Nurses from southern India have been going to the Gulf countries to work for many decades now, earning praises and sobriquets like ‘Florence Nightingales of India’. During the same time, tens of thousands of housemaids from southern India have also gone to countries like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain, helping maintain India’s number one status as the world’s biggest remittances destination. But nobody has been singing their praises. In fact, from time to time, we read news of how some of these housemaids have suffered at the hands of their employers.
In October last year, Kasthuri Munirathinam, a domestic help from Tamil Nadu, escaped from her employers in Saudi Arabia by jumping through a second-floor window. There have been many similar incidents. Unlike their fellow migrants, housemaids from India and other south Asian countries like Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal, as well as the Philippines, do not enjoy any legal status. They instead rely on the goodwill of their employers to stay in their country.
Two years ago, Kuwaiti author Saud Alsanousi published his novel, The Bamboo Stalk, that had a Philipino maid as the central character. Last year, debutante Mia Alvar’s collection of short stories, In the Country, brought the focus back on domestic workers from the Philippines. Now, a new book traces the conditions in which housemaids from south Asia live and work in the Middle East.
Perhaps Tomorrow, which spans a period from the mid-1980s to the first decade of the current century, traces the real-life story of Pooranam Elayathamby, a housemaid from Sri Lanka. It starts with a teenaged Elayathamby boarding a bus to Colombo from her village for a job in Kuwait. The journey isn’t easy. The conflict between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan government had turned into a civil war and for a Tamil girl like her, the many checkposts on the way posed plenty of hurdles in starting a new life. In Colombo, the Tamils were treated with suspicion, making it more difficult for Elayathamby.
She would go on to have several such journeys between her village in the Tamil-dominated Eastern Province and the Sri Lankan capital, each more difficult than the preceding one. But Elayathamby was determined to pursue her life’s goals—to take care of her unemployed and abusive husband and their three young children living in a war zone in Sri Lanka. Her struggles, however, don’t end. On her first trip back home, she is given an ultimatum by a Sinhalese captain to become his concubine in Colombo. “This time I had reached my limit,” writes Elayathamby. “There was no way in hell that I was going with the captain to Colombo.”
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She escapes, only to return to the Middle East, where she learns that wars have now become a part of her life, no matter where she lives. Kuwait is attacked by Iraq and Elayathamby escapes to Saudi Arabia. As she settles in her new surroundings, she works harder to build a new home for her family back home.
She does manage to save enough for the construction of a new house in Sri Lanka, but loses her husband. Even while grieving his death, she manages to find jobs for her nephew and younger sister in the Middle East. She also befriends some fellow domestic workers from other countries, as well as a few of her employers.
We are told at the beginning of the book that Elayathamby now lives in the US with her American husband, co-author Richard Anderson, whom she met in Kuwait while working for one of his colleagues. The memoir is a sea of stories, mostly Elayathamby’s own before Anderson came into her life. It’s a heavy album of images of struggling people in stifling conditions. There are no smiling faces, only faces of determined women working hard with hope burning inside. Perhaps Tomorrow is a survival kit for anyone confronting insurmountable obstacles in life. It’s also an invaluable and inspirational story of how helping yourself is the first step towards helping others.
Faizal Khan is a freelancer.