They make our days. They keep our house clean so that we work outside properly
Every morning, I get up and meet the only person whom I have been meeting regularly in the last two years. And that's my domestic help.
In fact, if she does not turn up, I feel my day is not complete. And since my house/home is a part of me, any amount of bathing doesn't leave me clean until my house is cleaned, and that is the responsibility of my maid.
Every morning I get up, open the window (whose sill is stocked with plants), make a cup of tea for myself, open the balcony doors and slowly sip the hot cup taking in the open sky full of birds. Once done, the morning goes in waiting.
The door is knocked. That is not her, it is the newspaper. The door is knocked again. Twice. Now it is her.
She brings in a breath of fresh air and makes the morning alive. She cleans up the kitchen that has been sleeping with leftovers of the last evening. She sweeps the floor and washes it clean which makes my neighbours envy. And, some times, she waters the plants.
But then beyond this, between tasks, are hidden life's secrets that she narrates to me. Of the man downstairs who is obsessed with cleanliness, of the woman whom she cooks for, of nicknames that are reserved for other residents of the colony, of the fights between the beefy husband and his quite doe-eyed wife, of the little girl who hurt her knee while playing; of foreign occupants (whom she calls ‘baharwale' meaning ‘outsiders') who keep their ACs on, sleep in blankets even as most of the Delhi sweats in successful heat waves; of the woman who cribs and cribs as if it is her business; of the guards at the gate and their everyday fights with her; of who is expecting, who has given birth, who is born, who is ill, who fled, who married and who shifted out.
At times, she even opens pages of history that no historian could have ever thought of documenting: the first couple that shifted in the area; the longest living family in the colony; the foreign woman who once lived opposite my flat, who smoked cigars and left circle- patterned smoke in the air, whom all the guards admired and talked about; the woman with a dog who gave up her own flat to shift with her neighbour (probably her new-found love!).
She is also a mine of information about local festivals — jagrans, bhandaras, Ram lilas, holi and bhang ki pakori; shops and services — where we get what; the dhobi and presswali, the kudawala, the kabadiwala, the Big Apple and Subhiksha prices, the subziwala and biographical details of other maids.
Putting some stories out, keeping many in, she works. There are days when we just do not talk. She comes, cleans and goes silently while I am busy working.
Sometimes, we exchange a line or two. At some other times, she is up with her stories, narratives, ethnographies, and oral histories. And at the end of all her works, she leaves informing so that I lock the door.
Across the city there are thousands of women who migrate from various corners of the country to Delhi and work as maids/domestic helps. They make our days. They keep our house clean so that we work in peace. They serve us and unburden us of our daily chores. They hardly have holidays like us who work with huge salaries and do “better,” “more decent” jobs. They are the harbingers of cleanliness of our homes and carriers of information from one corner to the other like a mobile information system.
At the end of the day, they are the ones who without our knowledge become part of our daily lives and many a time we fail to notice it — let alone acknowledge it.
(The writer is Assistant Professor of Geography, Delhi School of Economics, University of Delhi. email: firstname.lastname@example.org)