(Usha Alexander's periodic musings on her life in India. She moved there in mid-2013. Read Dispatches from India 1: First Impressions.)
‘All you get here are these Bangla maids. They’re so lazy! To get them to work you have to shout at them and shout at them,’ lamented a neighbor. I had casually asked her, two days after our arrival in Gurgaon, if she knew anyone looking for work as a cook or house cleaner. Her voice tensed as she spoke, and her forehead crumpled with the pain of a woman in search of commiseration.
Days later, another neighbor introduced us to her cleaning woman, newly arrived from West Bengal. ‘Does she speak Hindi?’ I asked. ‘No, she doesn’t speak Hindi or English or any language!’ the neighbor blurted with vague, exasperated disgust, while the short Bangla woman stood smiling shyly behind her; she was aware we were speaking of her but not of what we said.
I had heard such comments before in other middle-class Indian living rooms, when the workers whom we invite daily into our homes were cast by their employers as a mysterious band of them, their collective virtues and vices debated or condemned: they steal; they are lazy and don’t work; they are careless and clumsy, prone to breaking things; they’ve become ‘too smart’ and know how to play you. When our maid returned to work after being out just 3 or 4 days due to a slipped disk in her back, my neighbor remarked that ‘they recover quickly’ from illness and injury.
It’s true that nearly all the domestic laborers looking for work in our colony are economic migrants from West Bengal. For years there has been a human pipeline from the villages of that region, over 700 miles away, to our corner of Gurgaon. Most of these migrants travel as partial families, leaving one or more children with grandparents in their village. They often arrive speaking only Bangla, entirely unfamiliar with the challenges and benefits of urban life, local food, and local climate, no less than if they had traveled to another country. To be successful here, they must quickly learn enough Hindi, network with the local Bangla community, and take up whatever domestic work, factory work, rickshaw-pulling, or other labor they can find, continually looking for new or more rewarding opportunities. The hope is to return home with a good nest-egg which can increase their village standard of living, provide good dowries for their daughters, or otherwise ease their long-term livelihoods. If they bring school-age children to Gurgaon, it's often with the intention of enrolling them in school; if they have a 10th-pass son, he may also come to look for work.
But their city ventures are precarious and risky. They have no health insurance, and a single accident or illness can wipe out any savings they might have accrued. The cost of living is high. They live in overcrowded buildings, usually more basic than the village homes they’ve left. A family typically rents a single-room unit with shared bathrooms for a block of units. Often wages are too low or misfortunes too numerous, and a family is able to save nothing during their time here.
When we stayed in Gurgaon before, we employed Shoreefa and Asha, two Bangla women who spoke badly broken Hindi that never improved during the two years we knew them. Since most of my Hindi practice came from speaking to them, my own Hindi stalled and broke under their unwitting tutelage. So before returning to India this year, I had decided to only employ people who can speak clear Hindi, though these might be a minority of available candidates.
But despite never speaking clear Hindi, Shoreefa, our housecleaner, was not only reliable as an employee, but also one of the most vivacious and open-hearted people I have ever been glad to know. Patiently, Shoreefa and I had found ways to communicate well enough, eventually not only about housework, but about her pride in her two boys, her dramatic but stable marriage, her own orphan childhood, her faith in kindness and god. With time, as she got to feel at ease with me, the big foreign lady, she entered our home like the wind, uninhibited, stirring the calm, criticizing my short haircut, insisting that I not wear shorts even at home. We certainly had our small battles and irritations; there were times I wished she would shut up and go home. But I went on being myself, and she went on being herself, and no ill ever came of our spats.
I knew that even her challenges to me came from her heart; she picked on me like an adoring auntie trying to steer me straight, though she was nearly ten years my junior. She was effusive and brightly lit, but never loud, and shared with me the stories of her life; although, owing to the language barrier, I took away only the shapes and textures of events, without specific detail. I eventually figured out that she could not read in any language, could not even make out the shapes of numbers; she never admitted this, but became fidgety and contrary if she was put in a position to do so. She clutched my hand when she was overwhelmed, as when we took her to a clinic where she felt terribly out of her world, surrounded only by middle-class families and doctors.
Once, while washing dishes, Shoreefa turned and whispered to me, in the most oddly confessional way, that she was hungry. I suggested we have a cup of tea with biscuits, and she agreed. We sat down with our snack for our broken-language chat, I in a low chair and she beside me on the floor, though I never encouraged this hierarchy. As we were laughing and eating, her good friend Asha, who worked as our cook, walked in from the street. Shoreefa froze with her cup and her cookie in hand. Asha stopped in the doorway, eyeing Shoreefa coolly, and I sensed that at least a drop of Asha’s censure fell also upon me. I was bewildered, wondering what had offended Asha, as my cheerful tete-a-tete with Shoreefa instantly dissolved. It was only hours later that I remembered these were the days of Ramadan, and Shoreefa was expected to be fasting all day: Asha had caught her cheating. No matter; the transgression seemed forgotten by both the next day.
