“Didi, I noticed some cobwebs along the walls today. I’ll come early tomorrow and dust them off. You’ll be home all morning, right?”
I: “Huh! What cobwebs? Which walls?”
“Didi, umm… is bhaiyya too busy? Emmm … I was wondering if he could help me push this box cot. You see, the floor below hasn’t been swept or mopped for quite some time, and this cot is a bit heavy for me... Just a few inches would do...”
I (post cot-shifting): “Ow, that’s a lot of dust! How the heck did it get there?”
I: “Ganga, there’s a huge pile of soiled utensils today. We had guests last night. Can you somehow do the heavy utensils? Sourav and I will wash the rest later.”
Ganga: “Oh, don’t bother yourself at all didi! Any household will have its share of guests. What good is a kaamwali (maid) who can’t wash a few extra utensils once in a while?”
Meet Ganga, our domestic help. To say the truth, I’ve often been just a wee bit jealous of quite a few things about her – say, her effervescent smile, and how she strikes up a warm conversation with all our guests without ever overstepping her boundaries, or her inherent proactiveness, or her apparent lack of complaints about the monotony of her job (or life, or anything in general), or the featherweight dignity with which she carries herself. In a discrimination free world, she’d probably be considered a better professional than me on any given day.
Ganga’s kids never fail to me amaze me either. Aged eight and six, Karan and Arjun are friends with this entire ‘brigade’ of neighborhood kids. Children of IT employees and management executives shriek with them in ecstasy as they run behind each other to catch the ‘thief’ or roll in the sand together. On some mornings, the two wail in unison at the top of their voice – “Why do we have to go the school each and every day? Hadn’t we been good boys yesterday, Ma, and the day before that? Let us stay home and play today, pleeeeeeease.” Otherwise, they go to a small English medium school close by in tip-top dress, and Arjun even managed to top his class last year.
Ganga works from dawn to dusk as maid and/or cook in several households in the locality. Bahadur, her husband, serves as the security guard of our building and washes cars for some extra bucks. A small single room at the heart of our car parking zone, a rope charpoy laid outside it, and a toilet close to our boundary wall are what they call their home, sweet home.
A few weeks back, around 1-30 am, shrill, helpless shrieks of Karan and Arjun pierced through the night. “Uncle… uncle… save us… bnachaao… somebody… please help… ”. The sense of panic in their pleading voice intensified with clanging of metals, smashing of glass and random thuds. We rushed downstairs. And there we saw Ganga – an angry, distraught, complaining Ganga - with her eyes red and her face puffy, her cheeks laden with streams of tears.
“See how this monster has been beating up the kids, didi! He kicked me hard in my belly while I was sound asleep, and kept on kicking till I fell out of the cot. When I protested, didi, he turned his rage on the poor boys!”
Ganga’s tolerance was spilt out on the floor amid flung out utensils and splattered rice grains. The trembling kids stood huddled in a corner, seeking safety in each other’s tightly-held palm. A badly drunk Bahadur hurled the choicest of expletives at the small crowd that had gathered there. Most of them were from the neighboring buildings and had been jolted out of sleep by the chaos. While some tried to pacify Bahadur or threaten him back to sobriety, others turned on us – “Why do you guys keep this drunkard as your security guard? We’ve complained on this issue before. You should talk to your association and get him replaced straightaway.” If Bahadur lost his job, it would cost his family their current shelter and much more. That night, I stopped being jealous of Ganga.
What does Ganga do if her husband turns rogue? – I found myself mulling over the question for the next couple of days, when she let her guards down and shared the darker pieces of her life with me.
Bahadur, when drunk, sometimes contemplated deserting her for a better wife; a wife who’d drink along with him and bring masti to his life. His friends told him that his wife spoke way too much, and that he beat her up way too less than he ought to. It was not Bahadur’s fault that he was swayed by their advice, believed Ganga. He was orphaned early and grew up awaara (like a vagrant) among these spoilt bewra-s (boozers). It was not her family’s fault either that they had married her off at a tender age to a drunkard twenty years older to her. Her father was run over to death by a car when she was just seven, and the family lost its only source of income. The girls could not be educated and had to be married off early so that the meager left-behind savings could be utilized for the education of the sons.
Apparently, it was nobody’s fault that Ganga was stuck where she was stuck. Apparently, there was no respite. Apparently, as it dawned on her when her sense of hurt subsided, she could rather do without complaining – for she was much better off as compared to the rest of her lot. They got thrashed daily; she got thrashed once in a couple of months.
Other than the poisons of deep-rooted patriarchy and wealth disparity that afflicts the entire sub-continent, is there any other factor that contributes to Ganga’s vulnerability to abuse?
Is she capable of working hard enough to provide independently for her sons and herself? May be.
Does she have a minimal job security? If she were to be bedridden for a couple of weeks and irregular to work for another month or so, say due to a relapse of the severe anemia she had last year, how many jobs would she retain? How would she cover the regular expenses for the period of her joblessness in the absence of a paid notice period and a fallback bank balance? Does her salary allow her to save for rainy days? And what about the rising healthcare costs? Can the Gangas of our country afford health insurance coverage for themselves and their family?
Is it justified that the profession of a domestic help should squeeze away her time and energy as long she is healthy and capable, and in turn guarantee her almost nothing beyond two square meals a day? How much disadvantage would it put us in if our maids were legally entitled to formal employment contracts with minimum wage policies to be adhered to, in addition to a weekly day off and a certain number of sick leaves per year? How much would it benefit the country to have its huge sector of domestic workforce formalized?
Bahadur has been sober for the past three weeks, and Ganga smiles a lot. But Ganga’s smile is fragile. And now I know the sparkle in Karan and Arjun’s eyes to be less perennial than it seems to be. So let us take a peek at the alien world from which numerous alien hands emerge every morning to sweep our floors, dust our furniture, cook our meals and keep our happy households running. What do our eyes see? What do our hearts say?
Acknowledge. Share. Raise a mass concern if you feel so.