It has occurred to me many a time to write a profile on Beli. She has been our maid for the longest period. A frail lady (not weighing more than 90 pounds at any point of time) helped my wife in cleaning the house, washing clothes and doing the dishes. From an early morning visit to the last visit in the evening, she completed her tasks without any criticism from any of my family members. Her bell in the morning woke up the entire family. Only my wife would get up and open the door while all others would leave their beds depending upon the urgency. Beli’s task in that hour included doing the dishes and broom the Puja room. She would leave for another house thereafter only to return after a couple of hours to clean the house and help in washing clothes. My wife would dutifully provide her with some refreshment before she leaves at that hour. Her last visit for the day would be in the evening. At any given time, Beli would manage such work for at least 4 to 5 households. In between, she would visit her one room tenement to cook for her family, bath herself and come back to resume her jobs. She has been methodical and never gave any opportunity for complaints. Always smiling, she did her job to the best of her ability.
Beli came to this part of the country in search of work in the early part of the last decade. She came from an obscure and nondescript village in another nondescript district in the state of West Bengal. Migrant workers, in search of jobs, came in hordes when the city started developing rapidly in early 2000. The menial jobs were in demand, especially the household jobs. For a housewife, a maid is a blessing and a boon at the same time. The poor from the local populace were not much interested or skilled in such jobs. Mostly peasants, the local populace somehow despised the job of cleaning someone’s house or doing the dishes. The women folk of the migrant labourers took the job rather enthusiastically as the jobs were aplenty and it added to the family income. The rentals were high, cost of living in a town was already a matter of strain to the family and the lowly paid jobs of the men in factories were not sufficient to run the household. Many migrant men took up the jobs of rickshaw puller where the income was not steady and factory jobs were scarce. Hence the women of the house joined their husbands to supplement the income to eke out a moderate standard of living.
Beli came with her husband and three children, two daughters and one son. The couple was landless labourers. Her husband was not trained in any particular skill. So he started with rickshaw puller’s work which fetched him irregular income. Beli had no choice but to start working in nearby houses/flats. They lodged themselves in a one room tenement at an adjoining urban village at an astronomical rent of Rs.1000 in early 2000. Astronomical by their standards! Though rooms with lesser rent were available, Beli preferred paying a little extra since the building had toilet facility. Beli, for herself and also for her two minor daughters, did not like the idea of open defecation, one of the many qualities of Beli. So she agreed to pay a little higher rent. She has enlightened already without realising that such a thing will become a state-sponsored movement much later.
The wages for doing dishes, washing clothes or cleaning/dusting households were mostly fixed by the society managements. In our area, there are no individual houses. Group housing societies have constructed flats for their members and such jobs were available in these households. I remember the rates prevailing in 2003 when we started living in this area. It was Rs.250 per job per month. So for one household, maximum Rs.750 was earned by a maid if she did all the three jobs. Considering the households and the composition of each family, a maid could manage only 4 to maximum 5 households. This was really a backbreaking job. Fortunately, though the rates were fixed, certain households were benevolent. They paid a little extra to the maids with the twin purpose of earning goodwill and ensuring loyalty. The attrition rate was high among the maids. There are various reasons for it. However, the behaviour of the households was the most important reason. The maids came from a poor background. But they did not accept nonsense. Any rude or unbecoming attitude was enough reason for any maid to say good-bye. A little extra amount every month was a boon for the maid. Apart from that, residents like my wife, who gave a little refreshment every morning to Beli, also took care of extra payments or gifts during festivals, arranged for school dresses for their children and took care during illness. My wife lent her advance money at times for some sudden requirement to be repaid at leisure. Beli was at ease in working in our home particularly for two reasons, one she has the liberty to take leave as and when she needed and secondly she could talk to my mother in her mother tongue. My mother, who is also from a remote village in North Bengal liked to talk to her, endlessly.
Beli took special care in educating her children. There were opportunities for her minor daughters to supplement the family income. There was a demand of minor servants at houses who would take care of the aged family members or babysitting by staying either full-time or part-time till the other members return home. But Beli didn’t like it. She was of the firm opinion not to push her children in the same trade. She started educating her children. Both her daughters covered primary school education. The elder one was given vocational training in sewing. A tall girl by her age, her elder daughter was smarter among the lot. She did start working in houses but not as a maid but as a cook. The son’s education was continued till school final. Now he works in a local factory.
Beli was ahead of her age in finance management. She had a bank account (much before the hoopla of ‘financial inclusion’ started) and she saved whatever she could. The household expenses increased over the years. Of course, the remuneration was also hiked but the gap remained. Beli managed within her means. Her husband’s finances never improved. He remained a rickshaw puller and irregular in earnings. A lethargic man who depended heavily on his wife’s earnings.
She had an ambition of having her own pucca house at her village. The family’s only possession was a thatched hut at their village which required repairs every year. Due to floods, the living condition in a mud hut with thatched roof was pathetic. Beli wanted to change. With a trickle every now and then, she saved enough to build the house consisting of just one room. It was her accomplishment. She was now not afraid of floods.
As it happens in villages till date, early marriages are common. Beli withstood the pressure. She married both her daughters after they reached the age of eighteen. This was also an accomplishment for her that on her own she arranged the money for their marriage. She was also instrumental in bringing the son-in-laws to this city to get them suitably employed as there was not much opportunity in their villages.
I have booked her railway tickets online sometimes as the agent who booked tickets charged extra for no reasons. I observed that she liked to travel in reserved compartments, though many of her compatriots travelled in unreserved compartments for the sake of less fare. She continuously aimed at improving her living standards and imparted the same thought among her children.
Beli has now left the job of cleaning the houses or doing dishes. Because of her frail health, it was becoming difficult for her to do those laborious jobs. She was a good cook and started cooking for few households where the money is good and the job was less strenuous. But due to her loyalty to our family, she continued doing the job until last year. She arranged a substitute for us and then she left the job. Even now she is available in case of any need.
Beli now pays a rent of Rs.3200 for the same one-room tenement. Rs. 200 is extra for having an attached bath cum toilet. She cooks lunch and dinner for some houses. In our building, she does it for two houses. One house has 3 girls for whom she buys vegetables and other stuff required for cooking. With her pleasant smile and no-nonsense attitude, she easily becomes a necessity in whichever household she works. Beli has started construction of her house at her village. In fact, she has managed to acquire a small piece of adjoining land to build a two-room house. She is proud of her achievements.
Beli had turned a grandmother before she turned 50. Taking long leave, she went to her daughters’ village to help labour and subsequent care of the mother and child. She has built a reputation of good work and unflinching loyalty which helped her to take back her position once she returned to the city, every time. The households, where she had worked, are always ready to avail her services even she has been absent for long periods, sometimes months together.
I sum up this writing with a bow to Beli who is a symbol of survival instinct in an alien condition. When arrived, she was just unaware of anything and everything about the place. The language was foreign to her, the people were unfriendly and hostile, the customs were opposite to what she has learnt so far when she arrived, women were (and still are) ogled, exploitation by the local villagers of the migrants were in vogue, the households where she was employed were looking for opportunities to get extra work done without paying, there was no fixed timing of work – all at the whims of the household, there were filth and stench where she lived (the landlord has cow and buffalo sheds near their tenement), the husband’s income was not dependable, there were three minor mouths to feed at least twice in a day and there was no future or certainty.
Beli survived and flourished against all odds.