Domestic woke force

Shriya Mohan | Updated on February 15, 2019 Published on February 15, 2019

The joke is on us: The internet has a wealth of stand -up routines about the Indian domestic help who cracks the whip on her employers with wit, sarcasm and rage

There’s a newly assertive ‘bai’ in town and she’s taking down her oppressors, one laugh at a time. Whether in stand-up comedies, gifs, memes or comic books, she is shown grabbing the elite by their white collars and teaching them the importance of work-life balance and her vital role in it

When Manju bai isn’t washing utensils or squatting on the floor, broom in hand, waiting for her ‘memsahib’ and other house guests to lift their feet so she can sweep under them, she wears her pallu (sari end) like a gangsta hood and raps her rage down her gully.

Salaam thok, pagaar badhaa, tu Maggi bana chal apne haath se/

kapde dhole khud ke dum pe, nahin toh dhulwale apne baap se!

(S**** the greetings, hike my pay, else make your own Maggi/

Try washing your own clothes, else get your dad to do it)

In Gully Bai, a spoof video modelled on the trailer of the just-released Zoya Akhtar film Gully Boy, the bai (domestic help) is being denied a bonus because the food she cooks isn’t as “yum yum as [delivery service] Swiggy” and Tinder is eating into her cleaning time. Published on YouTube last month by content platform Girliyapa, the video has already garnered five million views.

Elsewhere on the Web, Parvati bai is fuming too.

Sassy: Parvati Bai mocks the hypocrisy of the people who hire her   -  V SREENIVASA MURTHY


“Won’t I know how to make her study further? Won’t I be concerned? Don’t be classist with me! Stop watching these gundhi Hindi pitchaar (dirty Hindi films),” huffs Parvati, played by popular stand-up comedian Sumukhi Suresh in a video series (unnamed) available on YouTube, Facebook and Instagram. Her trigger? Unsolicited advice to educate her daughter and not “marry her off” too soon. As a viewer you find yourself laughing awkwardly. The joke hits too close to home.

In the Maid in Heaven comedy series on YouTube, house help Baby sits cross-legged on the marble floor and refuses to budge until she’s given a full month’s compensation in cash, as she is being fired without prior notice.

She is instantly welcomed back with an apology, a mug of steaming chai and memsahib’s offer to make it up to her with her favourite chicken curry.

The ‘woke’ baiis here to take us to the cleaners, in a myriad comic avatars including gifs, memes and comic books. She is shown grabbing the elite by their dry-cleaned white collars only to teach them a couple of uncomfortable life lessons. Play by the new rules, or your delicate work-life balance will tumble like a pack of cards, is her implied message.

Away from these fictionalised laugh riots, the real story of the country’s teeming domestic workforce is a grim one.

The domestic jibes

“Borders between countries are marked out by fences and guards, but borders between classes are marked out by where you may sit, where you may go to the bathroom and where and with whom you may eat,” writes Tripti Lahiri, currently Quartz’s Asia bureau chief, in the prologue to her book Maid in India (2017), which explores the stories of opportunity and inequality inside our homes.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates there are over four million domestic workers in India, but trade unions say the number is close to 10 million. Women make up two-third of this force and most of them belong to vulnerable communities including tribal, dalit and landless OBCs (other backward class).

Even until the 1970s, only a handful in India could afford a domestic ‘servant’, writes Lahiri, pointing to their surging numbers in the decades since, even as the word itself lost currency in a new era of political correctness. In just the two decades after liberalisation in 1991, the number of house helps, drivers and nannies quadrupled in India.

This, inevitably, threw the haves and have-nots into greater proximity than ever before. So, have the class borders that Lahiri refers to, become more porous?

“They may not have become more porous, but they have become more visible to us,” Lahiri says in an email interview. The issue has certainly made its way into public discussions, including stand-up comedy.

No joke: Deepika Mhatre’s stand-up comedy about the absurdities of her life as a domestic worker brought her fame, but she continues to eke a living selling imitation jewellery on Mumbai’s local trains   -  PRASHANT NAKWE


“Namaste, I’m Deepika Mhatre and I’m a maid. I’ve noticed that all stand-up comics do episodes about their maids. Today I’ll speak. And you Madam log will listen.” Applause and nervous titters ensue. This is from a live sketch Mhatre did last year in Mumbai, titled ‘Sticker ki kimat’ (the worth of a sticker), a recording of which is available online. Formerly a domestic help, Mhatre is today a successful stand-up comedian quipping about class inequality and its absurdities. “Where I work, I’m treated very specially. I have a separate lift for people like me. Separate dishes for us to eat in, too. Yet, at the end of the day Madam has to eat the same roti that I make with my hands,” she says, laughing at the irony.

