“My hometown is Mysore. I was born and raised in Mysore. I have struggled a lot as a young girl. My father sent me to school, but education wasn’t something that came easily to me. I attended school till 5th standard. As I wasn’t good at studies my father stopped me from going to school. After leaving school, I started doing household chores, tying flower strands and other things. As a small girl, I learned many household works. As I grew up, as I started to acquire some knowledge I started to make money by tying flower strands and selling.”
“My mom left us when we were still young. She had a quarrel and disagreement with my father and left us all and went to her father’s house. Later, my father raised us all even with some difficulties. My mother came back after a while, but my father didn’t let her in. My father married another woman, she didn’t look after us very well, and she didn’t give us enough food. Later my younger brother started working at a hotel; he would bring us food for the nights.
As we grew up and started to learn things, I joined as a housemaid to a family in Bangalore. The family for whom I worked wanted a housekeeper for their younger brother’s house in Bombay. They took me to Bombay and I worked there for 10 years. Even there, I looked after a baby for 3 years and the household works for the rest of the years. I never came back to Mysore. After 10 years, the family shifted to Singapore, they offered me to continue the same job with more pay. I didn’t go as my family was here in India and it would be difficult for me to come back from Singapore. I came back to my hometown, Mysore.”
I’m not altogether sure what happened at school. One of the stories she tell me is she would ask the teacher if she could leave the classroom to go for a number one (pee). Then legging it, with her brother left in the classroom having to carry her bags home. What a naughty girl! I don’t think she was there very often. There was a big bust up with her father and it led to her being taken out of school. This was the very school featured in our tortuous journey to get her transfer certificate (TC), to get a PAN (tax) card to get a passport as the TC was the only evidence she had of her birthdate. check here
There are so many things to unpick here: starting work from a very early age, her mother abandoning her and then returning ( a pattern she repeats to this day), relations with her various ‘step-parents’ (their favouritism and neglect) and the fluid marital relationships in some communities in India, the multiple jobs to earn a crust, life as a maid travelling across India to work with an unknown family in a completely alien city or even travelling internationally into what can be quite stark and challenging circumstances (more of that one later). Which seems to be a pretty standard thing for ‘children’ from poor families..
One of the obvious observations is that its a pretty hard life if you’re poor in India (and no doubt elsewhere). Here in India, have been incredibly stoic, dealing well with life’s paradoxes, whilst necessarily being resilient, adaptable and creative. It’s one of the first things we notice as first time visitors and as we get to know the country and it’s people better, we notice how wonderful they are and how mean some can be.
So, its probably 2010, Manjula the maid is now working for me at Moksha Marga. She’s an experenced Maid working for Indian families but what is her view of foreigners?
this quote is taken from a series of recordings made by Manjula in her own language and details an incident from before she met me and started working here….
” I lived at my brother’s place. Once my brother’s wife and I were out to purchase something from a shop, it’s a small village, it comes after Hassan, it’s called Salgami. On our way back home we saw two foreigners, a couple, they were cycling. My brother’s wife said in astonishment, “Look how these English people are cycling in our village. I think they like to see villages.” She continued, “If you work at an English person’s house you will earn well enough, they’ll offer you good food, nice and rich food. Imagine, if I was not married, I would have worked at an English person’s house. I would have eaten the same food as they did, I would be happy and jolly. “ I said, “Ayyayappa! English person’s house? A big NO to their house. They eat insects, they eat all kinds of meat, they eat cow’s meat, pig’s meat and what not! And a few also eat insects.” I said this as I had watched in television; in a few shows which showed them eating many creatures “
She said, “It’s not necessary that everyone eats. The ones who eat will eat and there are the ones who don’t eat at all. “ Later we reached home.
After 6 months, I came to Mysore. Look what happened with me? The same thing what my brother’s wife had said, I got a job at an Englishman’s house. I remember Stephen had asked for a maid for this house, a girl or an old lady. I was lucky to find his house and he was lucky to find me. I was wondered thinking about all kinds of meat I might have to cook. Later I heard it from Vasanth that Stephen was looking for only vegetarian food to be cooked. “Thank God!” I was relieved. I eat chicken, mutton and fish. I can cook them all but if it was any other meat I wouldn’t have touched it. I would have reluctantly said “NO” to cook any other meat.
Vasanth with his trusty auto rickshaw (not its not a tuk tuk!) provides a great ‘Fare’s Fare’ service to our guests. I met him hustling for a fare when I arrived in Mysore on my very first trip after a few days in Bangalore. He’s become a great friend and an invaluable source of help and support.
we’ve had requests to provide a bit more of an explanation.
So this was over seven years ago, maybe a few months after she’d started at ‘Moksha Manor’. good old enlightenment street! She came every day for two hours, had to make lunch and a range of other jobs for the princely sum of 1000 Rupees per month. In theory with one days holiday each week.
