Saturday, March 7, 2009

Helping the domestic help

Anita, Saroja, Veeramma, Sarojini, Munni amma, Ashu...

Anita in Kanpur - a very quiet worker. She'd come with her gate-pass twice a day, and do all that she needed to, silently. It was difficult to get her to talk or have any dialogue with her - she was content to listen and proceed. In a smooth takeover, she had replaced her sister Susheela who got married and 'went away'.

Saroja in Bangalore is special. The only language she knew was Kannada. Neighbour-talk consisted of warnings that 'language problem' is likely to result in the house looking unkempt. We established a rapport on day 1, even as her husband apologetically said 'amma, she does not know Hindi' (the expect-you-know language in our circles). Because of her I learnt to make not only 'akki rotis' and parathas, but also conversation in Kannada - she is the reason that I can easily impress a localite with a better-than-average smattering of Kannada. Even now we exchange updates once in a while, and that routinely turns out to be a comfortable refresher course for me (continuing education programme!)

Veeramma in Sulur - Not at all quiet by any standards, but a reliable help to take care of the housee-cleaning routine. She wouldn't mind chopping spinach occasionally or readying methi leaves, but would leave for her mother's place for brief stretches, thankfully after arranging a substitute Sarojini, whose efficiency belied her rather large frame.

Munni Amma, here in Delhi, a senior citizen who is pretty quick (to leave soapy residues in vessels). But our mutual ways are set, and she's not a complaining character and is happy to work to meet her financial commitments. But her substitute Ashu - is lightning personified. I was bemused to find that she 'completed' a half-hour job in one-third the time.

After that long prologue you'll finally get to read the purpose of this post - my way of marking this significant day (IWD, March 8). In an effort to help the domestic help, I have offered to teach each of these ladies - members of the unorganised labour sector in India - their mother-tongue, with mixed results.
- Susheela and Anita - they had to get back home quick, and alphabets had to wait.
- Saroja, that devout vegetarian. Twice a week, after completing chores at my place and hers, she'd bring her notebook and pencil, and sit with the beginner's book I had got for her. I had got familiar with the Kannada alphabet and simple words through making out route-boards on buses, an alphabet chart, and the helpful series '30 days to Kannada' (through Tamil). So you can recognise the need for me to stay ahead, if Saroja had to become lettered! Her keenness to learn, and her hopes for her school-going boys to become toppers, her diligence in all that she did, and her ready giggles helped a lot, and I like to think that she's well on the way to minimum literacy. (Our mutual understanding even saw us through a tough period when the local police placed her family also among the suspects in a daring daylight robbery at our place).
- Veeramma - 'No, madam, I can't spend time or effort on studies'. But she let her children attend some extra classes.
- Sarojini had too many domestic responsibilities, and a drunkard for a husband, and I was not successful in taking her mind away from her worries.
- Munni Amma is lettered and even knows a few English words, draws pension, and runs a happy-enough household.
- Ashu - all of 18 and, a mother of a two-year-old. She's never been to school. When I offered to teach her -
"What will you charge?"
"I'll have to ask" and later "My family said 'no'"
"Need to look after kid, so I have to get back home ASAP"

If each of us (any member of the household including elders and teenagers) can spare a couple of half-hours a week to help (at least the willing) domestic help, methinks we are doing our mite to help our nation's womenfolk take further steps forward, remember - "If you educate a man you educate a person, but if you educate a woman, you educate a family."


lipi said...

Dear Swarna, you have demonstrated that you not only talk the talk, but also walk the walk. I remember similar attempts on my part not being successful - similar to the Ashu story. As you have shown, we have to keep trying. Will an offer to allow Ashu to bring her child to work one day a week help? So, she can do both tasks at the same time - learn and take care of baby. It may even be a 'foundation' for the child's learning.

Another thought, 'study-to-go' - 3 letters drawn out big and bold, to be sent home for her to soak the 'appearance' and practice while at home.


Well done, Swarna.
As I mentioned in my post on my mother-in-law, she taught her maid to read and write the Tamil alphabet after she (Amma) turned 80 - this was 20 years ago.
Women who want to, will.

Swarna said...

Thanks for that, Lipi, Raji