ARTICLE: Death of a Domestic Worker

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Jyothi Kanics---Global Survival Network (jkanics@igc.apc.org)
Tue, 10 Nov 1998 09:21:24 -0800 (PST)


2) DEATH OF A DOMESTIC WORKER
   By Anjana Basu, India

It was four days until the child's birthday and the house in Calcutta
was filled with visions of jelly, crisps, oranges and biscuits. The
child would get up every morning and add or subtract a name from the
guest list. "I fought with Neha, so I don't want her to come." Or, "I
have a new best friend. I want an invite for her." The house staff would
laugh over it, but her mother was beginning to reach a breaking point.
Mrs. Guha had been counting the oranges for days and was convinced that
three or four were missing. In a frenzy, she awoke to discover the
curtains hadn't been drawn and that there was no sign of Tiya, their
14-year-old domestic worker anywhere. It was obvious, she thought, that
the girl was oversleeping again.

Mrs. Guha rushed to the girl's room, threw open the door and, as she
later described it, "stopped dead in horror." Tiya's eyes, suspended a
foot above hers, stared off into space. There was a nylon rope around
her neck.

This is a real incident that was heavily publicized and debated among
many in Calcutta. The later arrest of Mrs. Guha for unrelenting torture
leading to suicide marked the first time that an employer had been
arrested in one of the several domestic worker suicide cases which occur
here each year. More surprisingly, it was a woman who had been arrested,
since following such suicides suspicion usually falls on the husbands
with sexual undercurrents to the whole affair. For me, the case's
significance was also personal: Mr. Guha and I had worked together at
the same advertising agency.

The incident also revealed the extent to which the Marxist takeover of
the state government in West Bengal has confused and complicated the
lives of the middle class here. Marxism appealed mostly to the middle
class, and, as a result, there is great discomfort with the concept of
"kaajer lok" (people who work) or female domestic workers.

The middle class live in flats or sprawling houses, usually without the
benefit of expensive vacuum cleaners and with food unavailable in a
ready-to-cook form. That means chopping, grinding, kneading dough, and
cleaning floors by hand. A housewife depends on someone to help her run
the house, even if it is a part-time worker. As a result, practically
every lower middle, middle or upper class household in Calcutta is
looking for such a "kaajer lok," has just lost one, or is waiting for
one to come back from her village. But the relationship with such
workers, and the gap in wealth and class creates tensions.

Most of Calcutta's domestic workers whisper in the sibilant accents of
neighboring Bangladesh. Their mothers settled in Calcutta and formed
shanty towns with their families, though many of them are widowed or
husbandless. Although these mothers are usually only 30, they are
prematurely greyed and wrinkled. Above all, they are determined that
their daughters will lead better lives. However, until that time, they
are forced to send them out to work since jobs in wealthy houses are
among the few forms of employment available.

The girls, often just entering their early teenage years, travel back
and forth between the relative luxuries of a house with concrete walls
and a bathroom with plumbing, to their real world -- a hut, roofed with
metal sheets, and a bath in water carried from a well. They pass onto
their families tales of luxury, which often build resentment.

This is the story of a young girl from a shanty town who was
occasionally picked up by a big white car and treated as one of the
family. Tiya was 14. She was born in Calcutta and had been working since
she was at least 12. There are no laws preventing employment at such a
young age, and no such thing as compulsory schooling. She worked in a
liberated household where she even played with the daughter and got to
see her mother fairly frequently because her shanty town was just down
the road. She made $20 a month, plus receiving all her meals. She seemed
fairly happy. But then, one morning, she was found hanging from the
ceiling of her room, a nylon rope around her neck. The family, aghast,
called the authorities. Police descended on the house in a solid
phalanx, and brought down the body.

Word spread like wildfire to the shanty town. Tiya's mother rushed to
the nearest police station where she filed a "first information report"
accusing Mrs. Guha of two years of unrelenting torture that had driven
her daughter to commit suicide. A mob of 500 rushed from the shanty town
to the house screaming for vengeance. Unable to break down the iron
gates, they destroyed the owner's car, forcing riot police to charge
them with their truncheons. After that, a stunned Mrs. Guha was
arrested.

