I’ve mentioned before, I’m relatively new to Kolkata, Calcutta. Before coming here, I’ve never had domestic help. Today, I have a cook, a cleaner and someone to look after the little ones. I’m a little spoilt, if truth be told. I’m living an easy life, free to do as I choose.
But having this freedom has opened my eyes to the suffrage and oppression in this age of emancipation and enlightenment. I’ve been hearing things, seeing things that I have not bothered noticing before. But as it’s happening right under my nose, I’m bound to talk about it.
My maid is being beaten by her husband. He beats her on a daily basis, for the slightest of things. She needs only to make a mistake, look at him the wrong way, say the wrong thing, cook the wrong dish and he loses the desire or ability to be calm.
I was, I still am, looking to do an article on domestic violence. My husband and I both suspected that our maid, who flinches with terror in her eyes, every time she makes a mistake, is being abused at home. I asked her directly, explaining that I write, sometimes for magazines.
She began to tell me, calm at first.
“Boudi, I was married at 12 years old…has it ever happened to me?” she smiles, “It still is happening to me!’
And then she broke down. She clutched the end of her top, hands wringing the fabric in desperation, tears in her eyes.
“I’m just waiting for my daughter to be married and then I can leave him.”
“Why can’t you leave him before?” I ask that stupid, naïve question, that only the untethered ask. I know the answer, I know the system and the fear. I’ve watched enough episodes of whatever, on television, or read enough books to know that it’s not easy, never easy to leave something familiar. Familiar is safer than the ‘what’s out there’.
“Because, who will marry a girl with no father?” she replied. ‘Samaj’, Society, that looming being with a thousand eyes and countless tongues, will ask me directly why I left my husband. They’ll point the finger at me, blame me.”
“Tell them, to their face!” I blurt out, in denial. “Can Society be so cruel?”
She must feel it can. She told me that day that she’s thought about it several times. I asked her what her son is learning from what he sees. She paused then, thought about it and just shook her head. No answers. What can she say? What can she do?
If I had enough space in my little flat, I’d bring them here, they could all stay! But what then? Would she seek out her freedom?
She told me also, during the conversation that her husband does not lay a finger on their daughter. He tried once and she stood up to him. He hasn’t done it since. Her daughter doesn’t want to get married. She chooses freedom. But how long can she run from Society? She’s studying for a Bachelor’s degree at some college that requires minimal education. She has no spoken English and she wants to work with computers and get out of the whole mess she sees around her. Let’s see. I have hope for her, but only if Society can keep its claws off her.
The funny thing, or maybe the sad thing is, there are women I’ve spoken to about writing my article on domestic violence and they ask me, ‘what will you write?’, ‘give me an angle!’ ‘it’s nothing new’. I’m lost. How can I make this story exciting and groundbreaking and newsworthy? Women are beaten, abused, tortured everyday, what’s one more article going to say? For my friends, the story is so familiar, they’ve tried to help before, it just leads to disappointment.
Does that mean that we don’t say it? Should be quiet then until I find my maid hasn’t come to work because her husband picked up a knife, instead of just his shoe? Now that would be newsworthy!
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I’ll be taking my maid to Swayam on Wednesday. She’s agreed to come with me. Let’s see. The choice is hers, I suppose. But let’s be honest, who cares, right?