Starting from the top left and working clockwise in a sort of spiral. Some jobs were daily, weekly or monthly…
floor sweeping, sink cleaning, pooja, dusting pictures, cooking, cleaning work surfaces, tables, f (special one this, looking after her skin. she was having a reaction to something, it worked out to be the sun, after a few false trails), watering flowers, cleaning toilets (yes cleaning toilets, more on that one later), being friendly to the dog, teaching me Kannada (big failure there, on my part, obviously) feeding the dog when I’m not there and bathing her, washing clothes, daily time keeping, cleaning the grills (anti crime and Monkeys) at the windows, floor cleaning, dusting and washing shelving in ‘hall’, cleaning bathroom. Clearly this was also supposed to be fun! and there were a few other more complicated concepts such as trust 😉 believe it or not and it did take the involvement of a few friends but we even managed to discuss egalitarianism (using different words, obviously) so what had she let herself in for?
so, to explain the job. Ok we don’t speak the same language, she’s probably a little worried and intimidated, coming to work for an unknown quantity: foreigner, male, living on his own, can be a bit loud and over-energetic… so of course, I used my well developed training skills. …… and got out the whiteboard, flapped my arms and generally danced around a bit. I seriously wonder what she thought. On many occasions she shown people the photo of my drawings. Promptly followed by sniggers and giggles.
So I wonder what she really thought of working for a Firangi!
I arrived at my friend Cariappa’s house to meet the prospective maid.
I have no photos of the meeting. I think the whole thing, for everyone involved was all too intense! We were checking each other out. How weird. Would we get on? How would we know? It’s quite an intimate thing. Inviting someone into your home to cook, clean, and look after things. This was a whole now experience for me. Manjula of course had been here before she had worked as a maid for over ten years for one family, amongst many other things. Me, I was the beginner, the intrepid explorer stepping out into the unknown.
I’d only supposed to come out to a India for a few months’ pilot. Now I was renting a house, furnishing it, employing a maid. What had happened there… A whole new adventure, in a crazy land and with so many twists and turns…. Whatever next!?
…. if only I’d known!
What would she be like? What did I want and how would I communicate it?
What would she think? (I found out later!) Working for a foreigner would be so different, maybe! It’s worth me remembering I’m from a poor background that’s shifted into the middle class and now living abroad in India. ‘The old poor made good’ which as it turned out, is exactly the path that many in India are taking.
Manjula was quiet, shy, reserved. She’d brought a friend with her for moral support. Good idea! We spoke a few words with Cary and his wife Ganga helping out. I just wanted someone to cook a meal and clean. We then walked round the corner to my house. Things seemed to be going well. They looked around the place, it seemed so big to me. There’s so much to clean but only me, honest! Just the upstairs house with three bedrooms (known locally as a 3BHK) the downstairs house came later. It was sparsely furnished with little on the walls, it’s hard to imagine what it was like ( so, so different now) but then oh no……..we hit a problem….. it was all off ……we’d found the deal breaker..
It’s almost eight years ago that I moved to India and mentioned to my grown-up sons that I was looking for a maid. They were horrified.
We’re from the UK, are quite liberal and left wing. I’m actually from a relatively poor working class background. The idea of having a servant was also way beyond the usual more acceptable (in the UK anyway) middle class practice of a cleaner.
It introduces a class dimension. It’s seen as a bit 19th century, old-fashioned, elitist and servants are employed by people who are not like us! Who see themselves a cut above the rest, or the hoi polloi , a case of upstairs/downstairs. In our world view, its all completely unacceptable.
I explained as best I could. It was important to provide employment particularly as there was no real welfare safety net in India. I was fitting in with the way things are, and my approach would be different (yep, it would be!) I would be a sensitive and caring employer.
So I asked my friends Ganga and Cariappa if they could recommend someone. The maid network came up with someone pretty quickly.
I was called round to meet someone.
So what’s the bigger picture? once again Tripti Lahiri helps out:
“Britain saw the number of servants drop from 250,000 in 1951 to 32,000 two decades later.”
India followed a similar trajectory until that is, the 1970’s when there began a dramatic increase in the numbers of servants (we’ll come back to terminology later) employed and this is a situation reflected globally.
“According to international labour groups, as of 2010. there were more than 50 million such workers globally, an increase of nearly 20 million from 1995, most of this made up of women. There are now over 40 million female domestic workers globally.”
So OK that’s enough with all the big numbers, what does this mean in practice for the women involved? who are they? where are they from and what lives do they lead?
Quotes taken from ‘Maid in India’ by Tripti Lahiri :
“We eat first, they later, often out of food portioned out for them; we live in the front, they in the back; we sit on chairs and they on the floor; we drink from glasses and ceramic plates and they from ones made of steel set aside for them; we call them by their names, and they address us by titles: sir/ma’am, sahib/memsahib”
Think that’s in the past?
Well, think again.
“In today’s India its not unusual to see, often in largely empty restaurants, a couple seated with their child at a table for four, while the help is despatched to sit not one but two tables away….. or a nanny dandling a child on her lap at a nightclub while her employers and their friends drink cocktails as it creeps towards midnight, her hours of sleep dwindling since she is no doubt expected to be up and ready for another day at sunrise…. or for example children playing in a neighbourhood park, seeing a plump, light-skinned boy on a swing crook his finger at the petite darker woman standing nearby and utter a single word: Push”
Womens’ life experience is an incredible indicator of how a particular society works, from top to bottom.
In India the situation of women and particualrly those who are most socially and economically excluded, in this case, the ones that serve others, shines a spotlight on the social mores, the rules by which we operate, the structures and belief systems that helps maintain the status quo.
It also shows something else.
That is, how these women in often extraordinarily challenging circumstances not only manage but can thrive, can flourish and through that, show their astonishing abilities. In a sense, the influence they subtly exert and how they deal with the changes facing them can also demonstrate to us, on a macro level, how to deal with some of the challenges and opportunities facing contemporary India.