Manju* was crying in a corner. She’d just broken a glass of chai and was being shouted at by llpr employer in the 4 BHK of the Mumbai high-rise she works at. Manju is 42 years old and has worked in that apartment for seven years — sweeping, cleaning, mopping, washing dishes, dusting and even babysitting the children. Last week, her employer’s teenage son had broken the sound console in the living room. But there were no showdowns, no reiterations. A swanky, new sound console quietly replaced the broken pieces of the older one the next day. But the broken chai glass lay on the floor, while Manju was yelled at and humiliated in front of the employer’s relatives.
In another Mumbai home, Shakuntala* would never sit at the lunch table. She eats lunch at the same time as the entire family, but in separate utensils and plates set aside for her. She works at four homes in the same residential complex and this is the norm in every home. But she’s gotten used to this. “This is how it works everywhere; this is nothing new,” she tells me. “I once tried to ask one of my employers why I couldn’t eat from the plates they would share with each other. Madam didn’t answer. I didn’t want to lose my job so I never questioned her again.”
In my home, this used to be an unacknowledged norm. When I asked my parents why they practiced this, I heard uncomfortable murmurs of “hygiene reasons” and “you-don’t-know-where-all-they’ve-been”. I pressed on. “But we wash all our plates with the same soap. If Shanthima’s plate is unhygienic, then so is yours,” I’d said. Their muttering came down a distinct decibel as they grappled with their own internalised prejudice. The situation gradually improved in our home, over the years, as my parents came to terms with the larger consequences of their behaviour (of course, there is still room for improvement).
On Wednesday, reports surfaced about Zohra Bibi, a 26-year-old domestic help, who was allegedly beaten up and held captive in the home she works at, in Noida’s Mahagun Moderne society. She was accused of theft by her employers. After she didn’t return home for an entire day, Bibi’s family, along with a crowd of domestic workers employed at Mahagun Moderne, tried to enter the premises in search of Bibi, but were not allowed. Eventually, the crowd turned violent. Bibi was then brought to the gate by a security guard, in a weakened condition.
The situation has escalated since (domestic helps who barged into the gate were detained by the police) and the Noida police intervened by taking Bibi to the hospital and pacifying other workers. But the violent turn of events, was obviously preceded by rising tensions between the residents of the society and the domestic workers, maintenance staff, gardeners and drivers working there. The society has assigned separate elevators for them while constantly monitoring their movements through CCTVs and separate registers. The residents call this practice “tighter security”. I am willing to bet good money that there are no loos that the dozens of staff can access in this building.
In May this year, 200 domestic workers of Raheja Vistas housing complex in Chandivali, Mumbai, went on a strike to protest the residents’ attempts to standardise below average payment rate. Following the protest, the society had to accept the workers’ demands and pay them as per their union’s standard rate card. But a lot of these protesting maids were later unceremoniously fired for participating in the protest. Many of them had been working there for a decade and had raised their employers’ children in these homes.
India has a massive class problem. This reflects severely in the pay scale of its domestic helps. According to a report, maids earn an average of Rs 7,000 per month in Mumbai, Rs 6,000 in Delhi and Bengaluru, and Rs 5,000 in Kolkata. Nannies and cooks are paid similarly, while drivers are paid higher salaries averaging from Rs 10,000 to Rs 13,000 in each city. (That Indians invest more in people who take care of their cars than those who run their homes or look after their children is perhaps also to do with a gender pay gap. Or because it is assumed that any woman can look after a child but that it needs real skills to drive an expensive car).
But the dystopic events at this Noida apartment complex with a name that satire writers would envy (Mahagun Moderne) points to another problem.
As any single woman/man will tell you, urban residential societies in India like to behave as if they have their own governments. They make up ridiculous rules and expect new residents to abide by them, most of which are rabidly centred around moral policing. Across the country, every city has its own pattern for populations that are denied rental homes. Then there are all the ‘by-order’ micro-legislations about grass and stairs and elevators and meat. In the Mumbai neighbourhood, Kandivali, apartment residents decided to spread their wings and beat up a young man who was smoking near their building.
And all this is about people who live in the buildings. Imagine the rules for the people who have the miserable economic fate of working for the people who live in the buildings.
Rajalakshmi Subbaiah, a resident of a gated community in Chennai, tells me that her residential society had put up a Hindu-only rule for hiring domestic helps. She says, “We used to have maids belonging to all religions in our society, but after there were multiple thefts, we decided to put up a rule for Hindu-only maids.” When questioned on how the then-employed domestic workers of other religions responded to it, she says, “They felt bad but what can we do? Safety is more important.”
Which brings us back to that paragon of virtue Mahagun Moderne. Today, the apartment complex has apparently banned maids of Bangladeshi descent from employment in the society. Because apartment complex brain fever.
Meanwhile, the residents who allegedly beat up Bibi completely deny it and claim they only questioned her, after which she went and hid in the basement. Imagine the quality of their interrogation. The residents-turned-hapless victims also claim that they had their windows pelted with stones and fearing for the safety of their child, they fled to a relative’s house. There is no sign of reflection that this is no way to treat any kind of employee and perhaps in the future they should refrain from vigilante clown-like behaviour.
While the police investigates what really happened to the maid (in a game of he-says, she-says, the maid claims she was beaten up, while her employers say she hid in the basement), one thing is unquestionable. Urban housing societies distill every class and caste prejudice and they are turning even more unapologetic about it.
This aligns perfectly well with our current national sentiment, of course. Mob lynching to disparate pay gaps to high GST rates being charged on poor man’s commodities like biscuits, the microcosm of residential societies is a reflection of our Mahagun Moderne India. It is time we take a better look into our own homes to examine what the skies reflect.
*Some names changed to protect privacy.
Co-published with Firstpost.