In this era of lockdowns and home cooks turning head chefs, the housemaid is sorely missed in every middle-class home.
Roll the tape back about half a year.
Meet 53-year-old Mohana — she works as domestic help in six households in the suburbs of Chennai. Her day begins at 5 am in the morning, as she wakes up and starts cooking and cleaning for her family that consists of her three children, her husband, and his mother.
She is the sole bread-winner in her family, as her husband spends all day loafing about, squandering the little money that she brings in on his vices. Her mother-in-law seems to be incapable of doing anything apart from criticizing everything she does, right from complaining that she doesn’t bring in enough money to support the family, to gossiping with the neighbors about how she doesn’t take care of her husband and children well enough. On the bright side, Mohana’s mother-in-law wakes up much later, only after she has left for work.
Once she’s done with cooking for the family, she kisses her kids goodbye, careful not to wake them up. The only good thing her husband does is manage the kids and get them to school on time.
This is where her day really begins: She has quite a journey ahead of her, as she needs to travel the twenty-five kilometers to the suburb she works in, taking two buses and walking eight of those kilometers in the process.
The time she spends traveling gives her plenty of time to reflect upon her childhood and how she was denied education on the basis of her caste, leaving her with manual labor as the only means to put food on the table. Times have changed, however, and she’s glad that she has the opportunity to put her kids through school. That’s the only thought on that keeps her going — her kids need to be put through school and college, she can’t afford to let this cycle go onto the next generation. Her dream is to one day see her son and daughter having stable, high-paying IT jobs. Only then, can she stop working. She works that one percent harder each day, with this in mind.
At the first place of work, a posh bungalow filled with luxuries and pleasures she couldn’t whip up in the wildest of dreams, she faces hard labor ahead of her. Her job entails sweeping and mopping the house, cooking for its six occupants, taking care of the baby as the mother and father get ready for work, making sure the grandparents’ needs are met, and finally cleaning the toilets. For all of these tasks, she bitterly thinks, she’s paid a mere five thousand a month, and is frowned upon for asking for the paltriest of raises, while her employers see no problem with spending three times that at a club in one night. The worst part of the entire ordeal is that even this income isn’t guaranteed — there is absolutely zero job security in her line of work, and she could be fired for the tiniest of infractions. Holidays? Forget about it. Even if she manages to convince her employers to give her a day or two off, she knows it’s going to cut into her paycheck, not to mention the mountain of work she’ll be expected to complete in order to make up for the days missed.
She apprehensively approaches the wife and tries to ask her for a bonus as politely as possible, as her son’s birthday is coming up in a few days and he desperately wants to celebrate it as his classmates do — with a cake and some gifts.
To her surprise, her requests are met, and she leaves the house with a smile on her face, a crisp five-hundred-rupee note in hand.
The scene is much the same in all the households she works at, with a few people demanding a lot more from her than others. The days that are the worst are ones in which her kids have a holiday. With nobody to take care of them at home, she has to bring them along with her to the households she works at. It breaks her heart when they see all the luxuries she will never be able to afford — everything from shiny new electronic games to delectable selections of food, and ask her why they were never able to get any of those. She doesn’t have the heart to tell them that most of the money she makes goes toward settling the numerous debts that their father has racked up, and it’s all she can do to beg her employers to give her some old clothes or toys that their children don’t use anymore.
Back home after a day of back-breaking work, she tries to get some rest and mentally prepare herself for the next day.