(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.