By Selina Sheth May. 13, 2016
In India, the help is a set of arms and legs with a heartbeat. "People like them" are different from "people like us" and the chasm is deep. Until they make the crossover.
When I was ten, and my sister Alissa five, we played after school in the park opposite home with a gang of kids from our South Delhi neighbourhood. My regular playmate was a girl named Anu. She was smart, funny, a topper at the local Hindi-medium elementary school. She was fastidious about her appearance – while we all sweated through tag ball games, Anu’s hair was almost never out of place even though she could outrun most of us. She lived a few minutes away in a small room in an alley with her parents and younger brother. Anu’s father was the driver for the family that lived down the street. He was a polite man with a warm smile, always dressed in a crisp uniform, very particular about Anu’s education, and the extra time she gave to learning English.
One day, the nosy, bored housewife that lived next door asked my cheerful, bohemian,multi-tasking mum why she let her kids play with “the kids of servants”, with “people like them”. My mum was stunned into silence.
A note on my mum here. As a European raised in post-war Germany by a single, working mother, she didn’t understand the idea of a “servant”. When she married an Indian and came to live in Delhi, she discovered the concept of house help and was immensely grateful to them. They came to cook and clean, but she would never allow us kids to ask them for as much as a glass of water. We had to make our beds and tidy our rooms before leaving for school, and on Sundays, when the help had their weekly day off, we had to chip in with the chores.
So when the Anu incident took place, my incensed mother’s eventual response was to encourage us to play with Anu even more. Anyway, time went by. Eventually, Anu’s dad changed jobs and the family moved to another city. For me, life went on with school and sports and daily doses of self-absorbed teen drama until thirty years later, I connected with Anu again on Facebook.
The girl with neatly oiled and plaited hair today has a short, trendy bob. Anu finished her studies, won a scholarship for an MBA, and is working at Wipro Infotech. For the world and its nosy neighbours next door, Anu no longer represents “people like them”.
She’s become “people like us”.
It’s a muggy April afternoon and I’m at the nearby Café Coffee Day meeting Shyama. She works as a maid-cum-nanny for a family in Gurgaon that also employs a cook, a driver, and another part-time help. Shyama is a soft-spoken woman in her twenties, sporting skinny jeans and bright red nail enamel. She smiles a lot and jokes about my cheap, beaded Goan flea market slingbag. I offer to get her one but Shyama shyly and proudly pushes forward her purse – a flashy pink Prada copy, bought from Sarojini market, which she says suits her better.
Shyama’s cell phone, I notice, has been buzzing incessantly. “That’s Madam,” she says, sounding harassed. Her smiles stop; she starts to look anxious and irritated.
Shyama finished high school about three years ago. Circumstances led her from Nainital to Delhi to find work as a domestic help. She’s been working with the Gurgaon family since, but all she barely manages is an odd day of leave. Her “Madam” doesn’t lift a finger. Shyama’s days are endless and she is often woken up in the middle of the night for chores. She is not permitted to use her cell phone to make personal calls. No men, no dating, no evenings out.
Today, Shyama has managed to keep her appointment with me by lying to her employer and saying that a relative has had an accident. She tells me she has a boyfriend of sorts, a clerk with a photocopy company. They rarely meet and today, they have a chance to spend some time together.The plan is to watch Fan, starring Shyama’s favourite Shah Rukh Khan, and maybe visit a nice restaurant for dinner. Her boyfriend will have a beer, and Shyama might have a sip or two. Anyway, Shyama won’t be able to make it now, as Madam wants her back in Gurgaon within the next hour to babysit.
As Shyama quickly gets up to go, she tells me that she can live with all this but what offends this educated, intelligent young woman is the word “servant”. It didn’t bother Shyama’s parents when they worked as domestic help, but it upsets Shyama. She is nobody’s servant, she says, determination in her soft voice.
Shyama is different from the domestic help of yesteryears. She’s not like the 64-year-old Chagan, for example. Chagan was 18 when he arrived from a village in Gujarat to live with a wealthy, conservative trading family in Mumbai. He learnt to cook Jain food and rose to masterchef status in the kitchen. Over the years, he became part of the family and earned their trust along with a bank account, medical insurance, and education for his children. Chagan remained devoted to the family he was serving and in return for his lifetime loyalty, was able to build a house in his village for his retirement years. Chagan never dreamed of another job and willingly gave himself over to his “family”, a near epitome of a sappy Sooraj Barjatya film character who places duty and service to his employer, above all else.
Shyama, on the other hand, is a young, aspiring woman who wants to live life on her own terms and have a job that pays the bills. Just like any of us.
The private world of the minion is something we don’t want to know about, we don’t want to interact with. It involves far too much effort and unease.
In urban, suburban, shifting, migrant, skilled and unskilled, educated and illiterate, chaotic and fatalistic India, domestic help has moved upward in terms of disposable income and even education levels. But the real shift – the shift in thinking – has yet to occur. In India, anyone hired to sweep the floor, feed the baby, and clean the bathroom is a sturdy pair of arms and legs who possibly may not even be allowed to use the household utensils for their personal use. They are still looked at as “servants” – not people with personalities and private lives who have a right to demand time off from their jobs, a right to a social life and sex, a right to a better lifestyle, a right to say NO, and maybe even – God forbid – a right to a movie and a beer on a weekend.
The murder of domestic help Hemraj Banjade, alongside Aarushi Talwar, revealed the shadowy web of notions the public still has of the lives and character of the hired help. Hemraj’s death made newspaper headlines for years but his real self remains a mystery, like the inner lives of most of the 4.5 million national domestic workforce. The private world of the minion is something we don’t want to know about, we don’t want to interact with. It involves far too much effort and unease. The distance that we want to maintain is not just physical – like in the case of Anu – it’s also mental. Hemraj and Shyama will always be “people like them”, with lives that are always somewhat hazy. That is, ironically, until they “cross over” and no longer serve as domestic or manual labour.
I met Nosy Bored Housewife again last week. She’s still around. She tells me that her adult son, who moved out ages ago, hasn’t been able to hold a job in advertising, or in anything else. I nod sympathetically and then I casually mention that Anu – remember little Anu, the driver’s daughter from down the road? – is about to get a major promotion once she leaves Wipro for General Electric.
Nosy Bored Housewife’s eyebrows shoot up and I can’t help but smile.
Selina Sheth has worked as a broadcast journalist, a network commissioning executive, a screenwriter and a content editor. She is an obsessive reader and a dedicated student of Hatha and Ashtanga yoga.