Some women have chosen to work in offices or departmental stores. But their hours are longer, and there is no flexibility

Every day, for the past seven years, Sumathi cleans two houses — she sweeps and swabs, washes clothes and dishes. One is her house, and the other is where she’s employed as a housemaid. “I know women who even work in three houses! How will they have the time to do anything around their own house?” she asks, with genuine concern.

Neatly dressed, in a synthetic red saree, her hair oiled and braided, Sumathi is soft-spoken and her replies are measured. “I’m a native of a village near Pondicherry. I studied there, in the Government school, till class VIII. I wanted to study more, but family circumstances...” she says, with some regret. Sumathi’s father had raised cows, and her mother had given him a hand; but money was a problem. She was married off (she is unable to recall the year) in a simple ceremony to her distant relative, a tailor. “He stitches pants and shirts, in T. Nagar. He gets a weekly wage. The work is okay, but he keeps long hours, and during festival time — before Diwali — he’s home only by 11p.m.”

All the household responsibilities thus fall on Sumathi. She has two daughters — Dakshayany and Vaishali. “I wanted only one child, but the doctor said have two — she said it’s better for the children to grow up like that.” Today, Sumathi is happy that her daughters study well, and the older one, now in class VIII, wants to become a doctor. “Amma’s (the employer) daughter teaches them English. They go to a Tamil medium school, so this way, they learn to speak and read English well,” she says.

Coming from a village, with a lot of open spaces and trees, into the crowded city — the family lives in its own house behind Greenways Road MRTS station — was initially quite challenging. But now, Sumathi is used to it. Her day begins early — the time depends on the intensity of the water scarcity, and how long the queue will be. “May and June is a huge problem, we have to stand for three hours for a few pots of water. It needs to be pumped by hand. Drinking water, we buy for Rs. 30 a can. Then, I cook, clean and send the girls to school, and come to work around 9.30. My mother-in-law lives with me, but she can’t do much, her eye-sight is not good.” After her morning shift at work, Sumathi goes back home, gets more housework out of the way, and is back at work for the evening round. Sometimes, she manages to sit and watch TV in the evenings (she likes Ajith’s films). “When the kids were young, we had taken them to the beach, but now there is no time,” she says, matter-of-factly.

Time is one of life’s luxuries for Sumathi. Besides water, she needs to spare lots of it to buy ration (the queues can, sometimes, really eat into her day). “I buy rice, lentils, sugar and wheat in the ration shop, and the rest outside. How expensive everything is! Onions and tomatoes are Rs. 30 and Rs. 40. I can only afford to use one of this and one of that in my cooking.” When her mother was alive, she used to send her sweets and savouries for Deepavali. “She made excellent murukku and adhirasam,” she says with a smile.

Focussed on raising her daughters well, Sumathi says she’s happy to be a housemaid. “Some women have chosen to work in offices or departmental stores. But their hours are longer, and there is no flexibility. My work is better, because I can also run my house. My daughters have to study well, and come up in life. Dakshayany has said that when she starts earning, I can rest at home...”

(A weekly column on men and women who make Chennai what it is)