“It’s pretty clear that many workers today have greater expectations of being treated with a certain level of dignity than in the past,” says Lahiri.

R.E.S.P.E.C.T: Workers today have greater expectations of being treated with dignity than in the past   -  KK MUSTAFAH


Mhatre is a busy person these days. “Speak to my manager?” she suggests, when I introduce myself over the phone. A year ago, such “effrontery” might have cost her her job as a cook in a Mumbai housing society. Back then she clutched at every rope life threw her, to climb, earn, and keep her husband and three daughters afloat. That included a 5 am ride on a local train to sell imitation jewellery before heading to cook at several homes and doing other odd jobs. It was the comedian Aditi Mittal who first spotted her performing comedy at a local society’s function and convinced her to do stand-up.

Waking up to rights

Mhatre tells BLink that the local and international media coverage hasn’t bettered her financial prospects. “Although I’ve stopped working in people’s homes, I still board that morning train to sell imitation jewellery.” But something did change, however subtly. After eight years of domestic work, she now finds the memsahibs weighing their words, addressing her with some respect. Else they could end up providing rich fodder for her rib-tickling shows.

Sometime during 1988-90, in an episode of the popular sitcom Wagle ki Duniya (Wagle’s world), aired on DD National, the eponymous Wagle and his wife Radhika decide, after much deliberation, to employ a bai to help with the household chores. “Itna to hum afford kar sakte hain (we can afford this much, at least),” says Wagle. Radhika’s face glows as if she’s won a lottery. The following day, Shanta Bai arrives. Radhika then sits back, perhaps for the first time in a long while, with a magazine in hand, unable to believe her luck. “You’re reading a magazine?” her neighbour asks jealously.

That episode, in a nutshell, captures what it meant to employ a house help in the late-’80s India — the constant suspicion and doubt: what if she was quietly stealing something; the frustration at her late-coming every day; and being torn simultaneously by pity and mistrust when she pleads for an advance by recounting her sorry life with a drunk husband and a sick child. “They all look innocent but they are all thieves,” Wagle fumes when a steel katori goes missing. “We are always mistrusting the poor,” he shamefacedly contradicts himself moments later, when the katori is found.

Newly middle-class India was still negotiating its equation with domestic helps. How were we to treat them? With what degree of trust? Who needed whom more? “There is so much unemployment, you’ll find a hundred others to replace this one,” says Wagle.

Take that: The Angry Maushi comic character represents the average raging Mumbaikar   -  IMAGE COURTESY: ABHIJEET KINI


It was around 2012 that cartoonist Abhijeet Kini created the Angry Maushi character — a Mumbaikar bai riding local trains and using her hidden superpowers to tick off everyone from rogue politicians to abusive elites and any high-and-mighty on the wrong side of the law. Kini found his inspiration in the anger that he saw in the common people all around him. It was a time of upheavals — spontaneous protests against Mumbai cop Vasant Dhoble’s alleged high-handedness, media exposes of wrongdoings at the highest levels of government, the rise of anti-corruption movements such as India against Corruption, led by activist Anna Hazare, and the subsequent disillusionment with them, among others.

Beyond just a bai, Kini wanted his Angry Maushi to be an all-encompassing figure — the average Mumbaikar raging against an unjust society. “She could be a homemaker, a fisherwoman, a cook or a maid, or all of them together, facing the same harsh realities. A scientist injects her with a super-serum. Her wrath grows ten-fold and powers her to become a superwoman, ready to take on any evil. It is sociopolitical satire,” Kini tells BLink over the phone.

“In India, the way we treat our domestic help is sad... Humour helps in bringing the joke on the employer. But we may be too dunce as a race to understand dark comedy. To understand that the joke is on us,” he says.

What he finds heartening, however, is the growing awareness among domestic helps. “The internet has reached everywhere. Awareness and education have increased. They’re beginning to say, ‘We need our rights. Else we quit’,” he says.

Pack a punch

It was comedian Sanjay Manaktala who created and shot the Parvai Bai series, with Sumukhi Suresh as Parvati. Later, Suresh made it a part of her own identity.

On a flight or a trip abroad, she would morph into her Parvati persona and offer humorous takes on her surroundings through the lens of a domestic help. In these video clips, she also throws in motivational messages, loaded with her characteristic sass, for other maids to share over online platforms such as WhatsApp.

“We were always clear that Parvati was someone who mocks the hypocrisy of the people who hire her. How they are on their high horse for no reason. And also to show that Parvati treats her work like a job, deserves to be respected and demands the same,” says Suresh.

