Nagamma Thayee

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Nagamma used to work in my parents’ house in India, sweeping and mopping floors, doing laundry by hand and washing vessels. She worked there for almost two decades, coming in twice a day, six days a week and got paid a pittance. On Sundays, Nagamma would sell sundal and other snacks at Marina beach to supplement her meagre income. She wouldn’t gossip or be involved in unnecessary chit-chat and would do her job before moving to the next house which employed her services.

I learnt this morning that Nagamma had suffered a stroke and had passed away. Her life so sadly typical of so many other house maids (a euphemism for ‘servant’) who spend decades doing manual chores in large households with little job security and little choice.

At least, I know that Nagamma thayee was treated with respect  in our house. But that’s not always the case elsewhere. Manual labourers come at the bottom of social hierarchy and get a right kicking from everyone above.

I have seen apartment blocks in posh areas of Mumbai which have a separate lift for ‘service personnel’ (maids, drivers) and I’ve heard people talk about the bad influence maids have on the children that are in their care, committing such unspeakable acts as talking to them in vernacular and not in English.

But these are minor misdemeanours compared to some of the horrors house maids often have to endure. So many of them are caught up in a vicious cycle of debt and have little option but to carry on working, however awful the conditions.

I have not employed someone to clean my house in over a decade, ever since I moved to England. And I don’t see why anyone should.

Some would argue that in a country like India, where labour is cheap, having someone clean your house provides them with employment. But how many of them get paid fairly or have any rights that employees in a company take for granted? More importantly, how many house maids would do what they are doing, if they really had a choice in the matter? Not many, I imagine.

And if there was no one available to clean the toilets, then people would simply have to clean their own. That won’t be such a bad thing after all.

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