Maid in urban India

Many lives, many masters. A 16-year-old girl who came to Delhi in search of a better life and a new identity   -  Reuters/Mansi Thapliyal

While the girls — from faraway towns and villages — may start out in a state of fearful desperation, eventually the city renders them confident and cunning

I met Tina this time last year, when she walked into my house wearing a shiny pink salwar kameez and carrying a small black backpack. Earlier that morning, steeped in a domestic-help crisis, a friend-of-a-friend had given me a number of an “agent”. I called the guy and in a six-minute conversation, I agreed to part with ₹25,000 in commission in exchange for Tina’s presence in my house. (Tina isn’t her real name).

By the end of the week, it was apparent to anyone who saw her that she was quite a character. She abandoned the shiny salwar kurtas first for full-length trackpants and later for capris. Once, when I popped into her room because she wasn’t responding to my calls, I saw that she was dressed in a pair of shorts I had set aside to give away to charity. She knew her mind, she did not let my daughter boss over her and established power hierarchies early on. Her mobile phone was often a source of angst between us. It rang endlessly. She swept the house and did the dishes with the earbuds of the phone wedged firmly into her ears, alternately flirting or shouting at whoever was at the other end of the phone. The best I could do was to get her to shut the door before the yelling began.

Over the course of the next few months, I got to hear her story. She started working in homes when she 16, she said, after a lady recruiter who routinely took girls to the city visited her village in Bengal. There were five children in the family; she was the third. A brother and sister were older than her but when the brother got married, his wife did not want him to have anything to do with his family. So he left the village for hers and started helping his father-in-law in his business. It fell upon Tina to find a way to feed the family. She was paid ₹5,000 then, all of which she sent home. I was her seventh employer, and she had been in all kinds of places — Ludhiana, Jammu, Delhi, Gurgaon — and worked in all kinds of homes. Every year, when she walks into a new home, she is nervous, she admits, but no longer afraid. In Jammu, the grandfather of the toddlers she was hired to manage called her to his room and groped her (here’s looking at you, great Indian family values). She kicked him hard in “that place” and waited for morning to call the agent and ask him to rescue her. Sure enough, when the agent came, grandfather had a story about missing mobile phone and ₹4,000 from his wallet and everyone agreed that it was Tina’s fault and she should leave. “I wish I had kicked him twice” is all she says about it now.

In her free time, Tina helped the agent recruit more girls from the village, and earned one month’s pay as her commission. She also actively solicited a love life. She was an urban girl by now, confident, sassy and with an attitude that had me swinging between admiration and annoyance. When her 12 months were done, she went home. She is sure about what she wants. She is going to take a few months off, come back and find herself another house without the help of the agent. She has strict criteria - housewife employers are out, so are families with babies.

The agent brought me another girl. I’ll call her Nafisa, as meek as Tina was volatile, as quiet as Tina was loud. Still, over the last few weeks Nafisa has been telling me her story. She is the oldest of nine children — eight girls and a boy. Her father has a chest condition, and Nafisa left her village in West Bengal eight years ago to find work as a maid. She worked in a house in Kolkata for six years. When the son of the house got married, the daughter-in-law replaced her (hello again, great Indian family values!) and Nafisa found herself signing up with an agent who filled her parents’ heads with stories of a place called Gurgaon, where maids made salaries in high four figures, some even five figures. She came last year and worked in a house. There were seven people, she said, and babies crawling all over the place. She slept in the kitchen and had to use a common toilet downstairs. The employer gave her two rotis and whatever remained of the sabzi after the family had eaten. “They were nice,” she told me repeatedly. When she went home after a year, she stayed for a month and came back to the city, this time with her younger sister in tow. She was assigned my house and her sister, a place a couple of kilometres down the road. Nafisa does not have a mobile phone, so she calls her sister from my landline every night, just as we finish dinner, and I can hear her placate her homesick, weepy sibling. Between the two, they take care of the family and make enormous payments for the father’s medical treatment. Quiet as she is, yesterday, when I was in the other room, I heard her call out to our dog, speaking her first few words of English. When I gave her a sweater for the winter, she asked if I had a pair of pants to go with it. When she put them on, she wouldn’t make eye contact with me. I watched her from the balcony, running down the road, calling out to her new friends.

I can view this as an adorable metamorphosis of rural girls to an urban uniformity or I can acknowledge this as the irrefutable evidence that transformative feminism is happening in our homes, washing our dishes. How else can you explain these girls — from faraway Bengal — who find themselves in the threatening centre of a home in Haryana, where they run into lecherous grandfathers and stingy, ungrateful employers, and yet somehow — despite the fact that they neither speak the language well nor understand the topology of an unfamiliar city — they cling on, working hard to send money home so their parents and siblings can have a life. While they may start out in a state of fearful desperation, eventually their financial independence and their employers’ dependence help define their self-worth. The city renders them confident and cunning. Treat them badly, I’d say, at your peril. In a few years, they are going to kick serious ass, and you don’t want it to be yours.

(Veena Venugopal is editor BLink and author of The Mother-in-Law. Follow her on Twitter >@veenavenugopal)

Published on December 12, 2014

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