A short, sticklike woman enters a house and mops the floor with a briskness that belies her puny figure. Stolidly wiping the floor with a piece of cloth, she might come across as taciturn to some. But ask her about the problems faced by women in the lower rung of society and she’s quite voluble. The grime and poverty, husbands raining blows after bouts of inebriation, the measly amount earned from wiping floors and washing dishes at other people’s houses, seeing children scrounge for a loaf of bread, asking for money that can tide her over the days when other resources dry up. It’s very difficult, she says.
Her name is Raj and she lives in Rajapur village in Rohini. She works as a maid but holds her head high in poverty. She’s not the one to ingratiate herself with her masters and she bristles with righteous indignation if you heap scorn on her for not doing her work properly. She’s honest and hard-working, and she knows it.
Even as a child, she was an avid learner. She performed well in academics and never failed in any subject. She’s originally from Nepal but has lived in India. She was born in a village in Banaras.
She studied in a government school in west Patel Nagar. When she was in class IX her paternal grandfather’s diktat threw cold water on all her hopes of studying further. He wanted her to marry before he breathed his last, and so she did. She was about 14 years old when she tied the knot. She had a girl and a boy in quick succession. While the newborn girl died a few days later, the boy was healthier and is now 12 years of age. He helps his mother when he’s free and she might have to rope him in if she is not able to sustain life with her earnings.
His fondness for his mother is visible. He’s a well-behaved and sweet child. And he comes running to his mother the moment school gets over. She, on her part, spares no effort in trying to ensure that her child is educated and attends tuition as long as her resources don’t run dry.
Her husband works as a car cleaner. He is up and about at 6am and scrubs away at cars till around 11am. The rest of the day he’s killing time. Both men and women of their community find themselves in a terrible predicament, but women, for the most part, end up becoming their husband’s punchbag.
When confronted with an abusive husband who thunders at her and tries to take away her meagre savings, Raj has no option but to let his anger run its course. Come what may, she says, she’ll stand her ground. She’ll never lose sight of reason or be cowed by her abusive husband.
Rajapur village, where she lives, boasts of a bustling vegetable market. Shops selling grocery, stationery, utensils and items of everyday use are lined up on one side of the street. A narrow, potholed road runs through the market and in the evening when the place is crammed full, even a car halting in the middle can cause the traffic to back up. You see a sea of people haggling with vegetable sellers in the evening; you also see the dire financial straits in which many of the sellers are; what you, however, don’t see is how life can still be endurable in poverty if it wasn’t for the drinking problem afflicting the community.
Women are tight-lipped about it; it is difficult to broach the subject with them. But Raj has summoned the courage to speak her mind. Like all other women, she carries on with a stiff upper lip but lend her a sympathetic ear and the veneer of composure cracks a bit. Her husband went missing for a month and returned two or three days ago. He asked her to hand him over the savings she had stowed away somewhere in the house. When she refused point blank, he roughed her up. Her courage is ebbing away and it’s beginning to tell.
It wasn’t so the first time she came to our house to work as a maid. She had great hopes that she would be able to educate her son and help him vault out of this undignified existence. Now, she is in a quandary whether to let her son study or ask him to join her in earning a living.
Most of the middle-class families in whose houses she works as a maid are not generous. They cavil at her meagre charges. But that, she says, is only part of the problem.
She explains how after toiling for an entire day, she has to encounter a drunk and irate husband who pockets her hard-earned money and squanders it away. She works hard to eke out a living; all she ever asks for is to be left alone and spared the ugly brawls and constant bickering.
She feels women would not have such a raw deal if men chip in with some money to run the household instead of laying claim to all their earnings. Besides the daily dose of drunken brawls, there’s more women have to contend with. Husbands have relationships with other women; loyalty is a far cry. “Driven to despair, you either want to kill somebody or commit suicide,” she says with bone-chilling directness.
She, however, looks at it as part of a larger social problem. “I am educated but there are so many women who are illiterate. They are scared and can’t protest,” she says.
“I wanted to write about all this but my spirits desert me when I realize that not much will come of it,” she says with a tone of resignation.
Though she’s plucked up the courage to let a journalist visit her home, she’s opposed to the idea of anyone visiting the village in the evening. “Come in the afternoon,” she says. The unseemly exchange of abuses after the men return in the evening will be too unwholesome a sight for people unaccustomed to such surroundings, she feels.
“With the prices if all commodities going up, it’s hard to pay the rent, feed the child and pay for his tuition. Sending him to tuition is important as you can’t leave the child at home and expose him to all the negative influences,” she says as she takes me to her home in Rajapur village. A dark and dusty lane snakes its way into the dwellings of these people. Four to five people are packed like sardines in frowsy rooms which are best described as cubbyholes. A musty smell invades your nostrils as you gingerly walk in the poorly lit lanes. Children with grimy faces run around in frayed clothes. “Most people get water only once a day,” Raj explains. And what about the pitch-dark staircases?
“The landlords charge us Rs 2,000 to Rs 3,000 a month for these tiny rooms and if you try to put a bulb near the staircases, they refuse to pay the electricity bill for it. With great difficulty I earn between Rs 3,500 and Rs 4,000. From where do I arrange the funds?” she asks.
She points to a knot of men somewhere in the distance. “They gather here every afternoon to play cards. In the evening they drink and then abuse their wives,” she says.
She leads me on to her house and I notice she’s kept her house clean even in these squalid conditions. After her husband deserted her, she’s been living with her elder sister. “Electricity and water are not a problem and there is a proper toilet here. Moreover, how can a single woman live in such insecure surroundings? Every other day there is a break-in.”
Most of the houses in the vicinity are shambolic and disorderly; there are scores of women who are silently suffering, afraid to protest. Children who are most impressionable are exposed to a language completely beyond the pale and it is little wonder why they go astray despite being enrolled in schools.
She warned against raising the subject of domestic violence with other women before she sounded them out. But despite all her efforts, she couldn’t convince any of them to discuss the subject openly. “They fear the consequences of such an act of defiance. They are afraid that they will be beaten up if the men find out. They are being stifled but they don’t have the courage to speak out.”
As I look at her I realize that it all boils down to one question: whom do these women turn to? An indifferent society that places very little premium on their well-being or their husbands who ride roughshod over their wishes. Raj is still sanguine and hopes she’ll find the answer.