Maids vs Madams: The Invisible Class War Unfolding in All Our Homes

Social Commentary

Maids vs Madams: The Invisible Class War Unfolding in All Our Homes

Illustration: Akshita Monga

Earlier this week, a domestic worker jumped to her death from the 18th floor of my building. The reason? She was accused of stealing a silver coin by her employers. The young woman was 19.

My building, Oberoi Splendor, one of the many plush complexes in Mumbai with pools, gyms, and jogging paths, that now dot the city, is not a housing complex as much as a badge of social merit. Hierarchy is dictated by which floor you live on and which side of the road your house faces. The higher the floor, the higher your status. If your house faces the chaos that is JVLR, you’ve just about made the cut; if it faces the garden, you are languishing in the middle of this hierarchy; and if it faces the vast, green expanse of Aarey Colony, congrats because you’re right at the top of the heap.

Places like these look like they’re filled with the rich and the educated cream of Mumbai’s white-collar professionals and yet this is the place where your neighbour will welcome you by politely asking your husband about his work, and pointedly hand you, the wife, a laundry list of contacts of the sabziwallah, the bread-and-eggs delivery boy, and the pharmacy. Your helpful neighbour will then add you to the “essential for survival” all-women’s WhatsApp group that runs the domestic operations of the society. Your initiation is complete.

The group is called Queen Beez; the incessant buzzing of these super chatty Beez would begin every day even before my alarm went off. It was enough to push me to mute the group – but it made me a silent spectator of this complex hive. The debates almost always revolve around the floating population of “working-class” men and women who service the building – domestic help who demand too many chuttis, Karim, the breadwallah, who is accused of peddling rotten eggs (he doesn’t), the “forever kaput” Tata Sky, and the repairmen who can’t get it right. Are the bais overcharging? Should they be given more than two days off in a month? What’s the rate per chore? “Mrs Sharma from the F Wing stole my maid,” or “My maid is asking for more money because Ms Roy’s maid told her so.”

The thing about the Queen Beez is that we absolutely cannot do without the Worker Bees. We need them to tidy up our houses as we go for Zumba classes, tend to our children, cook meals, sweat it out in our kitchens before they return to their 10×10 kholis. We do all this pretending not to look everyday injustices like separate elevators, separate vessels, and rules that forbid them from even using the toilets in our houses, the same toilets they are paid to keep squeaky clean, in the eye.

Soon the Beez realised that the strike wasn’t a rumour. That their maids were indeed protesting, speaking to the media about unfair wages, long working hours and past incidents.

Like all the other Queen Beez, I play along with this in-your-face classism, and the chatter over whether the bais’ salary should be increased by ₹100 or ₹200 a year, when we probably shell out more to get our toes painted. My only protest was to increase my maid’s salary and mute the group. Over the last year, I’ve learnt to ignore it.

This week it became impossible to ignore the drone of the Beez. RIP messages started pouring in as the Whatsapp Wives expressed horror over the girl “falling from the balcony”. “Let’s pray for the girl,” said some; others jumped in with, “Be careful with your kids.” Some ranted against the society management, but there was one who still wanted to know, “Is the Tata Sky working?”

And then, everything changed. Rumours that a handful of maids would be striking work, began to float. Within 24 hours, all RIPs were forgotten and murmurs of discontent began.

H: They called my maid to join the morcha…

K: They who?

S: They who are taking out the morcha. *ROFL emoji*

L: Must be the girl who died, her well-wishers 😛

Soon the Beez realised that the strike wasn’t a rumour. That their maids were indeed protesting, speaking to the media about unfair wages, long working hours and past incidents. Fissures that had always existed were being exposed and skeletons were tumbling out of the closet. A workers’ union reportedly got involved, and those maids who weren’t joining the protest were stopped from entering the building. There was utter commotion outside the building – but inside, the chaos was barely controlled. The final nail was when a meditation session to spread “positive energy” in the complex was ruined by a bunch of protesting bais. The WhatsApp Wives had had it.

Ms Panic-struck: How can they do this to us? God this is too much yaar

Mrs Hulk: How can they hold us to ransom? Their houses run on the money that we give them!

Mrs Extreme: Who are the leaders instigating the maids? We should ban them from working here.

Ms Sensitive: At least they had the courtesy to call and inform. But I hope they come to work yaa.   

Mrs Extreme: But they should be taught a lesson. Fire them.

Mrs Filmy: Jiss thali mein khaya usi mein ched kiya! Dada mat bano.

Ms Bad Timing: Anyone has a khaali shoe dabba. Need it for my son’s project. Uff these maids.  

Mrs Tit for Tat: I went down, the protesters threatened my old maid, I told them I’ll break their legs.

A full-blown class war was on the verge of breaking out. The Queen Beez vs The Worker Bees, but even at the peak of the war, some desperate Queen Beez called their bais and maushis, asked them to stand away from the protesters, got into their cars, and smuggled them inside the building. Class wars are all good and fine but there were bathrooms to clean.

My maushi called me up saying that protesters were not allowing her to enter and she was going back. “I am not protesting, but the girl who jumped should receive justice. You madams should understand, we keep your houses together,” she said calmly and hung up before I could respond.

Last year, Tripti Lahiri wrote a book titled Maid in India: Stories of Inequality and Opportunity Inside Our Home. “Borders between countries are marked by fences, but borders between classes are marked out by where you may sit, where you may go to the bathroom, and where and with whom you may eat,” she wrote.

These borders are clearly chalked out even in our plush Mumbai colony – by the walls surrounding our gated colonies, the security checks that the maids are subjected to every day while entering and exiting the building. They serve as daily reminders of the gap between us and them, a gap not governed by any law to regulate domestic work when laws are so desperately needed.

In July last year, in Noida’s Sector 78, a protest against an employer for beating up a maid erupted – and the maid’s neighbours barged into the complex armed with iron rods and rocks. It ended with the plush Mahagun Moderne society banning “Bangladeshi maids”, rendering a handful of domestic workers jobless.

As I write this, the Queen Beez are buzzing. The protest has ended, the bais will be back. The initial joy on my group is tempered by the threat that they may resume protest on Sunday.

Mrs Panic-struck: Apparently the maids are going on strike again tomorrow.

Mrs Tired Of This Shit: Oh God, now this is becoming a big headache.

As the power battles in the Madams vs the Maids drama drag on, the girl who lost her life has been forgotten. Did she even steal the silver coin? Did any number of coins weigh up to the brutal death? Her employer has been arrested for abetment to suicide but may soon be out on bail. Because in this war between Queen Beez and Worker Bees, the Queen Beez will always have the last laugh.