The hum of urban life in India goes on uninterrupted thanks in part to an almost invisible army of domestic help, cooks, cleaners and construction workers, many of whom are women.
This Labour Day or International Worker’s Day, a celebration of blue collar workers and the working class across the world, I met four women who fall in this category. These four women are a part of the ever-increasing urban poor category of our country’s fastest growing mega city, Bengaluru. These women are not chasing numbers or running a business in Bengaluru, the city that lives and breathes startups, but work in the homes of others to ensure they and their families can survive.
Varalakshmi, 37, has been an economic contributor since she was 8. Married at a young age, her husband not only mistreated her and beat her but also cast aspersions on her character when she went to work at people’s houses. She has been dragged by the hair in public, called names, insulted and every time she came back home after work examined physically by her husband to ensure she had not been engaging in a sexual alliance instead of working at someone’s house.
She says the pain, anger and hurt over her character assassination by her husband still rankles and hurts her. The tears overflow as she lets it all out. Her husband after the initial years of torture he put her through left her after they had three kids, two daughters and a boy.
Over the last two decades she recounts how she would take home food to feed the mouths of her crying children. Committed to give them a better life she slogged, working as a domestic help for the last 20 years in people’s homes. Varalakshmi admitted them into English medium schools so they could have the education and life that she never did.
Unfortunately, the Gods still don’t smile down on her. She is, after all these years, still the sole breadwinner of the family and is still working hard to provide for her grown-up, able-bodied children who should instead be supporting her. Sobbing profusely she recounts how they left her in hospital when she needed Rs 2,000 for a surgery. She says, “I was lying there in the hospital and they could not bother with me or could not arrange 2000 rupees for me.”
She has borrowed money and is heavily in debt to provide for the needs of her grown up children who are still living off her. Varalakshmi says, ”For years I have been only giving to people and when I was lying in the hospital I realised no one bothered about me, I worry that if I am not able to work then I won’t even get food as my children will not even feed me. I have health issues too.” To make matters worse the in-laws of her married daughters make continuous financial demands upon her.
The scars run deep and the wounds may perhaps never heal. Ask her what she would do differently and she says, “I would re-prioritise. I would wear new clothes, eat good food and I would like to die well. I have never had new clothes, never eaten a proper meal so that is what I wish for.”
Munirathana, 32, is a simple, polite and hardworking woman who smiles but the smile does not reach her eyes. She is trying to make ends meet to support her family. She has two daughters and a son. She has put them in school and is trying to support them to the best of her abilities. Her son refuses to go to school, do well and get a job to support the family.
Her husband who till recently was an alcoholic is now facing severe health issues. Ratna, as she called by her friends, needs to find more and more jobs to pay for the increasing medical bills of her husband.
Preethi, 32, has two children aged 10 and 12. She is married to a man who her family thinks is a gem of a person but only Preethi is privy to his reality. He does not spend a single penny on Preethi, the children or the household. “He is baby faced and a smooth talker who portrays himself as loving family man who brings in the salary home on every 5th of the month. The truth is that I go out and clean peoples houses, and make enough money to support myself and my children,” she says.
As the children see the city evolve into its good life, their dreams and aspirations take wings. The ten-year-old wants to study to become a doctor and the 12-year-old a sub-inspector. As the new academic years start, funding their education single handedly is a task borne by Preethi. She wants the best for her children, she shares their dreams and aspirations and as a mother she wants to provide for them the best she can and beyond.
When asked what she would change, she says she would like to see her husband as a changed man. A man who would be a father to his children and a husband to his wife.
Sushma, 26, has seen her mother take pains to run a small pan and cigarette shop to support her kids and her husband’s family. She has also witnessed her father’s zero contribution to the family economically or otherwise.
Sushma recounts how her mother has supported her through her choices in life including a marriage to a boy of her choice despite her in-laws not recognising her as a daughter in-law. Sushma’s mother has come to her rescue and provided Sushma and her husband a small flat.
Sushma is supportive of her mother and indebted to her. In hindsight she also regrets giving her mother a hard time as a child. “I wish I had listened to my mother when I was small and studied beyond class 8th, I didn’t realise the importance of education then but I do now. But it’s too late now.”
The one thing that she craves for and desperately hopes for is acceptance by her in-laws. “I want to visit their house someday,” she says with a hopeful smile.
As these women show us the realities of their life, I am left feeling overwhelmed by their stories. In the face of their struggles my life and the challenges that come with it feel so small. These are the real heroes, the ones who we get to clean and cook in our house, and the ones who work hard to give the best to their families.