With COVID-19 shaking the world, our lives have changed in dramatic ways. In the midst of the pandemic that is giving birth to chaos, fear, and uncertainty, another harsh truth has come to light. It’s the unpleasant fact that we take certain people for granted: those individuals who symbolize a strong invisible force and play an important part in our lives.
Social distancing is the global mantra these days. People are staying at home by themselves to avoid contracting the virus. In conjunction, an acute problem has arisen in Indian households. Most families who have domestic help to assist with chores around the house are without that helping hand. With citizens being asked to avoid contact with outsiders, these non-resident workers have been asked by their employers not to come to work.
The absence of domestic help is like a missing part in an equation, taking a toll for those who are totally dependent on others for cooking, cleaning, and other chores. The challenge is even greater in a family where both parents are having to juggle their professional and personal lives and take care of little children.
A question that has emerged is whether the absence of maids during the lockdown is exposing the Indian family’s unspoken sexism. It is felt that responsibilities are usually not equally divided between the husband and the wife, and the pressure is more on the woman of the house, who is having a lot on her plate.
There is another side to this story. It’s the sad plight of the domestic workers whose lives continue without the option of working from home. They are basically without jobs at this time. Many are burdened with the worry that they will eventually lose their jobs if the lockdown and social distancing continue for a longer period. On humanitarian grounds, it is expected that employers in such times of crisis give the salaries to their domestic help without any pay-cut. But how can we be sure that everyone will follow that same code of ethics?
An appeal was made by immensely talented actor Adil Hussain on behalf of the National Health Authority earlier this month. It was about free COVID-19 testing and treatment being made available by Ayushmann Bharat, the world’s largest and fully state-sponsored health assurance scheme. Although it was a piece of information about corona testing, the message was laced with a beautiful thought. Hussain acknowledged the invaluable day-to-day contributions of all the workers: the driver, the gardener, the washerman, the cook, and the watchman, to name a few. They are the people who work for us day and night, and as the actor stressed, we, in return, need to do our small share by spreading the word.
On another live show in Indian Express’s Facebook page (April 22), where he talked about different aspects of the lockdown, Adil Hussain made a point that left a mark in my mind. With particular references to the conditions of migrant laborers, he lamented how apathetic we tend to be towards the sufferings of the working class. He said that instead of just treating the stories of their misery as mere “data in the news”, we need to pay attention and see if we can help them in any way. The services of the household help, the migrant laborer, the vegetable grower, the construction worker, and other members of the working class are priceless, he voiced. They are the backbone of a nation; they help to build a robust economy, and we need to recognize the fact that a country minus their services would come to a standstill and cease to function.
Why do we need a crisis to understand the importance of our domestic helps? Why can’t they be treated with dignity and respect even otherwise?
It would be unfair to generalize because we definitely have people who treat their staff with empathy and compassion. But there is also an ugly picture that comes into the spotlight. In most cases, the job of the domestic help is a thankless one. We tend to forget that these workers are human and that they are liable to making mistakes. Unrealistically, we expect perfection from them. We do not give them the benefit of the doubt.
There are those times when we wear the garb of selfishness. Known for his aptitude in portraying the fine nuances of human behavior in arthouse cinema, Assamese writer/filmmaker Bhabendra Nath Saikia (Padma Shri and Sahitya Akademi Award recipient) crafts a poignant story of two housemaids in Sandhya Raag (1977). The film, which was also screened in the Cannes Film Festival, is dipped in delicate sensitivity and tells the story of siblings Charu and Toru who work as maids in two separate households in the city. The girls, who do their very best to serve their employers, are sent back home once their services are no longer deemed necessary. What is heartbreaking is how the girls, after being used to a comfortable life in the city, have to suffer the pangs of poverty back home. This is a story told on celluloid, but we cannot ignore the sad truth that unfair treatment of domestic workers is prevalent in our society.
It is definitely the hour to reflect. If not earlier, it is now the time to realize the indispensable role played by all of those whose contributions we may have underplayed or unintentionally ignored. This thought is presented in a very compelling manner by actor Ayushmann Khurrana, who dedicated a beautifully written poem to the “frontline warriors”.
We all need to do our share. Sometimes, even a small act of kindness can win hearts and provide happiness. I call it a day by sharing this lovely ad film #selfiewithdidi by Jaypore, where a young woman recognizes her maid as someone special and brings a smile to her face by gifting her a pair of earrings.
The coronavirus situation will come to pass, and once again, our domestic helpers will return to work. But let us make sure that we treat them with fairness, give them due respect, and do not forget that they are the ones who help us to cruise through life with a smooth sailing.
(This article was featured in Women’s Web )