Mumbai households could not survive without the army of ladies who service the homes as housemaids or “bais” as they are called in Marathi. (In Rajasthani a “bai” is a girl or a daughter.) These young ladies are often the sole breadwinners of their homes. They are married with children. Their husbands may be employed as per diem workers in companies but they are mostly unemployed and are almost always drunks.
Neat and clean with their black hair slicked back in buns, the thin half saris clinging to their spare frames. A “mangal sutra” the symbol of marriage tied in a thread to their necks, a proof that survival for women in their twenty-first-century society is impossible without the stamp of marriage. Thin worn-out slippers on their feet calling attention to their hard life. These denizens of virtue march from apartment to apartment, sweeping, mopping, cleaning utensils, washing clothes and often cooking meals for families where both husband and wife work.
Each lady finishes her work like clockwork and may sit for a few minutes and hastily drink a cup of hot tea or chew tobacco. Each “bai” works in at least three to four homes to make ends meet. She does not call in sick. If she did many family lives would come unhinged. She is there on the hottest and the rainiest days when the streets are flooded and perhaps their own home is ravaged by rains too.
No one knows where she lives or how she manages to come to her place of work on time. There is perhaps a lot of solitary traveling by bus, train and barefoot. I am sure the burden of her existence hangs heavy on her tired shoulders on this endless journey.
Perhaps she is glad to escape every day for a few hours from an abusive spouse or in-laws. She does not have a choice to stay at home. Her work is her shelter, a temporary refuge. Once she goes to her own home, she undeniably has to cook and feed her own family, often take care of an ailing relative, run to a local doctor for medicine. She may also receive a blow or two when the money runs out for no fault of her own. When she goes to bed is a mystery? Does she even have the luxury of sleep? But more surprising is the fact that she is up again before the crack of dawn, this brave daughter of Mumbai to assume her role of a maid, again and again.
In all this drudgery, she still has time to listen to the woes of her employer as she rubs oil into her “didi’s” scalp or massages her neck. She also has time to share a story or two with a child as she folds clothes. Despite everything, she appears to be cheerful. It is amazing that she still accepts life as a blessing. Hope is alive in her eyes. I want to hug her, this beautiful daughter of India and praise her to the world and back. She may not have the same glamorous destiny as portrayed by J Lo in “Maid in Manhattan” but she has the same aplomb. Let us invest in her.
Monita Soni MD is a pathologist who has served the Tennessee Valley through her diagnostic laboratory, PrimePath PC in Decatur. She is the past president of the Huntsville Literary Association and has published poems and essays in news papers and journals ( Poet’s Choice, Alabama Writer’s Conclave, Limestone Dust,Tabula Rasa). Her book of poetry “My Light Reflections” speaks to the heart. She is a regular reader on the Sundial Writer’s Corner on WLRH and thrives in the arts community in Huntsville. She is inspired by twentieth century poets (Robert Frost, Keats, Shelley, Browning and Tagore) and ancient Sufi poet like Hafiz, Rumi and Faiz. From Mumbai, India and living in Alabama for fifteen years, her life and writing style is a pleasing hybrid of eastern and western cultures.
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