Recently, residents of a posh housing society in Noida woke up to a mob demanding the whereabouts of a missing maid. While the maid’s family alleged wrongful confinement and non-payment of wages, the employer has accused her of theft. Then, last month, a middle-aged woman from Meghalaya, who was accompanying her employer for lunch, was asked to leave the dining area of Delhi Golf Club in the capital. The reason: she “looked like a maid” in her traditional Khasi attire. These news reports may not have come as any surprise to Tripti Lahiri. The way maids are treated in our society is what her debut book, Maid in India: Stories of Inequality and Opportunity Inside Our Homes, is all about. The classist attitude they face is the underlying theme of the book in which Lahiri embarks on a painstaking journey to present the stories of opportunity and inequality right inside our homes.
They are the ones who know everything about the household, from a toddler’s eating preferences to the time when the plants need to be watered. If they fail to turn up for more than a day, the household begins to crumble. Yet they are the ones who are often made to eat last, sit on the floor and bear the ire of their sahibs and memsahibs. The book begins with an incident of class distinction, somewhat similar to what happened at the Delhi Golf Club, which the author witnessed while at a friend’s party in Goa. It sets the tone for the narrative, where the reader is taken across various social classes to highlight how demarcations and invisible lines come into play when the maid is around. You may eat a meal cooked by the maid, but you don’t allow her to eat from the same plate as you. You splurge on a meal in a fancy restaurant, but cringe paying even half that amount to your maid as her monthly wages.
It’s a book that will make you pause and wonder whether you are treating your domestic help with dignity. Lahiri admits to facing this dilemma herself while writing the book. She questioned herself whether she was paying her maid too little. Sadly, there are no fixed minimum wages for this unorganised sector in India. The book also highlights the tightrope that rescue workers have to walk when distress calls of help are made. The travails of organisations such as Shakti Vahini, which work against human trafficking, are well-documented. The stories of maids who have gone missing, underage girls who are physically abused by their employers, captivity and even death due to physical and mental trauma are heart-wrenching.
But all is not dark. A glimmer of hope comes in the way of some stories of upward mobility: Lovely, a maid in Gurugram, is working towards a white-collar job; Sonal Sharma, the son of a domestic help in Delhi, works as a sociologist at a prestigious thinktank; and Vijia, a former maid, has opened her own grocery store in Delhi. Lahiri puts her journalistic tools to apt use, pursuing her interviewees from mud dwellings to bungalows. And she is honest to the core, confessing how journalists often turn to the poor and destitute as subjects since they never ask quotes to be shown to them before publication.
The book is quite well-researched, with the author travelling to the interiors of West Bengal, Assam and Jharkhand in search of her subjects’ native places. A non-fiction book becomes interesting when facts are peppered with anecdotal incidents and characters strike a chord with the reader. Maid in India does both. And Lahiri does a fine job by making her book not just interesting, but relatable in more ways than one. The only missing point, if at all, is the lack of subjects from areas outside Delhi/NCR. It would have been good to know how maids are treated in other major cities of India, such as Bengaluru or Mumbai. Does there exist any difference at all or perhaps none, as classism thrives all across India.
(Written by Smitha Verma)