We share a love-hate relationship with our domestic helps here in India. If you can find a good one, you hold on to her tight. A good help, however, can easily get poached. So you pamper her with honeyed smiles. Your bad moods are never for her to endure. You smile when she tells you that she needs a holiday or two though inside you are flashing daggers at her. And the patience you display with her will make your kids roll their eyes.
In my house, everyone knows that I safeguard my domestic help like a mother hen or a tigress. No mistake she makes is big enough for a rebuke. And somehow, just like that, even though I am not the type who is given to much chatting, we have fallen into a routine of talking. She has over time shared about her alcoholic husband and his brutalities. She singlehandedly manages her home and two girls while the good-for-nothing guys just whiles away his time and money in drinking.
While I’ve tried to help her out, finding out details about AA near her, I know that she is tied by societal norms much more than I ever can be hence refusing the counselling. To her, it matters to have a husband, no matter how worthless he is. Her in-laws’ opinion counts for much more than her own when it comes to the decisions in her life. To think that she married outside her community but luckily her family did not desert her.
Yesterday, when she conveyed the sad news of the death of a little girl in her building, it worsened my already terrible headache. As I was holding my head and listening to her, she asked if I had taken medicine. I had, of course, but it had not helped. She was quite shaken herself and was rushing to the funeral of the girl after finishing her work in the houses she worked in. Her eyes watered as she spoke about the little girl who was her daughter’s friend. Both of us mothers, we were stunned thinking about the deep pain and loss of another mother who had lost a child so young.
That is when she asked me why I had a headache? I said I didn’t know. I woke up with a throbbing one. She told me that she gets bad headaches due to stress. But why would I have one? After all, what stresses did I have? She was referring to the husband and I. Anna or brother, referring to my husband’ never laid a finger on me. So what could possibly be bothering me? What a simplistic view of things?
Her question did not elicit any response from me. Her observation came from the existential struggles that she and other women from her strata put up with day in and day out. They are women who worked hard doing household work to run their homes. They make the money but have no freedom in how it is spent. They put up with abuse daily because this is the only normal they have known. Marriage for them was all about having a mangalsutra or sindoor to protect themselves from unwarranted attention. I once had a domestic help who wore these marital symbols despite being divorced because she was attractive and was sick of the harassment from males that she experienced.
At the level of a woman, I understood her troubles. But in the larger picture, our angsts and stresses were so totally different. It was a reality check for me. I felt gratitude for my blessings and also felt a deeper empathy for her. Yes, I have told her to throw her husband out and she has tried to do that. But she still takes him back in every time. Very complex the entire situation is. But the most important part is that she tries to stay happy. She loves wearing flowers in her hair. Roses sometimes, jasmine flowers and at other times those pretty orange flowers. Small joys in her life that make her life more bearable.
And yes, she dotes on her daughters. She lives for them. That I can relate with.
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