Give Your Maids, Milkmen, Istri Walas Time Off to Cast Their Vote


Give Your Maids, Milkmen, Istri Walas Time Off to Cast Their Vote

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

What’s in a vote? Not much for the average Mumbaikar. But Prema Satpathy has a lot at stake.

The 51-year-old domestic help, a resident of Mahul, labelled Mumbai’s toxic hell, wants to cast her vote on Monday. All those ads on TV, the social workers who have been knocking on her door, and the local neta’s crony who has slipped her a 500-rupee note have convinced her that her vote is important.

Satpathy, who migrated to Mumbai from a tiny village in Tamil Nadu 30 years ago, has seen elections come and go. And unlike the quintessential Mumbaikar, she hasn’t been indifferent to them. For middle-class and rich Mumbaikars, whose homes she cleans and whose dirty dishes she scours, election might be a five-yearly farce that fails to shake their educated antipathy. For them, election day is a holiday, possibly a “long weekend”. Voting then is for people like Satpathy, who are handed over a big note or some other freebie – people who represent the vote bank that forms the bulk of the 52 per cent of the Mumbai electorate that gets its finger inked. To give us the government we deserve.

But Satpathy, who has battled hostility from the “sons of the soil” – those who consider themselves OG Maharashtrians, eviction from the municipal authorities, and a lifelong struggle to make ends meet while working in an unorganised sector, does not see it that way. She, and millions of those like her who moved to Mumbai for a better living, fondly recall the fields they tilled but which couldn’t feed their bellies. She has never asked for much in the big city, except for a roof over her head, just enough to feed her children, and some hand-me-down clothes. Mumbai gave her these, but took much in return. There is no guarantee of employment, her transit camp home is too close to the refineries that spew unbridled pollution and public transport is not as efficient as it used to be. And yet, when the politicians come to her basti once every five years, she is tempted to believe their promises. Of more toilets in her colony. Of more buses to her place of work. Of bridges that won’t give way. Of free education for her girls.

Contrary to what those living in the buildings think, her vote would not be guided by caste and community considerations.

She cannot understand why those whose homes she sweeps every day are talking about nationalist fervour, notebandi, dharm-jaati bhedh-bhaav, and “plane ka scam” (Rafale jet controversy). Dimly, she knows these are stories that enrage those living in the sky-rises and will probably affect the way the new government will be chosen. But it’s still confusing business. The Shiv Sena and the BJP, the two leading parties in the state, cannot seem to come to terms with each other – much like her forever feuding brothers back in the village. They squabble when they want a bigger share of the spoils of a hunt, and hug when they have to unite to take on a common enemy. This time, they are in an uncomfortable hug of sorts, and she fears they will be back at each other’s throats once the election results are out. And the Hand that felt like a comfortable benediction all these decades, now looks like a bunch of fingers, none of which know which way to point.

Contrary to what those living in the buildings think, her vote would not be guided by caste and community considerations. Those were the very factors that drive Satpathy and millions of others like her away from the villages.

Satpathy is not a lone maid from Mumbai. She represents that significant part of the city that does not enjoy 24×7 water supply, for whom, promises of slum rehabilitation matter, who tread carefully on FoBs now fearing that they might collapse. These are the people who attend political rallies and listen to what their netas have to say. Their promises is what they hold on to. And what choice do they have?

Satpathy and her ilk are not ones to get hyped over who gets the Bharat Ratna or care much about our economic slowdown. They want their candidates to talk about issues that would make life in the city a little better.

Satpathy didn’t mind her shanty being bulldozed overnight to make way for a new flyover that would connect the highway to the suburbs, one that would make city commute easier for those in cars. But she does mind the persistent cough she and her family have been battling after they were moved to the fringes of the city where cramped quarters and effluents have created a fertile ground for diseases like tuberculosis. Not that her little kholi on the fringes of the Kalina University was any better, but her employers were a short walk away, water was scarce but regular and she had built a community of friends. When the upgrading city decided to widen the Santacruz flyover, her basti was the first eyesore to be erased. Her family of five was bundled into a SRA project room at Mahul, where she has no known neighbours, is still struggling to understand the native Koli folk, and is reluctant to let her girls go out and play because of the “gandi hawa”.

She doesn’t mind that she now has to travel two hours to reach her places of work, but she does mind that bus frequency has dropped alarmingly. She is afraid that Mumbai, which was once such a safe city, is no longer safe for her-school going daughters. No party is talking about the things that matter to the voters – they are busy flinging tar at each other, she tells me.

I’ve been interacting with people like Satpathy – rickshaw and Uber drivers, watchmen, postmen, my milkman and istri wala – those who are not cocooned in privilege about the general election. They seemed to be more informed and definitely more concerned about the state of affairs than the supposedly woke media circles that I occupy. They know who their candidates are, the promises they made last election, and what they delivered.

They know that Mumbaikars always get a bad rap for not showing up at the poll booth but the last few years have seen an upswing. 55.1 per cent turned up to vote in the general elections, Satpathy tells me, and 55 per cent in the 2017 municipal polls. About this election she is unsure. Many families that she works for have taken off for the weekend. “Aap logon ko farak nahi padta na!” she says, “Ghar, pani, gaadi sab theek chalta rahega. Hum vote nahi denge to ghar phir se ja sakta hai…” she trails off.

With her ration card and voter ID under her belt, Satpathy is all ready for election day. Cast her vote she will in her Mumbai South Central constituency, even if it is for the vaguely assertive NOTA symbol she’s recently heard about. As the campaigns make last ditch efforts to reach out to the residents of Mahul, she remains cautious. But what bothers her more is: Will her employers give her time off duty to go and vote? Will she get a bus to reach her polling station? And after all this, will her vote count? Satpathy has been trying to answer that question for the last 30 years.