Recently the country and the media is abuzz with the news of arrest of an Indian diplomat, Devyani Khobragade, in US, for lying in a visa form regarding employment contract with her maid, Sangeeta Richard (Read: Who is Devyani Khobragade?).
While the media, social media, and Indian diplomats are up in arms about the alleged mistreatment of Devyani when she is a diplomat and hence deserves diplomatic immunity, more the story enfold, more I feel that the one aspect of the story is getting increasingly lost in this hullabaloo is the way we treat our maids or domestic helps in India, an attitude probably Devyani carried with her to US, and then got in trouble with the government for breaking laws.
Let me make one thing clear, I run my household with the able support of my domestic help, or my maid, with whom I share a symbiotic relationship. So I am all for hiring household helps to run your home, if giving adequate time to household chores is difficult in the normal circumstances. and yet I cringe every time I hear about mistreatment handed out to these people in Indian families, and believe me when I say this, there had been plenty of such instances.
While the Domestic Workers Welfare and Social Security Act is yet to be tabled in Indian Parliament, Delhi as a city has seen on numerous situations, almost inhuman cruelty to people, mostly women, who earn their livelihoods by working as a domestic help in affluent families. India has a very skewed population to income ratio, a fact which becomes evident when I see families in the shopping malls, shopping and dining out in full fanfare, with the less fortunate maid faithfully trotting around, carrying bags, and most of the time, a baby, her charge.
I have seen her, nameless and faceless, looking after the baby or the little child, in the play arena, while the parents shopped; at the family restaurant tucking in the bib, and feeding a tantrum-throwing child in a festive birthday party, never getting to eat a morsel of the yummy platter served on the tables; and hanging around the restaurant door, while the cute family tucks in voraciously, and she will be called when the little one finishes eating, so that the baby can be thrust in her care, while parents enjoy the solitude of a dinner at their favorite place. Yes, I have been a witness to these scenarios many a times, you will be too, if you happen to be at one of these restaurants during mealtimes at some of the glossiest shopping malls of Delhi. If such behavior to another human being has shocked and appalled me, my husband has very discreetly reminded me that ‘it’s not really my business to interfere, and come on, nobody is beating her, right?’
Yeah, right, no one’s beating her in the crowded shopping mall, but who knows if they had been, within the doors of their plush apartment or not? And is abuse only physical? What about mental and emotional abuse? What about human rights violation? And more simply, what about human dignity of labor, which is at stake here? Who cares about that?
I come from a joint family background where we had an army of domestic helps who worked for my grandparents. We were told to call them uncles and aunts, we were taught to talk to them respectfully, and never shout at them, just like we wouldn’t to our family members. we were told not to make any request to them, and all requests must go through my parents, who will get to decide if such requests could be made to the domestic helps or not. I am trying to teach similar values to my child. A whole bunch of such people stayed with us till they died. They were part of every festivity we had in the house. My favorite was Ram Chandra bhaiya, the one I use to tie a Rakhi to, and the one I still miss a lot, and the one whom I am dedicating this post to.
We have a lot of learn, my dear Delhites, from the way my grandparents treated their domestic help. We cannot get away by treating people shabbily only because we pay them, and because we wield power over them. For if we don’t offer them consideration and honor, in the words of my favorite poet, Rabindranath Tagore, I can only say, we will get it back in spades. What do you say?
Translated loosely from Bengali version:
‘Oh my unfortunate, whom you have dejected in disrespect,
Deprived of all social justice, equality, to fall apart:
You are destined to share with them the same fate,
Unless you adore them back being equally affectionate.’
The poem, Apamanito, from Gitanjali, by rabindranath Tagore, in original:
“He more durbhaga desh, jaahaader korecho apamaan,
apamaane hote hobe taahaader sabaar samaan.
Sanmuke daaraye rekhe, kole jaare dao ni sthaan,
apomaane hote habe taahaader sabaar samaan.”