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Are we uncomfortable if the ‘maid servants’ are well dressed, aware of their right, etc.? Are we likely to be more suspicious of them?
The window between 7:00 and 8:00 AM on any given day in most streets in Chennai wears a similar appearance: women who work as domestic helps in households across the city are seen rushing about from house to house to make it on time. Some of them are dressed in crisp cotton sarees, with or without flowers in their hair. Some, in chiffon or synthetic sarees in an array of colours. If you stand and watch, by the time many of them leave, they may look tired, but certainly not unkempt.
“Everyone can afford everything. Naturally they dress well – it’s them going to work!” Revathi Subramaniam, a housewife in Chennai, explains. “What’s there to be shocked about it? But one thing is for sure. My maid servant is much smarter than the ones that have worked in my house during my childhood days. She knows everything, she’s watchful and a very quick learner. That makes me want to be careful, though…” she trails off. I want to know why, so I press on. “Eh, what do you mean? Today’s maid servants are very clever. They know everything, they know English, they are listening to your every word while they work though they appear not to. My maid servant is on WhatsApp, and insists on sending me forwards. I blocked her, have to put her in her place, no?”
What Revathi reveals is suggestive of the depth of discrimination that appears so ingrained in our psyche that it’s virtually an unconscious bias for all intents and purposes. From the way we address or refer to our domestic helps (maid servants) to the way we look at them with a layer of mistrust / distrust, there is much about this bias that continues to be espoused from a place of insecurity.
A round of conversations across many groups of women suggested that this appears to be a largely espoused value, reminiscent of the colonial ideology to keep a hierarchical segregation alive. In some instances, one wonders if it is a caste-based pursuit, while in still more instances, it appears to be a question of professional identity that keeps one from the other.
It’s not entirely so dismal, either, as I would discover.
In most households, the behaviour towards and treatment of domestic help segregation hinges upon some element of insecurity. Sita Krishnakumar, who works part-time at a school down the lane from her house, explains it clearly. “I grew up with Kannamma and her daughters – they continued working for me after my mother shifted to the US. I can leave the house with them, they have a set of keys, each. But I see that not many do this or are able to. It works for me because of years of trust.”
There is a sense of mutual demonization on both sides. To Revathi, the lack of trust stems from two things – one, a lack of time or experience with the particular help, and two, the notion that poverty can lead to crime and the misconstrued exaggeration that “anyone who is poor can do anything, so no one is to be trusted.” Adding to this, as housewife Suman Prabhu says, is the general tendency to lord over a domestic help in the hope of chasing an aspirational dream of affluence. “I’ll tell you something interesting. You go to an affluent household, and you’ll find that all the maid servants are up to speed on the latest technology, the language and even the food. But in middle class households, there is a desperate need to keep that divide. Why? Because people want to hold onto that sense of control and keep that divide wide enough so that there is no blurring of lines.”
On the other hand, domestic help themselves feel less comfortable about how their employability teeters if they appear not to toe the line. “If I aspire to do more, if I learn about what I have as my rights and demand it, I am seen as too gutsy, bold, daring or badly behaved. I’ve lost out on the chance to work in many houses because I asked for a salary on a time basis. When that didn’t work, I sat with my son, who studies in a college, to put a task-wise rate down, so that I could be paid. That didn’t work either. These employers have a way of putting us in our “place” – thimiru, or gumption, they accuse us of having, if we demand what is our due.” Suguna, a domestic help who currently works in three houses between the morning and evening each day, explained. “Last week, the daughter of the household I work in, was explaining to me that she can get leave on the first day of her menstruation. I saw the frown on her mother’s face as she explained to me, as if afraid I would ask for it. You think, amma, that I would? Not a chance. Everyday’s labour makes a difference, I have to feed myself and my daughters.”
Even as there are operating forces that keep the segregation alive, there are several who are working hard to counter it. In Gita Jayakumar’s house, (she, a fitness expert and alternative therapist), I see a heart warming scene unfold before my eyes. The domestic help, Kaniammal or Kani, is poring over a notebook, pen in hand, while Gita, is teaching her to read. “Every day, after Kani finishes all the work, we sit down and study together. Education has always been her dream.” Kani is busy learning the vowels, pronouncing the many sounds they make and trying on new words for size. “I come from a village, and my family always believed that only boys should be educated. My sister and I were forced to drop out of school when we were barely into class six, while my brother is now on his way to becoming an engineer.”
Teaching her basic English and Math, with plans of including other subjects like Science, History and Geography, Gita hopes to give Kani a shot at achieving her dream. “Of course, without a regular curriculum, one cannot quite expect to put her through the regular courses although it is definitely achievable, I just hope to be able to give her a shot at going one step closer to being literate. If Kani is up to it, I’d love to train her to be tech-savvy, and teach her how to use the computer, and perhaps also get her to take up vocational training. Kani was married off when she was still a teen. She has dreams – I see my daughter in her. Why should her dreams matter lesser than my daughter because of being born in family that couldn’t afford her dream.”
