Posted in Economic

Who Are We Stealing From

Modi’s 10% reservation for the so-called economically backward FCs is the reason for this post.

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My part-time maid lives off my street. Hers is a dead-end. No thatched roof can be seen within city limits (except in north Madras extension areas that are fishing colony) but since this is a fag end of the street with no traffic, the civic authorities have spared the little murky corner. Coming from a dirt poor family, it is also true that my girl’s home stands out like a sore thumb in the otherwise crudely made out cement and concrete lower middle-class neighbourhood of hers.  Most constructions here were originally unauthorized but gradually regularized by the corporation who routinely ratify illegal tenements/housing/encroachments within city limits. Is there any other way of providing decent shelter to the poorest of poor in our metro (other than in Housing Board colonies that have sprung up for the purpose). Displacing the masses is unthinkable. One has to consider their livelihood.

Let’s call my girl ‘S.’ She  lives in a single room thatched hut – the walls are exposed brick work cemented in patches and whitewashed here and there. Her husband is a house painter. She shares the meager living space with her husband and 2 grown-up children. Her In-law occupies the adjoining room. She says there is a 4 feet verandah running in the sides where she has built a rudimentary toilet. When the Jayalalitha government installed for her a free hand pump, my maid’s water woes were temporarily solved. Now in harsher times, once again in her late thirties, she is back to running after the water tankers to fetch precious potable water for her family. Minimum of 20 times a day that is. Tanker stops at the street turning. Calculate the distance of one street, the weight of each plastic pot loaded with water, the carrying time and energy. This is going on for years sans a small break in good monsoon years. The girl suffers greatly with painful hips and excess bleeding thanks to the ordeal. The hand pump was a blessing to her. Now it is useless.

Water tanker dispensation is also not free. Is in’t strange that a valuable two rupee is levied by the tanker crew per pot (officially or unofficially) from the poorest whereas we the upper middle classes have all along sat back to enjoy the corporation water from our sumps paying a flat tax and water charge. Pittance compared to what the lowest and most unprivileged menial work labourers have to shell out for water. In fact this is a good part of their daily wages.

My girl was using wood/coal for cooking. I booked an LPG connection for her over 10 years back when she started working for me, and got her the first gas cylinder. I did not know then how much it saved her money and energy. Thankfully, she gets her subsidy credited to her account these days.

A day in my maid’s life dawns at about 4 am. She cooks and cleans for her family, packs lunch, leaves food for in-law (rich or poor it is a must in most families in India to take care of husband’s elderly parents; and parents prefer staying over at their son’s over their daughter’s). Later she comes to work for me. Returns to her home to do the dishes and wash clothes. Goes to sleep with the lights on by 10 pm. Her husband is the chief earning member. Daily he brings home 200 bucks which is big sum for them.

During monsoons (lean season), the husband whose painting job is not regular but seasonal, opts for any kind of manual work like cleaning homes, water tanks etc in the neighbourhood. It is predictable he is out of job for over a month or perhaps longer whenever the skies open up. That is when the family suffers the most.

Husband and wife are hard and sincere workers. Whether standing in queue for hours to get their rations supply from the govt PDS shops or taking care of their children and aged parents, they discharge their familial duties without a murmur. Beach and cinema happen once an year during vacations. Holiday means a 2-day bus trip to Tirupathi Balaji temple, a bi-annual pilgrimage for the family. For lower middle class India, temple towns are the Himalayan hill stations.

Even if poor my maid’s family celebrate all our festivals as it fits their capacity and are very religious. My maid fasts many more times than me, and her kind of unadulterated raw piety always impresses me. When I chant the Lalitha Sahasranama, she would adjust her work near my pooja so she hears me. She comes to work after showering, so makes fresh flowers into garlands for my Mother Goddess. She is always my temple companion. I tell her, Shakthi will be more delighted with her than me – because it is her devotion that is matchless. Mother sees what we the mortals cannot see. Mother notes what we the earthlings miss.

Even as she is steeped in such an abject poverty, my girl’s cheer and zest for life always bowls me over. There is so much to complain if she has to. But she never does that. And no gossip either. Virtues you find nowhere these days.

The family though suffers from a strange but severe stress: 

They sleep with their single tubelight on during the nights  – as otherwise they have to deal with rodent menace. Once their boy’s toe was bitten by a furry rat and he had to get a shot to overrule any viral/bacterial infection. Ever since the family do not dare switching off the light when it is bedtime.

‘How do you manage to even get a wink of sleep’ I ask my girl and she says as a matter of fact, ‘now I can’t go to sleep with lights off!’

