Short story selected for the 2014 New Asian Writing Short Story Anthology
The mighty sun was rising on the city. The birds had taken flight on a new day. The city was abuzz with early morning activities; milk and newspaper delivery, bleary eyed kids awaiting school buses, joggers and walkers dotting the concrete landscape markinga new beginning like everyday for the affluent andcosmopolitan city dwellers. Movement of traffic on the roads wasmoving at a brisk pace already, the call center cabs ferrying night shift staff back home and to pick up the day shift staff. The city buses already running to capacity even at this early hour.
Amid this early morning hum-drum, a group of women walk briskly towards the gates of a multistoried, elite residential complex manned by security guards. Their laughter and chatter unable to hide their impoverished status. The group is a mix of young, middle-aged and old women.The women are dressed in dull weary cotton sarees, the pallav draped around their bony shoulders, their slippers worn out with months of continuous drag. The young ones of the lot dressed in hand-me-down salwar kameez, adjusting their dupattas every now and then.Each woman carrying either a small pouch which serves as a purse containing their bare essentials or a little cloth bag.
Their constant banter invites a nonchalant glance from some passersby.No one would give these women a second glance. Why would they; what’s special about them?
As the group arrives at the huge iron gates, they haltto show their identity cards to the guards. A card that certifies their social status, an identity- that of a Domestic Maid.
Each ID card bears the picture of the maid, her name, the apartment number they work for, and the name of the issuing authority. In the changing urban environment, these maids are in huge demand for various household chores like cleaning; washing; cooking; baby-sitting etc. The married women prefer part-time jobs to balance work and their own families, whereas the unmarried young girls prefer to work full-time as a housekeeper.
Cities have always been a big draw for skilled or unskilled migrant laborers from neighboring states, even neighboring countries. Men and women migrate to the cities with dreams of better earnings and better living conditions. The men take up work in the industrial sector or join the much-in-demand security services. Women mostly end up as domestic maids. The children join the work force as early as seven or eight years of age.
The guards, ending their twelve hour night shift, are disheveled and anxiously awaiting their relieving staff. One of the guards, yawning and stretching, checks their card one by one and makes an entry in the register.
“How are you Shankar?” asks a woman from the group trying to cheer him up. The guard is in no mood for small talk and dismisses her with a shrug.
Among the group is a frail, medium built, dark complexioned woman,trailing behind with her head bent, looking forlorn and creases of deep worry scaling her small forehead.
“Hey Geeta! Where are you lost; are you dreaming of your husband?” the women giggle and wink at each other. “Show your id card and run to the 702 waali mem saab or you’ll be late again today.”
The women mock Geeta, jolting her out of her reverie. She promptly digs into her little zip pouch for the tattered ID card and displays it to the guard. She gives her friends a vague half smile, pretending to be normal and follows them through the gates.After the initial check, the group disperses and proceeds to their individual work places.
Geeta works in at least 4 houses at a time, doing odd jobs like cleaning and washing. She migrated to the city from her village three years back, along with her husband Prakash, and two children. Their native village, an impoverished little hamlet which could not sustain them with even a decent meal a day. Even with Prakash running a cycle-rickshaw and Geeta taking up work as a daily wage earner in the village quarry, they could not make ends meet and they were living in dire poverty. Like many others in his village, he too was lured by the life in big city and he migrated. He found a shanty of size 10 by 12 feet for his family of four in the shady by-lanes of the glitzy city. Prakash found work as a daily wage worker in a local factory and Geeta found work as a domestic maid in the high rise residential complex.
Geeta works part-time at Asha’s house. She rings the doorbell at her apartment no. 702. That is the reason she is commonly addressed as “702 wali mem saab”by all maids.
“You are late again Geeta! What’s the matter with you; don’t you understand when I ask you to come early?” Asha’s voice is shrill with anger as she opens the door. Off late, Geeta has been coming late to work and she is no mood to understand the reason.
“Have you taken up other work on my time? I have to leave for office and I will be late because of you. This time I will cut your salary.”
Asha is a burlesque, middle aged woman. Both, Asha and her husband work for an MNC. Their only child, a daughter,is a high school student in an international school nearby. This is a well-educated and well settled family of three with an annual family income of multiple figures.