A local newspaper got wind of the incident and descended on the shanty
town in a shower of cameras. The full-page coverage included photographs
of the bereaved parents caught in full anguish.

The suicide became the talk of the middle class. People empathized and
argued over it, bringing their own experiences to bear on the subject.
Everyone had a story about a domestic worker: One, unhappily in love
with a local gangster, swallowed carbolic acid when no one was home.
"Then she lost her nerve and ran out of the flat ringing doorbells. By
the time I got home, she was foaming at the mouth but still refusing to
tell anyone what it was she'd swallowed. The police were swarming all
over the place, cross-examining my husband, we couldn't get an ambulance
and she was lying there vomiting blood. I don't think I'll ever be able
to live in that flat again," said a woman who had once worked in Mr.
Guha's advertising agency.

Society was torn between gossip and sympathy. Housewives who were caught
up by the horror of what had happened to Mrs. Guha, felt a sense of
urgency. "We don 't want this to happen to us," they agreed, but no
one wanted to contemplate extreme moves like a signature campaign or a
protest march to the state government offices urging her release.

Tiya never before had a problem with her employers. Even her mother,
after all the police court mob violence drama was over, reluctantly
admitted it. On that last Wednesday visit home, Tiya had talked about
nothing except the upcoming birthday party. She had promised to bring
some cake back with her on Sunday, and she had left early, repeating
that promise. Then, two days later, she was dead. A post mortem showed
no foul play, but, according to Mrs. Guha's brother-in- law, the results
were not allowed to reach the judge. He felt that the Communists, whose
position in West Bengal is threatened, pulled political strings to gain
support in the shanty town.

Mrs. Guha was thrice refused bail while her family wrangled with lawyers
and used all the connections they had at their disposal. The three-time
bail refusal fuelled the gossip even more. Some of Mr. Guha's colleagues
darkly hinted at a blow beneath the ear which had killed the girl and
which had hastily been covered up by the rope and the two stools strewn
elaborately around the room. "This is very fishy, we've never heard of
this sort of problem getting out of hand -- especially when there's no
evidence of sexual molestation," said one colleague.

The media, unable to assign blame or find a cause, debated the subject
loosely. It was fantasy, said some experts, a child's trip into a world
where she didn't really belong who had drowned there when she found
herself rejected. "When young girls who have lived a life of deprivation
find themselves ostensibly part of an affluent household, this sense of
identity is often confused," Professor J. Mondol of the Department of
Applied Psychology, Jadavpur University told "The Telegraph." Tiya had
played with her little mistress' brightly coloured blocks and run up and
down the rooms when no one had been there to supervise her. She had even
ridden in the family car.

However, Srirupa Sen, the author of a paper on women in labour
disagreed. "The biggest myth about the relationship between the master
or mistress and young maids is the belief of the employers that they
treat these girls as family members. This happens only rarely," she said
in the newspaper. Sen concluded that despite the apparent closeness
between the maid and her employers, there must have been some sort of
communication gap, an essential misunderstanding that led to the
suicide.

Mrs. Guha has finally been released on bail -- the fourth appeal proving
successful. It has been thought unwise to bring her home in case the
shanty dwellers attack the house again. She and her daughter are
currently living with a friend while their lawyers debate the matter. If
she is lucky, it will end up as a matter of money paid to Tiya's
parents: some unforeseeable amount large enough to satisfy their grief
and the honour of the shanty town. But, in any case, say the neighbours
with a shrug, no maid will work for the Guhas again.

Anjana Basu is a full-time copywriter, a one-time academic and a
part-time journalist. She has published a collection of short stories in
India and her poems have appeared in an anthology published by Penguin
India. In the United States, her stories have appeared in "Bathtub Gin,"
"The Wolfhead," "The Amethyst Review" and "Kimera," to name a few.


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