I have a devoted househelp at my service for over 15 years now. She has a rural background. When she came to work for me, the first day on taking the broom in her hands she said, ‘Akka please don’t allot separate plate and tumbler for me! Otherwise i don’t want to work for you!’ I wasn’t planning to do that. Those words rooted me to my spot. I felt ashamed of myself to be instilling such a fear on this village girl. She is like my younger sister ever since. After sometime she noticed that I was using the same coffee mug, my son used his etc., and that we did not mix towels or soaps or any personal thing even within the family. It is after a month she told me to give her her own glass and plate because in my family, everyone had our own plate, glass that we wouldn’t interchange. Even pillows and blankets. Still i did not tell my girl firsthand what was our house practice. I let the girl find out. In my case, there was never a discrimination. One thing my help keeps telling me is, after coming to me all those years back she for the first time was shocked by receiving equal, humane treatment. Nobody gave her that respect that was due to her all these years. My help has access to all my house, all my things and my trust in her is one hundred percent. That very trust of mine in her endeared me to her. When I am down, it is she who cooks for me. One day I surprised my friends with her cooking – yes, my orthodox school friends. They couldn’t believe she was such a fine cook. They were at loss of words. Respect also means that we share our food with our househelp when it is still piping hot and can be savoured heartfully – not as leftover always. This is what I do. If i make something special or even my daily food, I first share with my help. I give her her share as she finishes my morning chore. That simple gesture would touch her immensely. When my husband would be around, she would say, ‘akka, let anna eat around first. let me take my share in the evening.’ Even my help’s friend is like my sister. Whenever my girl takes leave, this girl comes to run some errands for me and do the chores. First time the girl came to my house, she had a similar plea for me: ‘akka please don’t differentiate and allot me a lota separately. i feel very hurt.’ These words still reverberate in my ears. The second girl worked for someone else. She would tell me how her employer would not allow her to move freely giving her only the leftovers and old clothes. The girls like me for the only reason that I treat them as fellow human beings, nothing special. I got both the girls silk saris for a family function this year. They had tears in their eyes when I asked them to pick that had never happened to them before. That i got them very same saris like for my friends was what touched them most. For my part, i never did anything extraordinary. I realized just treating someone human can also move them so much…
My friends and even my family say I lavish on the girls which is untrue. The truth is that I treat them as an equal. Treat them like they are my friends and own sisters. This is what has won me their loyalty and love and affection. Today the son of my regular househelp has graduated and daughter is on the verge of graduating. First time LITERATES by the way in their entire joint family. I won’t deny i have played a role in pushing them to this purpose and asking them to improve their living standards in every way. I can help only those closest to me, being a woman in this society with limited connections. Even if i improve the lives of 2-3 girls in this lifetime of mine, i count it as a blessing.
I am asking this society only one question: if someone should beg us not to give them separate glasses and plates, what kind of monsters are we supposed to be. How much more can we stamp on others’ dignity and self-respect. How much have we psychologically damaged them, destroyed them. How have we broken their hearts to a thousand pieces. We are worse than the Taliban really. They kill physically. We wound fellow humans emotionally dashing and killing their hopes. This passive aggression is what I view as most heinous because it goes unnoticed. It is not viewed as an act of violence at all. The hypocrisy thrives, flourishes dividing societies.
How did the discrepancies creep up in the first place and get entrenched so deeply in our midst. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that traditionally (meaning for many centuries) some occupying the seats of honour while others slugging it out at the bottom has been the way the society functioned. The vast majority of population probably remained complacent or their protests were quietened in no time. The status quo prevailed until realization set in. It means a reshuffle is the way forward.
I think it is time we plug all loopholes that may lead to tear from our social fabric. There just cannot be any justification on the basis of birth for this senseless discrimination we still practice in our homes.
At the same time, the girls’ determination also revealed to me, how they will not allow themselves to be treated in future. Which ideology did influence them? Both cannot read a letter. It is useless blaming political leadership when the awareness is happening. Kudos to the girls for their sense of dignity and respect. In my case, they needn’t have feared. But it is a lesson for all of us: if we deny respect and equal space for anyone from any sphere, then they will be obliged to claim it from us forcefully. In Tamil Nadu temple case, this is what is happening today.