The ‘Bai’ Phobia

Posted: November 23, 2013

There was Radhika, then Manju, then her sister Anju, Sajanoor and now we have Chavvi. These names might vary for everyone but it’s a usual story that we have house-helps existing in Indian cities and towns (even villages). And so has been the story of my house where house helps have come and gone. Some stayed for longer duration than the rest, and some came and were quickly gone.

What is it that makes them so special in Indian homes? They become even more important if we are talking about the homes of working women. Why is it that today the mere word, ‘House-Help’ starts up a conversation that is longer than women discussing their marital issues, children troubles and nagging mother-in-law problems. Call her ‘Bai’, ‘Kaamwali’, ‘Aunty’ or anything – her absence shatters the very functioning of a house in India, and she for that matter knows it well.

And I am not writing here to crib about my maid-woes. Nor am I trying to tell anyone why they have the power to shatter the daily functioning of any home in India. I write this piece while sitting in a café in Delhi surrounded by a group of kitty-party women (not trying to demean) trying to discuss how the absence of the ”household maid” breaks the smooth functioning of their household’s daily routine.

What irritates me is not the mention or the topic of discussion but the very tone of the ladies (educated as they appear) on how their maids forgot to: switch off the fan, wash the cleaning cloth, took leave because her son was unwell (since 5 days) and what not.  Now I don’t like eavesdropping but the loud tone grabbed my attention and here I am thinking how at every place I have seen the disrespect given to household maids. It took me back to my lessons in Women’s Studies yet again, where we spoke about the unorganized women’s labour sector. It took me back to the days where I have seen my own mother getting irritated on the endless leaves our maid took. It also took me back to the recent news report I read on house helps being beaten to death by upper middle class women.

A nerve in my head has an issue with everything going around these days. And while I sit down and work as a United Nations Volunteer on Women’s Economic Empowerment, I realize how seldom is it that people who discuss all these issues surrounding women’s labour on global platforms, TV channels and amongst their own communities consider their own house-helps any human.  I have seen women activists discussing maid-woes. I have seen housewives do it, working women do it. I see it in my family where the absence of the maid means a one hour long discussion on the phone. While yes, we pay them for their services, the absence of respect and any human feeling towards them makes their lives even more miserable.

And while I write this, I agree that there are a few cases where these house helps, no matter how good you treat them have been a pain to handle. But, the sad reality is that the issues are more deep-rooted and imbalanced than they seem to us. Imagine this: A woman migrates from the village in Bengal/Bihar/Orissa/UP/Nepal-Bangladesh to the savvy city of Delhi/Mumbai. While they start living in slums, they see their husbands get into gambling/drinking/drugs. They have the burden on them to manage the house. With four kids to be brought up, they struggle to manage their work and home all alone. And while all this happens, they have no support structure to take care of their children, their homes while they are gone from 7 am to 8-9 pm every day. Living in a city is after all not a joke. With these challenges, getting their kids into school is beyond a point to be even considered. For many, their daughters are drawn early into the business of being house-helps, many of whom, either elope with boys from the slum or get married early or are abused by the males in the houses they work in.

This is the story of seven out of ten women I have interacted with personally. If you dig deeper you realize the kind of challenges they face by coming to the city and working in such lavish houses, trying to not get tempted by the amazing things they see around. And while I know many of you people out there will try to bring the other side by telling that there are many who are thieves, who lie and take endless leaves, who demand more money than they deserve, here is my answer to you. Yes. That’s also a reality that exists and I am not denying it while presenting this story.

While the absence of these individuals leads to imbalance in the house, their presence needs to be respected as well. Calling them names, beating them, scolding them, and worse killing them is not what a civilized society should be all about. I see such perfectly dressed and English-speaking women with children in public schools talking to their house helps with such disrespect and an inhuman tone that it breaks my heart to see where education is taking us. Wearing diamond-studded jewellery and carrying branded bags isn’t after all the goal that education should be looking towards. And that is precisely where we are heading.

The lack of any strong policy and sheer absence of labour laws for house-helps as they are the unorganized sector makes the situation even worse. I am not preaching anything here. I have taught my house maids, giving them lesson on basic maths-hindi-writing names. My personal deep interactions with them have made me realize how difficult it is getting day by day to make them realize that education is more important than anything, even money. They see the same job for their daughters and sons. No aspirations exist beyond getting the daughter married. No education what-so-ever. She is a helping hand to her mother and no matter how much she is tempted to study, she never gets it.

Where is it that our responsibility as educated citizens lies? How is it that we working/non working, educated women with resources need to put our foot down and start a new wave of thinking? How is it that we not only start respecting them for the services they give us but promote them to educate their kids for a better lifestyle? Why is it that we need to move beyond the slavery syndrome that India has a history of and start a new wave of liberation? Education isn’t creating any change but moral-civic values need to make it happen.

An educated working lady once told me, “Don’t put ideas into my maid’s head. If she is on leave, her daughter does my work. If her daughter starts going to school, who will do my work?” Needless to say, we are so selfish in the way we see our own things getting completed that what we are creating is a future of uneducated labour who don’t know their rights at all. All for our own selfish reasons and motives.

As a woman who works in the Development Sector (and sees many in the same sector being value-less), I think change has to start from us. I mean, imagine how much the society will grow if we start saying no to child labour, if we start giving the rights the maid is entitled to (four days leave a month), if we think rationally for society and not selfishly for our own betterment. I am not advocating any mentality to be a better one, I am just trying to say that if our house stops working because of them, isn’t it their right to be a little respected and cared for? Just a thought! Empowering the dis-empowered should be what empowerment is all about. Cycle of change! Think about it.

A Development Communication & Social Work professional working in the field of gender, health and technology

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Comments

5 Comments


  1. Completely agree with u, Suchi!

    Its really nice that you have taken the time out to teach your house-helps..

    I have a lady who takes care of my daughter and though we have regular arguments on her salary, i have realised that what she really wants is respect..i treat her with respect and ensure my daughter does that too..she invited me to her home for her sister’s kid’s first birthday and me, hubby and daughter went with a little bit of apprehension…but we had a wonderful time at her home…she was so happy to introduce us to her family members…:)

    • Hey Sri
      Totally right! The happiness they get out of us becoming a part of their lives is beyond any other happiness for them. It gives them a feeling of family. 🙂

  2. a thought provoking writeup.

  3. Liked your views, and absolutely agree!!

  4. My mom always respected our maid and always helped her kids by sharing my school supplies. Being a middle-class women that was the max she could do. Result was a very happy maid who never took off and who was perfect at her job. I live in US, but my yearly trips to India make me more familiar with this issue. I have seen so many incidents where maids are mistreated Because they just wanted to provide their family basic needs. How is that different from what we are trying to do? If we are disrespected at work, we get so furious, doesn’t the same apply for maids?
    I see that, now a days, there is a shortage of maids, and i hear people crib about the availability of maids. But the sad thing is, women still don’t realize the value they bring in. If a woman can’t understand how hard it is to be away from children and provide the basic needs for the family, how can we expect men to care about women and not to abuse them?
    Awesome write up.

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