Thursday, February 24, 2011

Her name is Shantabai and she is not a doormat!

She woke up to an earthquake every day. Some of us are used to waking up to the birds chirping, some are woken up by the gentle insistence of sun rays that fight their way through the curtains, some by the insistent ringing of the alarm clock that is so hateful. But Shantabai woke up to the tireless shaking of all the vessels in the tin cup sized ‘barsaati’ she lived in with her husband and two children like there was an earthquake happening. She did not have the luxury of lying in bed, stretching lazily and taking her time to welcome the day. She usually sprinted out of bed while she was still half asleep to stop the vessels that had crept perilously close to the edge of the shelves from tumbling down and waking up the whole household. She was always amused by the fact that she slept through the various trains that passed by the railways tracks next door through the night, but the 5:15 am fast local always made her jump up and sprint.
She had a lot of work to finish before she left for work that day. She had to finish her household chores, cook, clean, send her husband off to work and pack. She was going to her village the next day to leave her children with her in-laws. As she walked over to the community toilet across the tracks with a bucket in her hand and her long, thick, lustrous hair swaying in the wind, she thought of the day when she had agreed to let her children go. Shyam, her husband was a mechanic in a small garage and she herself worked as a part time maid in 4 houses in the large housing complex across town to make ends meet in the monstrous city of Mumbai. She worked through the day and returned home in the early evening to take care of her children and loved singing them to sleep every night. But over the past two months Shyam’s owner had not been paying him. He said something called a ‘recession’ was on and the garage was not doing well. They had been running behind on rent payments. Putli, the lady who used to watch her children had refused to keep them anymore unless she paid her the last month’s due. Shantabai had got some advance for a while from two of the houses she worked in, but there was never enough money.
She remembered the godforsaken night, while she was trying to get the children to sleep and she heard the stray dogs outside barking viciously. The door to the house flew open and a few of the men from nearby huts carried Shyam in. He was bleeding profusely from the head and had several bruises on his face and body. After the men left, Shyam told her that the landlord had him beaten up for non-payment and was threatening to throw them out on the street within a week if the rent was not paid. Shantabai cried herself to sleep that night but woke up with a start in the middle of the night to find Shyam brooding at the door. He said he had come up with a plan that would save them. He wanted to leave the children with his mother at the village so that Putli would not have to be paid to look after them. He felt that Shantabai could pick up a job as a full time servant at one of the houses she worked in. This way, they would not have to spend money on her food or on rent. When a perplexed Shantabai asked him about where he would stay, he said he had worked all out. He would be a driver by day and a watchman by night, thus earning more money and not requiring a place to sleep. Though Shantabai thought this was a ridiculous plan and refused to be parted from her children, in her heart she knew she would bend down to Shyam’s will like she always did and would have to part from her children and her home.  
She finished her chores in her quick and efficient manner and left the children at Putli’s house. She did not go in lest Putli refuse to keep them, but just sent them in by themselves knowing she would not refuse the children once she knew their mother had already left. She waited for the bus and smiled as she remembered the first time she had ever ridden a bus. It was when she had run away from her village to get married to Shyam and come to Mumbai. It had taken them 2 full days of riding in buses and hitching rides in trucks to get here. It would take her that much time to go back to the village again. Her brow knit in anxiety as she thought of the excuse she would have to give in the four houses she worked at for not coming over the next few days. Though she was going away for 5 days, she would tell them that she was going only for 2 days so they would not replace her while she was gone. With all the travelling, she would not even get a full day to spend at the village.  
She knew the old madam on the 5th floor would make her do extra chores just because she would be away for the next 2 days and also cut her salary. Ritu madam on the ground floor would give her a chocolate for the children once she knew she was going to drop them off. But Anshi, the housewife on the 3rd floor and Nasreen, the accountant on the 7th floor would fire her today. When she was sick and had taken a day off, they had called Shyam and rained abuses on him. They treated her like a slave, did not give her anything to eat while she worked extra hours in their houses and always made excuses for not giving her, her salary on time. She had continued to work in their houses as Anshi had grudgingly given her some advance last month and Nasreen used to pay her an extra Rs 100 compared to the other houses. But the price she extracted for that extra money left Shantabai exhausted every day. The trip to the village would be a good excuse for her to leave these two houses. She would have to think of finding a house that needed a full time servant once she returned.
Shantabai was not the women to dawdle for long. She walked briskly to the complex once the bus reached its stop, thinking of all the work that lay ahead of her in the 4 houses. All her predictions of the reaction of the different ladies she worked for came true. The old madam from the 5th floor made her wash all the windows and the ceiling fans before she let her go. She got delayed there and was late in going to Anshi’s house. While Anshi berated her for always being late, she went about quietly mopping the floor. She searched for an opportune time to tell her that she was going away but Anshi was in a very foul mood that day and Shantabai did not have the gumption to face her in that mood. She figured she would tell Nasreen and hopefully she would pass the message on to Anshi. The scene was much the same at Nasreen’s house where she was made to clean all the wardrobes of the 5 members in the house for punishment of going away to her own home for a few days. Just as she was leaving the house Nasreen told her she was fired and gave her the balance salary. Shantabai had a sly smile on her face as she walked out that flat. She was happy to be leaving that house and also being paid early meant she could buy a small gift for the children before dropping them off at the village.
It was in this happy mood that she entered Ritu madam’s house. She found the whole house topsy turvy and Ritu madam lying in bed, burning with fever. Shantabai only did the dishes in this house as Ritu madam believed in balancing the work between maids and had a cook and another maid to do the cleaning. Her husband was out of town, she was very ill and the other two maids had not turned up. Shantabai immediately went into action. She asked Ritu madam to relax and first rushed into the kitchen to make some hot soup for her. She then swept and mopped the whole house and cleaned up. She also cooked extra food and stored it in the refrigerator in case madam needed it for the next day. She promised Ritu madam to look in on Lata, her cook who stayed next to her house and ensure that she will come into work the next day. It was already 7 pm by the time she finished all this work and reluctantly told Ritu madam that she would cancel her trip to the village if she needed her to stay. A part of her wanted the trip to be cancelled, but Ritu madam was gracious and refused to let her change her plans. She gave her chocolates for the kids as she had predicted, and some money to take with her to the village.
Shantabai returned home after a physically and emotionally exhausting day and all she wanted to do was hug her children and go to sleep. But she had a duty to fulfil first. She went to Lata’s house, admonished her for skipping work when madam needed her and made her call Ritu madam. She sauntered back home and sat staring at the walls for a while, not knowing what or where home would be when she returned. As tears filled her large and usually luminous eyes she happened to see her bag that had the chocolates and the extra money.  She brightened up knowing that there were still well meaning people in this world she could turn to for help when she needed it. She would come back and try and cajole Ritu madam to hire her full time. May be she could even hire Shyam as a driver and let them stay in her garage. It was with this hope in her heart and prayers for a happier future that she went to sleep. Who knew what the future held for her. The only certainty was that tomorrow, she would be woken up by an earthquake.
Note: This is a tribute to all the maids who are the back bone of this city. It is because of their hard work, that women like me can afford to have flourishing careers. It is high time that we stop treating them as door mats and accord the same respect to them, that we expect in our work places. This one is for all the Shantabais of the world.


  1. Truly touching Ambica, I am glad I treat my maids with lots of love, respect and care. I wish one day this will all change so that we can all get what we give.

  2. Ambica...superb writing!! This piece really touched my heart and I actually gave lot of goodies today to my house help!! they truly are a blessing for all of us working women...keep these thoughts coming