charming people you will meet,” Raj says, with pride. “There have been many cases when the boss’ daughter has fallen in love with the butler and, in one scandalous case, even married him,” he shares. “The salary is great and there are perks, like travelling and living with the family in top hotels around the world.”

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A high-class butler must have no visible tattoos, be able to wriggle into a tuxedo within seconds, get regular mani and pedis, and never outshine his employer

And with the increased popularity of Downton Abbey, “the concept of having butlers is becoming common in Indian households too. I know of a few placed in different homes across Delhi in the last few years. I get calls regularly, but most people are shocked after they hear the expected pay.”

The capital city has found its own way to imitate this trend without having to shell out obscene amounts. “I have a guy who’s more like a man Friday than a butler,” says Arjun Khanna, a 27-year-old businessman who provides security services for VVIPs. “Almost every member of my family has one. He accompanies me everywhere, even when I’m out with my girlfriend. He can throw together a party with basic instructions about the number of people and the type of cuisine, can mix drinks and speak in passable English. He can pack my bag, decide what I should wear and lay out my clothes impeccably. He even carries a weapon and is trained to use it. I can’t do a thing without him.”

Typical salaries here range from Rs 3 to 6 lakh. “This type of manservant 2.0 is very common among the city’s elite,” says Manav Singh (name changed), an e-commerce retailer from Delhi. “He’s like a human Swiss Army knife set, he’s multipurpose. The very image-conscious will ensure he’s dressed in the traditional bow tie and waistcoat attire, but in my household it’s a safari suit.”

Whether it’s the high-flying Mr Carson variety or the desi substitute who may not know the right thing to say if he jams the cloche with the soup into madam’s head, they know all your secrets. “If he walks in on anything inappropriate,” says Singh, “he’ll pretend not to notice, plump a cushion and simply leave.”

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