This was a kind of tragedy I could scarcely imagine, and I did not know what to do but to sit with Shoreefa for as long as she needed to sit, for several mornings. Apart from her grief over the deaths, the longer crisis was how the extended family would absorb the cost of raising the two orphans. Shoreefa herself had been orphaned as a young girl, an only child raised by her grandmother, in destitution. In the lives of the poor, such devastations seem to occur with a grinding regularity. And it was amazing to me how she went on, how she appeared to return to herself within a few weeks. Having always survived against the pounding tragedies that buffet the lives of those in the margins, Shoreefa seemed to have developed an astounding resilience.
I realize that what I know of Shoreefa is only a surface, maybe deeper than the outermost skin, but not penetrating. The gulf between our experiences and expectations of the world is too vast to have been bridged across our language barrier and the unavoidable power imbalances that shaped our friendship. But I have not ceased to remember her fondly.
Some of my friends in the States seem to find it vaguely problematic that we’ve hired domestic help here in India. But even when we lived in the States, we contracted workers to clean our home, not an uncommon practice among our friends. Of course, it’s a different business in the U.S. than it is in India. For one thing, in the States, domestic work is simply looked upon as work, not the most desirable, but neither necessarily degrading nor exploitative. We hired an agency; their workers were bonded and insured. We gave them a key to our house, and most of the time they came when we were away at work, so we never got to know them. In our case, they came only once a month, and they were not the same women every time. Our communications—even any feedback we gave on their work—went through the women who staffed their agency office, and not the women who came into our home. This arrangement was easy, neatly transactional.
In India, there’s no such thing as easy and neat; everything is messy. Each employer negotiates directly and individually with each domestic employee, leaving the unorganized workers vulnerable to exploitation. And employers inevitably find themselves privy to—even affected by—some of the drama of their domestic workers’ lives, even if the workers do not ask for our help. Of course, sometimes they do ask for help—with a medical issue, purchasing emergency train tickets to go home, or getting their child enrolled in a local school where he's not welcome for any of several possible reasons, usually to do with religion, caste, or language.
Domestic workers normally come every day, often when families are still in their nightclothes. Or perhaps they simply do not come, and the next day you learn that they were home sick or caring for a sick baby. Sometimes, they bring that baby to your house, because they have no one to look after her while they work, and you may find that the baby is bright and adorable and demanding of your attention. You begin to wish for that baby to go to school; you wish for her to have the same choices you would hope for your own child. I know of several Indian women who’ve taken it upon themselves to individually tutor the children of their domestic workers, or teach them English—an economically useful skill. Both the burden and the opportunity of hiring domestic help are a vast sight different here than in the US.
My own aunt had employed two illiterate women, whom she found living with their children in a home for destitute women in the 1970s. My aunt put all three of their children through school and then through nursing college, and finally employed them as nurses at the charity children’s hospital she had founded. Because of this, these women were able to move from destitution into the lower middle-class within a single generation. But this is far from a typical story.
I’ve also seen that many (if not most) middle-class Indians I’ve met feel greater or lesser degrees of contempt for their domestic employees. I’ve heard stories from Shoreefa and others of verbal abuses heaped upon them by their employers, of having their low wages further docked for breaking a dish, of facing accusations of theft, and of other more subtle humiliations meted against their low status. I’ve seen the trembling fear in their mannerisms, when they notice a chip in a cup they have just lifted, knowing they did not break it, or when a household item seems to be missing, knowing they did not steal it.
Middle-class prejudice against the poor ultimately stems from the deeply hierarchical fundament of Indian culture and its caste system, which grants no dignity to manual work and deems those who perform such work to be spiritually low, deserving of their lot by the laws of karma, and to be avoided, lest their lowness contaminate you. Muslims also face employment discrimination from Hindu households, and Muslim workers sometimes assume a different name and dress to disguise their religion. Without reflection, middle-class Indians regard laborers almost as a separate species, and treat them with a disrespect they would find unacceptable in their own work environments.
But of course, every story will go a different way. Our cook, Asha, also returned to her village, but I think she didn’t fare so well as her friend. Now we have a new cook, Farida, whom we’re still just getting to know after five months here; she’s still nervous around me, but less so than she was two months ago. Our maid, Mehroon, has already come and gone several times for various reasons, including her baby's poor health, as well as what I think might be depression associated with her move to Gurgaon. Each time she’s gone, she’s lined up a different stand-in during her absence. I may present something of their stories in a future post.