She makes your home, let it be hers too (Comment, For International Women’s Day)

March 7th, 2009 - 10:31 am ICT by IANS  

By Paloma Ganguly
They were lying on the floor, face up, one knee flung over the other, singing their hearts out. It was a Bengali song, which roughly translated went: “Deep in the woods, the moon is out; mother, where is that dark sister of mine who sings me a song and a rhyme?” The louder, soulful voice was that of Kavita, my 17-year-old maid, and trying to match her every note and word was my two-and-a-half-year-old daughter Teesta.

They could have been in a forest, actually gazing at a star-lit sky, and it would have been no different. These two - one a child and another on the threshold of being a woman - were lost in a world of their own.

It’s been nearly two years since Kavita came into my household. Just like thousands of other teenaged girls from India’s poorest villages who pour into the cities every year, becoming bread earners for their families. And for women like me, who want the joys of work, home and ‘a life’ in one neat package, becoming second skin.

On International Women’s Day, the irony of their presence is not lost on me.

“They can always tell I am a maid, can’t they?” Kavita asked me once after coming back from a friend’s birthday bash. She had not been asked to sit, and was one of the last to be served.

It happened again. We had trooped into an upmarket restaurant in south Delhi for a family lunch - my husband, I, Kavita and Teesta - when we were stopped in our tracks. “Your maid cannot enter, she has to wait outside,” said a pretty attendant.

“Excuse me, she is with us and we will pay for her meal, won’t we?” my husband asked. After conferring with the management, the attendant got back and said: “Ok sir, she can enter, but she cannot eat!”

“Rights of admission reserved” - I’ve seen that line hundreds of times at restaurants, but it suddenly acquired a new meaning that day. We were too shocked to react, and have boycotted that restaurant chain ever since. But fact is that for too many people in Indian cities, women like Kavita are lesser creatures.

Here was a hardworking, chirpy, spunky young girl, a citizen of India, who had done no one anyone harm. But that didn’t matter, did it?

Over a year ago, another such lesser creature, 18, tricked by her parents into giving up all her money hanged herself from the ceiling fan in a house in Vasant Kunj neighbourhood. Another, 13, appeared bruised and battered in newspaper photos just a few months ago, hit by her IT executive-employers in posh Gurgaon.

They give 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 30 days a month - give or take a few holidays - of their precious years. The younger they are, the lesser they are paid - usually Rs.1,000 to Rs.3000 in Delhi, in labour cheap Kolkata as little as Rs.300 per month.

Not all of them enter dark holes. Many also experience a new way of life and even a sense of independence and confidence, spending money, wearing city clothes, watching television - collecting simple pleasures with open arms.

But for the majority, it’s a story of exploitation - their families back home eat up their salaries or they save for their own dowries while being at the beck and call of employers 24X7. Can you and I imagine life without a few private moments?

Most don’t get a bed to sleep on. They use separate plates and glasses that their employers would not eat out of - for hygiene is the most common excuse though it is actually a carry over of feudal social practices - and certainly don’t sit at dining tables.

In my house, Kavita shares everything. But I am still gnawed by a sense of guilt that at her age she should be studying, or acquiring a skill that will help her be financially independent- not just be looking after my child.

“You scolded me so hard, it got into my bones,” she told me two days after I found her and my daughter doodling all over the coloured walls of my home and gave them a blasting.

Well said, Kavita, child of a widowed mother, one of three siblings, educated till Class 9, and now my daughter’s soulmate. You are 17, you have the right to be a child and doodle on the walls, to be a woman and talk back at me, to treat my home as yours.

I know some day when you are gone, my daughter will hum the song, even if she doesn’t remember the words: “Mother, where is that dark sister of mine who sings me a song and a rhyme.”

(07.03.2009-Paloma Ganguly can be contacted at paloma.ganguly@ians.in)

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