One of the episodes has Parvati showing up for a job interview, only to end up interviewing her potential employers (essayed by Vamsidhar Bhogaraju and Kaneez Surka), querying them about their income levels and their place in the upscale apartment’s class hierarchy. When Parvati learns that Bhogaraju’s character is employed with Infosys, she laughs in contempt and points out that their neighbour — her current employer — is the “CEO of Google” and Sharmaji upstairs, another of her employers, “is a partner in Facebook”.

She then gives the couple three options to choose from: a fresher package — only doing dishes and “shallow dusting, not deep dusting, behind TV and all” at ₹1,000 a month; middle-class package — sweeping, mopping, washing clothes and deep dusting, but excludes washing lingerie, at ₹2,000 a month; and, finally, the North Indian Diva Package at ₹5,000 a month, which includes all of the above and more. “In this package I talk in English and make omelette and chai for myself. No need to be served,” Parvati intones matter-of-factly. The series attracted over 1.5 million views, with each episode capturing a sliver of Parvati’s daily life, as she bats discrimination with sarcasm and wit.

Reality bites

Real life, however, is still to catch up with fiction. Take the case of Dolly who travelled from Delhi to Dubai in 2010 to work in an Indian dentist couple’s house. Besides daily chores, Dolly had to take care of their two-year-old child. Though she had worked abroad earlier, with an Indian family in Johannesburg, Dolly found her Dubai experience unlike any she encountered in her 30-year career. The couple locked her in the house, disconnected phone lines and monitored her every move through CCTV cameras. “I felt imprisoned,” she recollects. What came next proved to be beyond her wildest fears.

One day, while watching a soap commercial on TV, the child remarked to Dolly, “You also take a shower like this. I’ve seen you on the screen without your clothes.” Dolly immediately checked her bathroom walls and found a hidden camera. She confronted her employers and threatened to go to the police if they didn’t return her passport and put her on a flight home. Rattled sufficiently, they complied. “I don’t want to lodge a police complaint. Who’ll believe me?” she asks.

She works in one of Noida’s high-rises but hasn’t given up her search for a higher-paying overseas job, and, hopefully, better employers this time round.

Foot down: Labour laws continue to exclude domestic work from their purview, denying access to social security, safe working conditions and grievance redress systems   -  V SUDERSHAN


Spurred by stories of domestic workers’ struggles, Member of Parliament Shashi Tharoor introduced The Domestic Workers’ Welfare Bill in the Lok Sabha in 2016. “Domestic work is still not seen as a career or a job in India, due to society’s prejudicial view of domestic workers as ‘servants’ rather than as ‘employees’. This is evident in the way people treat their domestic help, subjecting them to a hazardous environment, sometimes to physical and mental torture, and making them work without basic rights, predictable hours or decent facilities. This social prejudice has also coloured our labour laws, as they exclude domestic work from their purview,” says Shashi Tharoor, in an email interview to BLink. The need is for a legal framework that reiterates the position of a domestic worker as an employee, through access to social security rights, safe working conditions and grievance redress systems.

The National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO), in its 2011 round, showed that conditions for domestic workers are much worse compared to others in the informal sector. They put up with the exploitative conditions due to their economic status and weak bargaining power.

By categorising private spaces where domestic workers are employed as “workplaces”, the Bill will ensure they can access the benefits of other labour laws too. “Unfortunately, the government has shown no will in enacting a law to deal with problems faced by the domestic workers of our country,” says Tharoor.

While Dolly awaits changes in the law, she is happy to see the impact made by the new brand of bai comedy in building awareness. Plus, she loves the smart retorts and biting satire in Suresh’s show. “I’ve seen Mumbai maids are like queens... this is catching on in Delhi, too,” she says.

Remarking on the ability of humour to convey the most serious of messages, Lahiri says, “Suresh is spot-on in capturing how class tensions coalesce around the women — I laughed uneasily in recognition. Also the fact that workers know so much about the people they work for, and the reverse snobbery that they deploy as a defence against snobbery. We’ve all heard stories of the driver who’ll only work for a family that has certain models of SUVs.”

Says Suresh, “These videos have changed the way I behave with my house help. There is a lot we were taught by virtue of how our parents behaved, or still do. I am unlearning all of that. Hopefully, I have been able to punch up rather than punch down by playing Parvati Bai.”

As Manju bai raps: Gaali de Marathi mein, mein aur do sunayegi/…Asli labour class se milaye Hindustan ko (Abuse me in Marathi, and I’ll give you back more/ Come on, India, let’s introduce you to the real labour class).

Published on February 15, 2019
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