At 4 pm on the third Sunday of June, as shoppers browsed through endless rows of clothes and accessories on display at Linking Road in Bandra, a less visible section of Mumbai’s inhabitants gathered inside St Theresa’s Church nearby.
Sunlight streaming through stained glass windows cast a soft glow of prismatic colours on an assembly of women, dressed in salwar kurtas and sarees, their heads covered with dupattas and pallus for piety. Men were present, but few in number. The congregation hailed from the Adivasi belt of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Odisha, also called the Chota Nagpur region.
Employed as domestic workers in upscale Bandra and its surrounding neighbourhoods, the women had spent the week taking care of other people’s homes and children, most for extremely low wages. For many, the Sunday evening mass was the only opportunity they had to meet others from their community.
After service, many women walked over to the adjacent school compound to speak to each other and watch kids playing football. Some women branched off to rehearse for a performance for a feast the coming Sunday, singing and dancing around a man playing the mandar – a large, two-sided traditional drum used by Adivasi communities in Chota Nagpur. These moments of leisure and camaraderie, however, are rare.
I had been visiting the church since the first Sunday of May to get to know the women better. On previous visits, I had met women from Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, and was now looking to speak to those from Odisha. There are fewer women from the state in Mumbai, and so I reasoned that I might not readily find someone to interview that day – just then, 40-year-old Phulo Toppo marched up to me. Dressed in a long kurta and jeans, she wore a nose pin and carried a heavy backpack. She had heard about me from another person I had interviewed, and was eager to share her life story – her enthusiasm set her apart from the others I had spoken to, who had all taken time to open up. (The names of all domestic workers have been changed to protect their privacy.)
Toppo’s family is from the village of Latdega, in Odisha’s Sundergarh district. In 1998, she took a train from Latdega to Mumbai, with dreams of moving ahead in life. Most girls and women who migrated to the city from her village, Toppo’s elder sister among them, came looking for work.
But 16-year-old Toppo had other plans. She was the last of eight children, and in childhood she had seen her parents struggle to raise the family. She felt that education was the only way out of poverty. She had successfully cleared her Class 12 exams at home. Eager to enrol for a Bachelor’s degree at Mumbai University, she found a job at the house of a professor who taught there.
Toppo moved into the professor’s house, telling her she would work for free as long as she got Toppo enrolled at the university. Her employer accepted her offer, and procured an enrolment form, which she filled up and handed back to them.
Toppo spent the next few weeks waiting for admissions to begin. In the meantime, she cooked and cleaned for the household. The family gave her food to eat – but in such scanty quantities that she would often cry from hunger, and think of how her dog back home received more to eat.
One day, while dusting the house when her employers were not at home, she came across her enrolment form among a pile of papers. She realised that they had never submitted it. Heartbroken, she left, carrying very little with her. She had to tell the watchman that she was visiting her sister and would return later in the day, since she knew he would have made it difficult for her to depart otherwise, without her employers’ consent. She left them a simple note in English which read: I’m not coming back.
Twenty-four years later, Toppo recounted these events with a steely gaze to me. When I suggested we sit down on a nearby bench, she declined – saying she would get too emotional to be able to talk to me.
Toppo went on to attain a Bachelor’s degree. Today, she works over 15 hours a day, across four households, and earns about Rs 30,000 a month. Not every woman from her community manages to secure a degree, or earns as much in income. Yet Toppo’s struggles to make a life for herself in the city are similar to theirs.
Adivasi women workers like her form an invisibilised community in Mumbai, whose numbers have grown steadily over the years, according to several workers and others who work with the community that I spoke to. These numbers are difficult to determine, because there is no formal process by which their migration and employment status is registered with the government. But, according to Maria Goretti Xalxo, an award-winning social worker from the Adivasi community in Odisha, who has been working in Mumbai since the mid-1980s, “Today you’ll find migrant Adivasis from Chota Nagpur scattered in pockets across Mumbai in Bandra, Santacruz, Mahim, Malad, Chembur, Cuffe Parade and Worli.” Apart from the Kurukh community, women from Munda, Kharia and Santal Adivasi communities also migrate to the city in substantial numbers.