Without responding or meeting Asha’s gaze, Geeta quietly goes to the broom cupboard in the kitchen balcony to collect her working tools, the broom and duster. She starts sweeping. After three years in this glamorous city and changing several households for work, she is now used to the shouting and cribbing from the mem saabsand does not react to their anger anymore. Though, the other maids have advised her several times to toughen her stand against the nagging women, she is unable to fight back or argue vehemently with any of them. Most of her friends change houses several time in a year to avoid the nagging.
“Why don’t you answer, why are you late? Too much money and food has gone into your stomach, that’s why you people take advantage of good people like us,” Asha continues to berate the maid.
Geeta, tired of Asha’s yelling early in the morning, stops sweeping and makes an attempt to explain the reason for being late, “Didi, I had to go to the dispensary…” “Don’t tell lies. Every day you people have the same excuse,” Asha interrupts, rudely.
“Mom, I’m late for school. Is my lunch box ready? Asha’s holler is interrupted by her daughter’s urgent call.
Asha forgets her yelling, hurriedly runs to the kitchen and starts packing lunch. Geeta is relieved at this intervention and gets back to sweeping.
While going about her work, Geeta’s mind is weaving a thousand thoughts, “these rich people have no compassion for poor women like us. Don’t they ever realize that life is a daily struggle for us? They have all the facilities in this beautiful house, bathroom, running water, kitchen stuffed with at least two months of rations and snacks. But we do not have even the basic necessities to lead a dignified life. Even small delays makes them shout and curse us like hell. Who should I complain to?”
As Asha sends her daughter off to school with a hug, warm motherly cuddling and a big smile, Geeta gives them a cursory look. Her thoughts drift to her two little children whom she has left behind alone in her shanty. She has left a meagre meal for them to eat during the day.She takes in a deep breath, winds up the sweeping and moves to the kitchen to start cleaning the dishes piled up in the sink. She can still hear Asha grumbling in her bedroom.
The telephone ring brings Asha running to the living room; it is her friend calling to enquire about the maid. Asha cribs about the maid’s bad habit of coming in late; not cleaning the dishes properly.
“You know, no matter what we do for these women, they will always be ungrateful. They always cheat us, will steal things and will never do the corners when we are not looking. They are all the same.” Asha laments non-stop and Geeta listens on, quietly as always.
As Geeta wraps up her work in little over an hour and prepares to leave, Asha lets out a warning.
“Now don’t be late tomorrow or I will chuck you out. There are a hundred women out there waiting to work at my place.” By now, Asha is ready for office and is getting ready for breakfast with her husband.
Geeta just looks at her with a blank expression, nods her head and walks out wiping her hands on her saree pallav. Asha bangs the door on Geeta, still grumbling. As the door shuts on her face, Geeta’s gaze falls on the decorated exterior of the plush apartment. The Ganapati idol adorning the main entrance for protection against evil, the feng shui ornaments and expensive plants for prosperity.
“How does prosperity thrive in this house? Such harsh words,” Geeta deliberates for a few seconds, shakes her head in dismay, turns around and walks toward the lift.
This more or less sums up Geeta’s work day. As she walks to the main exit after finishing work for the day, she meets other women who work as domestic maids in the complex. Chaaya, her friend and neighbor near her shanty, is also at the gate chatting up other maids. Her face lights up when she sees Geeta approaching and calls out to her,
“Have you finished work for today?” Geeta nods, looking crestfallen.
“Good, we can go home together.” exclaims Chaaya excitedly. Seeing her friend’s long face, she chuckles, “what happened, that 702 waali mem saab troubling you again?”
Geeta just gives her a look of affirmation. Chaaya shakes her head and lets out a series of expletives.
“Come, let’s sit under that tree for some time and you tell me what happened.”
The women walk up to the tree and sit in the shade, wiping the sweat from their gaunt bony faces. Their cotton sarees damp and limp due to constant wiping. Their ill-fitting blouses hang on their emaciated bodies. A passing guard leers at them and makes a vulgar guttural sound. The girls glare at him, other than that have no choice but to ignore him.
Chaaya is carrying a heavy polythene bag, she places the heavy bag on a rock nearby. Geeta quietly eyes the bag. Noticing her look, Chaaya says,
“That 404 wali mem saabhad a party last night. She gave me some leftovers. Today, the children will have a feast.”
“So, tell me what happened today.” Chaaya asks anxiously.
Geeta relates the day’s events to Chaaya. Tears well up in her eyes as she briefly recalls Asha’s harsh words.
