A dash of Pepper…

…with a splash of Mint

Barriers

Posted by Pepper on January 12, 2016

I often think about my childhood. And most of my childhood memories would be incomplete without Gomti. Gomti was our domestic help. She had been employed just a few months before I was born. Prior to her joining, her older sister worked for us. Gomti stepped in when her sister got married and continued working for us till we moved out of that house. That would be for around 19 years. So for the first 19 years of my life, she was always around. Every childhood memory of mine has her somewhere in the background.

She was one my earliest friends. Everybody at home considered her to be family. And while I truly believed she was one of us, I could see some glaring differences in the way she behaved. Gomti never sat on the dewans Β or the sofas in our living room. She never came close to stepping on our bed. She didn’t eat her meals on the dining table along with the rest of us. No, she ate her meals on the kitchen floor. And if she was ever tired and needed a break from work, she would lean against the wall in the kitchen and sit on the floor, drawing her knees to herself.

Domestic helpers in my friends homes too seemed to exhibit similar behaviour. As a child, I did not question it. It made me learn that domestic helpers did not have the same social standing. They were not on par with us. I never paused to consider how right or wrong that was. It was just a fact of life. Nobody ever said this to me and I doubt anybody in my family wanted me to believe this, but I think kids absorb a lot from their environment. Every action sends out a message. All behaviour is internalised. And what I watched and observed all through my growing up years told me that domestic helpers were of a lower social rank.

Only after I grew up did I start questioning it. Why do we have such class barriers in India? Aren’t we all employed by somebody? Somebody works for us. We work for somebody else. It is as simple as that. We all earn different amounts of money, but why should that change the way we are treated?

This happened a few months ago. I was waiting for the elevator. A domestic helper entered the lobby and to my surprise, pressed the button for the other elevator. This troubled me a little and I asked her what her problem was in using the same elevator as me? We need to keep in mind that we shouldn’t be wasting electricity like that. Her reply made me a little sad. She said she had been forbidden in the past to use the same elevator as the residents. I should have known. Most buildings in fact have a separate elevator for the laborers. Why would I blame the poor woman for feeling unsure of sharing the elevator with me when she had been rebuked in the past for the very same reason?

This is why, when our cook decided to make herself comfortable on our living room couch one day, I was a bit stunned. Not displeased, just a bit surprised. She brought the the veggies she needed to chop along with her, flopped onto the sofa and began her chopping. It took me a few seconds to recover from the shock. Which again, is a bit sad. Ideally, I should not have been shocked. This behaviour shouldn’t be so uncommon. I know we employ her but she is one of us. She need not sit below us. I doubt any of us are expected to sit on a level lower than our employer’s.

I have been pretty used to having our cook sit alongside us now. Nobody in my family bats an eyelid. Today though, she was seen by my neighbour. Our cook was sitting on the sofa, slicing onions as she watched TV. My neighbour almost collapsed in shock, pulled me aside and told me I shouldn’t be tolerating such behaviour. I smiled and told her we were okay with it really. She gave me a disapproving look and tried convincing me some more. This woman lives in a tinny chawl along with other workers. She doesn’t come from an affluent background. If I allow this, a lot of the domestic helpers will expect similar privileges. I smiled again and told her I didn’t find anything wrong in that either. She walked away.. Never mind, I’d rather displease a neighbour than reinforce an existing class bias.

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10 Responses to “Barriers”

  1. MR said

    Good for you. be the change πŸ™‚

  2. jan said

    Thank you for writing about it. I hope people start ‘acting normal’ for such behaviors and also more maids realize they aren’t below the people they work for.

  3. Very well written! I’ve seen the same πŸ˜’ Super Glad you changed things in your house πŸ˜„

  4. senora said

    Pretty interesting insight Pepper. Never thought of this before.

  5. Boiling said

    “Aren’t we all employed by somebody? Somebody works for us. We work for somebody else. It is as simple as that. We all earn different amounts of money, but why should that change the way we are treated?” – Exactly. Often, it is so hard to change mindsets.This attitude is the same in other parts of Asia too.

  6. Priya said

    This happened to me as well πŸ™‚ One fine day my part-time help who is a simple, shy and timid type of personality, sat on the living room sofa and started feeding my 3 year old girl her dal-rice. Sad that my mind also was shocked, more so because it is a light colored couch and my help cleans the whole house-I was worried her sari may not be that clean. But I am happy that she did what she did. If she is clean enough to feed my child, then why not sit on my couch! I think their instincts probably tell them that it is okay to sit on the same couch and they truly believe that we treat them as an equal.

  7. Arch said

    Very well written! Also kudos to you for questioning and not blindly following what others do. It used to really affect me when I saw that when our domestic help’s children came along with her, she used to ask them to sit outside on the staircase and wait for her. Though I made them sit inside on the diwan multiple times and told her to do the same, she would still make them sit there the next time.:( The bias is ingrained in them as much as it is in us. 😦

  8. Your last sentence.. πŸ™‚ πŸ™‚ πŸ™‚

  9. anjeneyan said

    The building in which I stay has a similar restriction for service providers. I tried to change it when I was in the Committee. This was not agreed to by most other Committee Members. I find this restriction totally incongruous
    and discriminatory. As regards treating servants on par at domestic level, this is bound to happen with increasing prosperity in hinterland in each State which reduces the migration to cities. We are finding this in developed southern states where the labour is mostly from eastern states.

  10. I feel very happy that I know you, the person that you are.

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