Gita’s pursuit wasn’t a bed of roses. Some of her extended family was not happy with her decision to teach. “They thought I was being foolish to teach her English. One argument was that the girl might grow too smart for her shoes and turn truant and “steal things from my home.” Another argument was that she might leave my house and work in a more suitable place with her newer skills. I’m not threatened by anything. Education does not make thieves. And if education leads her to work where she can find both satisfaction and value, I am all for it!”
I spent some time at a friend’s high rise building in the name of research, to speak to women in the domestic help workforce. When I was milling around near the lift lobby downstairs, at about 7:00 AM, I noticed three women make their way towards the staircase. They climbed up with ease, limber, almost. I walked up behind them, recognizing from their chatter that they were domestic helps, all on the highest floors in the building. As we walked up, I noticed one break a sweat and lag behind, while the other two seemed unperturbed. One storey shy of eleven, one of the fitter two bid goodbye and went into a house to the right of the staircase. The other two carried on, this time, both panting and puffing. They noticed me, and asked where I wanted to go.
And that was when I told them why I was there.
They smiled at me, wistfully, almost. “You want to write about this? Might as well take your words and throw it in the water!” spat the fitter one of the two. Perhaps finding me sweating and climbing with my foot braces on won some solidarity with the other, because she chided her friend and told me to wait for them and meet them downstairs by 9:30 AM – lest they be caught talking and going late for work. I nodded and made myself scarce, sitting in the air-conditioned den at my friend’s place. I didn’t have a domestic help to engage with at my friend’s place – she and her husband believe in self-help, and clean up their home themselves come what may.
I went back downstairs to meet with them, and we had a hurried conversation around how they were not allowed to use the lift. The three of them were only a sample size – what they faced was the same as all that every other domestic help working in the flat faced. Coming in as early as 7:00 AM every day, each of them climb up the stairs to reach the houses they work at – the highest floor being the fourteenth, and the lowest requiring two flights of stairs, anyway. They all clean bathrooms, sweep and mop, dust the house, some wash clothes by hand, some iron clothes, some wash utensils by hand, some chop vegetables, and all hang the clothes out to dry. None are allowed to use any elevator.
“At first, they said one elevator was for us, called the service elevator or something. One day that stopped working and no one fixed it.”
What if they ventured to use the lift?
“You see the cameras there? The security guard is watching. He comes running and threatens us. None of us want trouble. We earn between Rs. 2000 and 4000 and that’s all our incomes are – we have to manage whole families and avoid losing the paltry amount to drunken husbands.”
But have they spoken to the people in the building? They laugh at my ignorant question.
“What, madam, as if we are such rookies. Of course we did. They immediately told us to back off because the lifts were only for them and all those who live here. We stopped fighting madam, it makes no difference. We fight, we will leave, then they will replace us. For each of us, there are ten waiting to find work and willingly will come.”
I want to scratch deeper, so I decide to ask the secretary in the building about this. I’m ushered in with some respect, and when I tell him I am here to write about it, I find his face paling for a second, and then his game face is on. I prepare myself, because there is going to be jargon thrown my way. And sure enough, that’s exactly what happens.
It is a move for the security of the residents. No, no there is no inequality. See ma’am, we are all high income group, if we let them come in the lift, no accountability is there, they can quietly enter anytime. When you have so many cameras, when all the households give the domestic help a copy of their household keys, exactly what water does that argument hold? No ma’am, you don’t get it. Crimes happen inside the lift. Moreover, these people also misuse the lift.
Misuse how? You know… eh eh… I’m sure, you know. No, I don’t. Well, all these affairs and smoking and all. Install a smoke alarm. You have cameras in the lift. No ma’am, you are talking as if it is so easy. We are interested in our safety, and if we don’t, then who will answer when a crime takes place? But sir, you seem to be painting them as criminals. You give them your house keys, they stay with you for a good part of every day, they clean your house, and yet you dehumanize them. That’s the way it is. You have to weigh two things against one another and the one that wins goes.
I’m disappointed, and I realize it isn’t the right time for me to engage to change the mindset since I’m an observer in this capacity.
I went back home to find the television on as some in the family watched a film set in pre-Independent India. “Dogs and Indians Not Allowed” said a board displayed in the scene on screen, glaring at me in angry white letters as it remained an essential accessory in the portrayal of the Indian Independence Struggle. The sign was pasted across different parts of Colonial India at a time when the British Raj kept an othering of the Indian community alive. Back in the day, the rising against the othering was seen as a consolidated effort for equality. Except, long after we became independent, behaviours such as the elevator-exclusion and discriminatory treatment of domestic help continues to keep the essence of the board’s message alive.
Image source: a screen grab from the movie Nil Battey Sannata