“Don’t worry; this happens to all of us. These women do not understand the difficulties we go through. They have money and a comfortable life”, Chaaya, putting her arms around her shoulders, consoles Geeta. “And how many times have I told you not to take this from anyone, but you do not listen. Just dump her work, I will speak to others and see if you can get decent work somewhere else.”Chhaya learnt the tricks of their trade very early in the city and knew that this is a situation women like them have to live with, all through their lives.
“You know I cannot leave Asha didi’swork as I have taken some loan from her, at least not until I repay her loan.” Geeta explains her position. Chhaya just nods her head slowly.
“You know, these women actually take out their frustration on us,” Chaaya says, getting philosophical.
“What do you mean?” Geeta asks quizzically, her brows creased in a frown.
Chaaya takes Geeta’s hands in her hand, takes a deep breath and explains, “See, they are also women and have to live under their husband, in-laws. If they are working then there is the frustration at office as well. Because they cannot take out this anger and frustration on anyone else, they take it out on us. That’s all.” She grips her hand, giving a tight comforting pat.
Chaaya suddenly goes thoughtful, her eyes staring into the ground, fingers sub-consciously making undefined lines in the mud. Gathering her thoughts back, she says slowly but loudly,
“The only difference between their lives and ours is that their husbands don’t beat them black and blue; for us that is the eternal truth, day in and day out.”
Geeta looks at her friend warmly, eyes twinkling with mirth for the first time since day break, lovingly passes her fingers through her hair, shesays, “You have become so smart, like those school teachers who know everything.” The two friends laugh out aloud, stealing a few moments of humor from life.
“But you are right, Ashadidi uses a harsh tone but never hesitates to help me out in my hour of need.” Geeta says matter-of-factly and continues, “like you said, she too must have her frustrations as she has to manage office and home both as her husband is mostly travelling.”
Suddenly recalling previous night’s incident at Geeta’s home, Chaaya cuts her and asks her, “What happened last night; why was Prakash beating you?”
Geeta gives her friend a sad, half smile and playing with the faded glass bangles on her wrists, replies,
Drawing in a deep breath, Geeta declares firmly, “he wanted me to borrow money from Asha didi so he can buy a cycle. He finds it difficult to walk two kilometers to the factory every day. I refused, I have already borrowed from three different houses. After the monthly deductions there is hardly any money left for our home. When I refused to borrow anymore, he punished me.” Geeta pauses for a moment, and adds softly as an afterthought, “And this morning I went to the dispensary to get some medicines as I had severe body ache and could not have come to work; but Asha didi would not understand. No one did.” She ends the discussion matter-of-factly, absent-mindedly plucking a leaf from the bush nearby and twirling it in her fingers.
The two women go quiet for some time, each lost deep in her own thoughts. Perhaps, looking for a way out of their misery, or thinking there is no way out. The rustling leaves of the tree giving music to their cogitation. It is usually in these moments of rumination that the two close friends find solace in each other’s company, supporting and comforting.
Gathering their thoughts and getting back to reality, they give each other a light pat, get up and start walking home. Geeta asks Chaaya about her day at work and for sometime the discussion goes around the mem saabs living in these posh high rises.
As they walk out, other maids leaving for the day join them on their way out. They stop at the exit gates to check out, displaying their ID cards to the guards sweating in the sweltering late afternoon heat. The women, start walking back home to a life full of trials & tribulations, and hoping against hope for better lives seeking which they had migrated to the city.
- Saree – Single piece wrap-around garment worn by Indian women
- Pallav – Part of the saree that drapes around the shoulder
- Salwar Kameez – Two piece garment, salwar is the pyjama like bottom and kameez is a long tunic. Mostly worn by women across south asia
- Dupatta – Single piece long scarf or stole draped over salwar kameez
- Mem saab – Madam
- Didi – Elder sister, can also be used to address someone older in age or position
- Ganapati – Hindu elephant god of auspicious beginnings
- 702 wali mem saab – Madam who lives in apartment no. 702
- 404 wali mem saab – Madam who lives in apartment no. 404
Anita Desai is an aspiring, amateur writer living in Hyderabad, India. She is an administrative professional, was associated for several years with an international development organization based in Delhi, working on health and education projects. She always enjoyed reading short stories but it was during a career break that she discovered her passion for writing. She shares her thoughts on her blog http://anitadesais.blogspot.in
Her first article, The Politics of Funeral, has been published on the blogspot:
Illustration by Alan Van Every (Featured image on the front page)