Sleeping with the lights on…

I have no tears left in my eyes to shed for my girl. The single factor that she and family sleep with the lights on was on my conscience for days when I learned of it the first time.

Monsoon times leave her place with damp walls, wet floors, drains overflowing. I try to help by giving out blankets, food etc. Whatever we do is simply not enough I know.

My heart goes out to millions in this country who jostle up in dungeon-like quarters for shelter that they call ‘home.’ My girl is a lot luckier – she has someplace to call ‘home’ and she owns her small plot of 600 sq ft which is still a good bet in a city like Chennai. Think about the homeless.

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I ask my girl about her daughter always. I still love and long for my unborn daughter.

‘She is still bed wetting!’ said she the last time i inquired.

Her 15 year daughter, was in the habit of wetting the bed during sleep. I keep asking ‘S’ to refer to a doc but she says, she had had such an anxiety problem herself. Now combined with her menarche, the problem has worsened for her daughter. ‘Why didn’t you tell me earlier?’ I asked her totally perplexed. The girl’s bed-wetting had totally slipped my mind. I could see the agitation in my maid’s face. I gave her a bunch of blankets. ‘Throw away the soiled ones. Use fresh ones, how much ever you want, ask me’ I said.

‘Akka my hands are aching washing the sheets day in and day out!’ she said, ‘our little house stinks and everytime my daughter has to change her napkin, we all have to troop out of the hut. Even if its midnight.’

How many ever bedrooms and bathrooms and wardrobes we have, we want more. How much ever clothes and jewels we own, we want new. Is ours the latest car? Cell phone? Well now, welcome to poor and miserable India. Come meet my girl ‘S.

We all come across so many, many stories in daily life, media and internet, but nothing moves me like this girl’s. I could get her a washing machine but its not advisable given the nature of their muddy damp walls. Besides there is not a square inch to spare. As such they live like cattle in a shed. The single room-hut serves as my maid’s family’s bedroom, kitchen and living. There is a tv, a fridge, a steel bureau and a cooking counter. Too many electronics and electricals to my comfort. There is barely any moving space and they sleep in the floor in a row. Any guests may mean, the family have to squeeze them in that cramped hole they call home. They don’t even use a ceiling fan – only a pedestal is possible in the low-roof thatched space.

My heart goes out to the little girl who has blossomed into a young woman last year. Where is the privacy the teenager desperately needs in this hour. The girl is upset and crying because she knows her condition and she is ashamed about it. She has no control over her bladder having slept with the lights on since the day she was born. And now onset of the menstrual cycle complicated matters for her. She is still a child – of 15 years. 

Quarrelsome abusive grandmother , alcoholic grandfather (who recently passed away), and an impoverished neighbourhood, the little girl seems to suffer from some suppressed emotions surrounded by misery from all sides, leave alone the economic condition.

I remember my doc’s warnings to me when my son was an infant and I was a working mom. That was a long, long time back. His first advice was to strictly keep the lights switched off after 9 pm so the baby learns the difference between day and night. My son stopped bedwetting in night hours under one year. He started sleeping the whole night around the same time, not keeping awake, giving me complete rest and full night’s sleep that I badly needed in those days. Many years may have rolled since, but whatever concerns my son as a mother, I never forget. (One more reason is, the Pampers (children’s napkin) commercial I see in tv bombarding Indian homes with misinformation and harmful ideas on parenting. Unhealthy things are wrongly promoted in the name of hygiene, soaking wet in diapers for hours is advised against quickest disposal of soiled napkins. Mothers of my generation never did that.) (My diapers I used for my son were my FIL’s old cleanly washed and cut white cotton dhotis! My MIL made a fine job out of them!) (That’s a keepsake for another blog post in future!) Anyway, things like these strangely remain in your memory forever for whatever reasons…

I think perhaps the girl would be alright with time. Would outgrow the habit. My maid who endured the same problem got okay only with her marriage. She was bed-wetting until her 18th year that is. Sudden thrust into married life must have done something to her psychologically. She says with her wedding night, she lost the bothersome habit unaware. I did not tell her, the reason was perhaps marriage freed her from her miserable existence easing her anxieties and giving her a sense of security. She needed no more to toil for hours in hot sun in farm lands in her village and walk back the long distance home to slog the rest of the waking hours until she went to sleep. Urban life was easy neither but comparably less daunting.

On my advice and on doctor’s the mother tries many remedial measures with the little girl. Like not giving her liquid food from the evening hours. From rousing her from sleep to take her to toilet every 1-2 hours. Still nothing works.

