Former academic Rimli Sengupta has chosen a subject close to her heart for her debut book in English. It’s the story of Buttermilk, a maid in Kolkata, whose life is a rollercoaster ride that straddles her village where she has her marital home, the city where she works, and the suburban slum where she lives. The author brings to light the story of invisible people who work in our homes through the tale of her own maid, Buttermilk.
There’s a line in the book that may resonate with many readers: “Simply put, Buttermilk makes my life possible. For this, I pay her a monthly salary that just about covers dinner for two at a nice restaurant.” It’s a snide at the way society treats domestic helps even as this unorganised class works hard to keep our homes running like clockwork.
The life of Buttermilk—spanning five decades, first as Karno’s daughter and later as Jhoro’s wife—is worth reading about. We travel along with her through her different life stages, as a daughter to the strong-willed Karno, a wife to the dimwit Jhoro, a not-so-submissive daughter-in-law, and later a strict mother-in-law to Rupa. The free spirit of Buttermilk, along with her dogged determination, help her fight every battle, be it getting an Aadhar card issued from her village after umpteen attempts or the endless fight in getting a land lease in her family’s name.
Karno’s Daughter is a work of non-fiction, which, told in the voices of the author and protagonist, reads as a narrative that’s both engaging and heartwarming. The events that unfold, beginning with the abject poverty in which Buttermilk is raised, to her crawling up the social ladder where she owns a piece of land and a pukka house, are grim reminders of the exploitative lives most maids live.
Karno’s Daughter is an easy book to read—the sentences are framed well, the chapters move quickly and there’s no exaggeration of basic human suffering. It’s a narrative that will leave you nodding your head in agreement and even, at times, tear you up. It’s a glimpse into the world of never-ending struggle.