When I lived in Mumbai as a post graduation student, my shared flat had a maid, Maya*, who was not much older than us. She worked for other tenants in our building as well, all of whom were students at the same institution I was at.
After we returned to our hometowns as the college closed down over the outbreak of the pandemic, I transferred my share of her salary to her through the broker of our accommodation, along with some additional funds. Thereafter, I have continued to send her money every month and kept in touch with her too.
During a recent conversation, she broke down over the phone. She had lost the only other job she had had – in the upscale gated community near our college campus. She was fired her in March with two months’ pay, including the month that she had worked there, and told that the housing society would not allow any domestic help to enter over the fear of being infected. However, when she contacted them again to request financial aid, she was told that they had hired four full-time maids and could not afford to help her. After that, her number was blocked.
Subsequently, her husband abandoned her and their young daughter and left for his village. He had a severe drug problem and used to take away much of what she earned. On several occasions, he has also been violent.
Maya had borrowed a sum of Rs 12,000 to pay for an abortion and was struggling to repay it, and as a result, was being refused any further loans from the local moneylender. She sobbed that she had been reduced to the point of begging and could not even afford milk for her daughter. She had to give up cooking gas.
Maya had called all the tenants in our building, asking for a little money to feed her daughter. One of them, she said, told her that she had already paid her the Rs 500 that she had owed her in March, and would not be able to spare anymore. Another one had simply blocked her, without even paying what she owed. Maya bitterly asked me if Rs 500 is a lot for them; money which they would freely splurge on creams and cosmetics?
Some of them, she told me, used to frequently be late in giving her salary, or would ask her if she had change for a Rs 2,000 note when they needed to pay Rs 300 or Rs 500. I knew the people she was talking about. They belong to families that are quite well-off. They are all woke on social media, stressing on the importance of being kind, helpful and empathetic, ranting about privilege and classism and what not.
As the oft-quoted saying goes, doesn’t charity begin at home?
When I told my mother about this, she remarked that their hesitation is not unfounded, since ‘people like Maya’ may take advantage of ‘us’. “One should always exercise a healthy amount of scepticism whenever dealing with ‘them’,” she said to me.
I was taken aback. My mother had readily gone to distant villages to distribute aid with a group of friends in the wake of Cyclone Amphan. She was conscious of the number of jobs being lost in the wake of the pandemic. And yet, she held on to such views.
We all know such people – those who are proud about haggling with vegetable vendors in the local market while happily buying overpriced, branded clothes, those who turn away beggars, saying that they should learn to earn an honest living, or that they will spend the alms on alcohol. These are the people who refused to pay their domestic help because they were unable to come to work during the pandemic, even as they continued getting their own salaries. These are the same people who thought that the migrant workers should have stayed put wherever they were instead of struggling to return home, while paying thousands or even lakhs to arrange for their own children and loved ones to return to them.
If one had to choose between ‘might be duped out of a little money’ or ‘definitely save someone from starvation’, is it not more humane to opt for the latter?’
Shruti Mitra is a 22-year-old student pursuing an MA in Social work at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.