I said may be her daughter’s problem is hereditary. Then I suddenly remembered and asked her ‘Did you tell the doctor about sleeping with the lights on?’ She said no, she never thought that could be a reason. I said perhaps that is the main reason. My maid is too scared and shy to approach any doctor or psychologist any longer on the issue. She feels her daughter has grown too old for that. She is concerned about what her neighbours may think,. whether it would later on affect her daughter’s married life. How much ever I try to convince her to come with me to a specialist, she refuses. She believes her daughter will be fine some day as she herself grew out of the habit over time  …

May be she is right, we must try to ignore the problem. And the girl who is self-conscious up until now about the bedwetting would get alright on her own…

The mother and the girl – and their dreams and trials and tribulations… Its a moving story. I am ashamed of my nation, my society, of the class divide, of the insecurity of the masses, of the injustice they suffer from and more than all by the way they meekly surrender without a fight. They know they have lost it. What it is to be really poor and at receiving end in India – I am seeing before my eyes every single day.

The little girl’s menstruation coupled with the bedwetting habit totally funks me. Sleeping with the lights on…

The silver lining in the cloud is that hopefully one day in the future the teen girl will become a graduate – the first woman to earn a degree in her entire clan. So its high time her medical or psychological disorder is dealt with with the seriousness it deserves. More than anything, hygiene is important. If a qualified expert says all will be well without treatment, I am willing to consider that. Or whether the girl should wait until she marries as her mother says… Is it alright to meddle in others’ life. These are the questions I ask myself now.This is why I stop right here without overstepping certain boundaries.

What are the long term effects on health of individuals who are deprived for years, fitful night sleep. Is it normal to be in light all 24 hours a day – in sunlight during the day and electric light by the night hours. What are the psychological side effects. Very disturbing to think.

I keep calling my maid from wherever I am as I divide my time between places. Never fail to ask her about her daughter. She is getting her regular monthly periods. But the bed-wetting continues… The mother sometimes sounds tired and hopelessly sad. The men in the family – her husband and son are suffering in a way too. The little girl’s habit has now multiplied many times over. And then there is the grandparent to consider … ‘We all are keeping awake the whole nights for 5 days now every month’ said ‘S.’ Never have i felt more sick.

How many of us even bother to spare a moment to think of the lives of our house helps or drivers or cooks. Many times I think about helping the family with their housing needs but I decide, helping with the children’s education is more important. The family as I said, is very proud even if poor. Any extra help you may want to give them, they shy away with shame cursing their own helplessness. They are the kind of rural folks who can be easily wounded. They don’t want help – beyond a certain point. I am actually happy with that. How much they value self-respect, honour and dignity even in their desolate living conditions unwilling to compromise. What a difference from our politicians. And even our FCs who want to compare themselves with this poor lot of the nation. ‘Akka when my son starts working, he will raise a loan and build us a proper home’ says my maid.

I have tried to sleep with the lights on – never succeeded.

India’s issues are very complex, complicated. Poverty and gender discrimination and illiteracy compound to our woes. Those of us who are lucky are so very insensitive to care for those on who we tread over. Our greed snatches away the poors’ just share. Every 2nd or 3rd flat or house we buy, we are pushing the unfortunate into a further cramped dark corner.  Their petty world is bleak and hopeless. The day my maid told me she washed as many soiled sheets and mats of her daughter in their dirty bathroom after the night bed-wetting by her daughter on her getting her periods, I could not sleep in my comfortable bed. I tossed and turned for hours thinking of the girl, the family sitting or lying with the lights on, and mother and daughter making numerous trips to their dingy bathroom… the whole night… If I don’t feel guilty after this, I am not human.

Modi government, please think twice before any big decision/ruling. Be it Reservation or Land Acquisition. This is my hearty, earnest request to you. We can beat the mute and the invisible black and blue and they can take it, but it breaks my heart to see this happen to them. Industrialization, urbanization is necessary, but please do it without trampling upon our poor and squashing them into pathetic pieces. There is nobody to take their sides, nobody to argue their cases, they will give up easily – but think of the spirit we crush, the hopes we dash, the lives we crumple… I am certain my government will have some humanitarian considerations… If you have to uproot anyone at all, relocate them favourably.  Ambanis can have 27 storied palatial houses. The poor of India are not clamouring after big bungalows. All they want is to be left alone and not disturbed.

Giving the FCs of India equal footing with the suppressed and downtrodden communities of the nation is the most heartless injustice one can do to them. To be clubbed with their exploiters in one economic bracket is the worst thing that can happen to the poorest of India.

I have never felt as hopeless about my nation as I do now. Social Justice died a cruel death in India yesterday right in our parliament.

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