Monday, May 08, 2006

The Ladies of the Slum

Warning: Very long post.

There is a small slum next to Infant Jesus church. You will pass it on the way to Koramangala from M.G Road. Most of the domestic workers who work in M G Road, Brigade Road and surrounding areas reside here. A hut costs anything between Rs. 200 to Rs. 500 in rent. Many families share space to reduce rent.

The place is mostly populated by immigrants from Tamil Nadu who came here generations ago. Most of them don’t even remember the name of their ancestral village in TN. As you walk into the slum, you are struck by the cleanliness despite its drab appearance from the outside. The houses are small but very neat and clean. A Neem tree or two grow wherever a small patch of earth is left uncemented. Most of the houses have at least a pot with some ornamental plant on the roof or in front of the door. Possessions are kept to a bare minimum and the kitchen sparkles with clean and neatly arranged utensils. The kitchen is the pride of the lady of the houses even if the kitchen fires burn but rarely. Even the surrounding areas of the huts are clean. If you were to give your old stuff to these ladies they will sell it to the Marwari in exchange for a saree or a utensil.

These intrepid ladies are free from domestic work by afternoon. Most of them work in four or five houses. They leave home around 5:30 in the morning after getting the kids ready for school and walk to their places of work. They go to work neatly dressed, with a red pottu on the forehead and fresh jasmine flowers on their oiled hair. Their children go to school walking or by bus.

Most of them wear the wash n wear sarees. In fact if you were give them a Silk Saree they will exchange it for a wash n wear saree at the Marwari shop. On Sundays when they go to the temple or church they wear colorful sarees with a bit of gold work. The culture passed onto them from their ancestors remains intact. Their homes, food, festivals reflect their lifestyle of their village back home in TN. It’s like they live in a time warp.

The marwari is an important part of these people’s lives. They lend money, buy used household items that they get from the place of work and sell things at very reasonable rates to these people. Of course they are unscrupulous too.

Once the ladies get back from work, they cook the afternoon meal. Those who can afford will buy a bun in the morning, but most of these folks live on two meals a day. Their diet is simple, rice and dal and the leftovers they bring with them from work. Since the ladies are free most of the day, they sit around chatting and sweeping. They sweep their homes every hour or so. Which is why the slum is spick and span. Many hut owners have now made pucca houses. As you walk through the streets skirting goats and chickens, it is difficult to believe you are in the heart of Bangalore. The place looks like those small villages you pass by when driving out of the city.

Small shops border the slum. You get everything at dirt-cheap rates here. From Whitewash to used engine oil to cooking oil and provisions. These shops cater to the slum crowd and you will see some brands that you didn’t know existed. For an MTR Turmeric powder you have a Mary Turmeric powder or a Raja Chilli powder and Rani coconut oil. A peek into these small shops will give you a glimpse of a thriving parallel economy. The shelves are neatly arranged and the shopkeeper usually sits outside on a stool. On Thursdays after Mass at the Shrine, crowds of worshippers come to these shops and they do brisk business.

What strikes you most as you walk into the slum is the absence of men during daytime as most of them hold 9 to 5 jobs as construction workers, masons, car mechanics etc.

The air in the slum is one of quite contentment. However by 7 ‘0’ clock the calm is shattered as the men return, drunk. Then the air rends with the weeping and wailing of women getting beaten up and raucous fights. This goes on till the men fall into a stupor and calm returns to the slum. In the morning everything will be forgotten as husbands are expected to behave in such manner. The women are resigned to it besides the presence of a man in their life makes a lot of difference in a slum. She will have a certain social standing and escape the lustful gaze of other men.

I have been into this slum several times with my Mom. Most of the times it was to pull out a badly beaten up maid and take her to hospital. After we moved out of the city, I have lost contact with the ladies of the slum. I do not know how things are now, but whenever I pass by in the Auto, I see that nothing much has changed. The houses are still neat and clean and the village like atmosphere still prevails. I do hope that the lot of the ladies, who carried me around, combed my hair and tut tutted at my mom because she didn’t put the black dot on my face to ward off evil eyes, is better now.


Immigrant in Canada said...

I worked that slum near the infant jesus church!

silverine said...

@IIC: Wow! I sincerely hope to read about it soon.

Immigrant in Canada said...

you know I too thought tht it was one of the cleanest slums in Bangalore.. and there used to be a bakery on the other side of the slum, after the post office..they hd the best egg puffs in town.

Mind Curry said...

very contrasting story..reminded me of kerala.

women have to break out of that social stigma where it mandates that without a man they are incomplete or something. i dont think they need to tolerate abuse and live their lives in compromise. but that boldness will come out of three factors i guess: education, financial independence and social acceptance. when the first two are there, the third will come in a matter of time - if not for this generation, the next.

Mind Curry said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Dr. Pissed said...

ushoo, nicely written.
I hope that they are well too.

calvin said...

mindcurry is right. Something like this exist here in Kerala too. Clean slums are a rarity though. Men are the ones who makes life unbearable among such people . Where it not for such toiling mom's many of our lads and lasses would have gone without an education and a better life.

I do hope there are more people like you and your folks ( who would take a beaten up maid to hospital ). For many people in the city , especially for the ones who are 'just got rich' , the household help is just 'servant' , an automaton like the mixer-grinder. But I am happy that the no: of such people are very less , most care and value the maids . Girija aunty , the lady who comes in twice a week to wash the floors ( bcoz my mom has a weak back ) told me this one day :)

silverine said...

@IIC: The bakery is not there anymore I think.
@Mind Curry: These people live in a world of their own where the husband is the "ejmaan". It will be difficult to change the mind set even with education. Most of these girls get involved with guys at young age get pregnant and marry early. But what is heartening is the big way these ladies believe in family planning, often borrowing money for 'operations' :)
@Dr pissed: Thank you :)
@Aashik: You are right.These ladies make it a point to send their kids to school, at least many of them, but paying school fees and heartless teachers often drive them out of schools. And it is not just us, but many households who take care of these ladies in times of need. Once my mom told a lady who was beaten senseless by her unemployed husband to leave him. He turned up at our doorstep with a huge crowd to protest. My mom held her ground and he left after we threatened to call the cops. The maid then left us because she did not want to work for a lady who spoke against her "god" aka husband. But this was back in the 80's, things are changing now, but the refusal to leave abusive husbands still remains.

venus said...

I think, it is any slum story, women living their life from 9-5 and in the evening, getting beaten up by their drunk men.. I don't know what really one can do about this.. it's very complex social structure, and as you have pointed out, they need these men to avert lustful men from getting closer.. I feel very sad about this.

Thanu said...

Our achan told this story(true incident) in church the other day.

Everyday the husband comes back from a hard days labor drinking and picks a stick out from the veli and beats his wife everyday.

One day the wife saw a snake on the veli and when husbadn got home she ran out to him saying there is a snake on the veli so I already got a stick for you so you needn't put ur hand in veli.

Husband was so touched and he gave up alchohol that nite and the family lives happily ever after.

Alexis Leon said...

In Cochin the slums are the hideouts of the gangsters, drug peddlers and other antisocial elements. Most of the residents are not part of the racket, but are afraid to speak about or against them. They live at the mercy of the thugs who rule the place and then there are the gang wars and innocent people usually get hurt in the crossfire. Sad, but nothing much is not done to change the situation as many people—politicians, money lenders and other business owners—protect the culprits as they use these thugs to their dirty work.

silverine said...

@Venus: It is a sad life indeed. But they are stoic about it :(
@Thanu: Wish real life was this easy. But it rarely happens. These ladies have no one to help them even if they are sick. The husbands will never take them to the doctor nor give them money (which the ladies have earned).They borrow money to go to the doctor.
@Alexis: This slum is peopled by workers and so is relatively free of such elements as only families reside here. But Mumbai slums are like the slums you have described I heard. And what you say is right. These people are vote banks and for exploitation by the politicians and goondas.

Jiby said...

hey u know wht...u have written abt slums in a way different from my perception of them...the lone slum in tvm has been to me and friends a scary place of goondas for hire and ruffians of the worst kind...have never thought of the womenfolk there...maybe they are women like the ones in ur post struggling to give their kids food and education.

nice to see ur family care for these ppl...u see when others read this, they will feel the urge to do some good work for society despite all their tight schedules and city life!!!

silverine said...

@Jiby:Most of these ladies were like family members. It was painful to see them smile through a black eye or with bruises. Inspite of their difficulties they put their kids thru school. Most slums in Blr nowadys have NGO's working in them so that the kids get good education and the people have access to healthcare.

Karthik Sivaramakrishnan said...

I don't know if you are aware of this amusing fact: Last year, I believe, there was a proposal for door-to-door pick-up of garbage in some localities in Mumbai. It included many posh localities, but also included Dharawi. It was proposed to charge a monthly fee of Rs. 20. Much to my amusement, the people of Dharawi accepted without complaint, while most of the vehement opposition came from the upper scale localities, and since they hold more power, I don't think it got implemented ultimately :)