She added, “Nobody keeps an official count, but they probably number over a lakh.”
Adivasis live “in every nook and corner of the city”, said Father Jerome D’Souza, a Catholic priest who has been working with the community since the 1990s. “They don’t come out. But if you go to people’s houses, restaurant kitchens, and religious houses you’ll find them.” D’Souza is associated with the Urban Community Development Centre, a public trust and NGO associated with the Catholic Church, a section of which provides support services to migrants.
The bulk of inter-state migrants in India are men. But, among Adivasi communities from Chota Nagpur, it is women workers who took the lead to migrate to Mumbai and Delhi, according to Xalxo.
In her book Maid in India, journalist Tripti Lahiri notes that after Independence, only a small fraction of the country’s elite could afford domestic workers, but that after liberalisation in the 1990s, their number has grown steadily. Lahiri situates this growth within a global increase in the hiring of domestic workers. She writes that, “American families hire West Indian and Nepali housekeepers and nannies made available to them by the joint forces of global poverty and immigration, while Swedish families hire Filipinas as au pairs, and offer them financial incentives if they will leave the country without falling pregnant and claiming residency.” In India, Lahiri notes, the country’s “newly affluent benefit from the huge disparities that divide India by importing rural tribal women to the city as ‘helpers’, ‘childminders’ and ‘housekeepers’.”
Employers prefer to hire Adivasi women over local women owing to an undercurrent of casteist and racialised stereotyping. As early as 1993, a study by the Indian Social Institute found that employers perceived them to be more reliable, efficient, amenable to low pay and long hours and easier to control.
“People come to me asking for Adivasi maids,” Xalxo said. “They say they want them because they’re hard working and not fussy, they do everything and anything that you ask of them. The majority don’t bother much about what they’re being paid, and if they do, they can’t fight back.”
But some women have, in fact, found ways to fight back. And despite the hardship, they have carved lives for themselves in the city. Many have gone on to marry, start families and build homes.
Over May and June, I spoke to several Adivasi women at length, some in Bandra, others in Vasai, an outer suburb of the city, where many Adivasi migrants had settled down. Their stories, four of which are retold here, revealed a compelling – and disturbing – picture of caste, ethnic, and class cleavages in Indian society.
This story is part of Common Ground, our in-depth and investigative reporting project. Sign up here to get a fresh story in your inbox every Wednesday.
The informal settlement of Janakipada is set atop a hill in Vasai, about 70 km north of Mumbai. About 100 to 150 Adivasi families live here amongst other migrant communities.
The crest of the hill houses a church, which also serves as a community centre, built by the local community. It was here that I met women from the community over several warm summer Sundays in early June – the only day of the week when most were free to speak to me. The surrounding view was of pale blue skies and vast green cover full of supari and naral trees. Despite the heat, it was breezy enough to sit outside in the shade comfortably.
Among the women I met here was 49-year-old Flavia Lakra, who was born in Meral village, in Jharkhand’s Gumla district. Although her family owned land that they farmed, they rarely had enough food. “Magar humlog bhooke pet kabhi nahi sote the, kuch na ho toh maar bhaath ya mahua ka beej ubalke kha lete the” – But we would never sleep on an empty stomach, if there was nothing, we would eat lightly fermented rice with starch water or boil mahua seeds, said Lakra.
Lakra was born with a facial cleft. The surgery which followed left a permanent scar, as a result of which her parents became extremely protective of her. Out of eight children, she was the only one who was sent to school to study, starting at the age of ten.
By Class 6, Lakra had to leave school as her family couldn’t afford the fees anymore. The onset of menstruation had already led to a drop in her attendance. The family was poorer than most in their locale, and neighbours often discriminated against them – such as by not offering them food at weddings and shunning them at other community gatherings.
A year later, some distant relatives asked Lakra if she would like to work in the city. She consulted her father. He doted on her, but knew he couldn’t provide well for her, so told her that she could go for a year or so, but should return after that. “He didn’t want me to spend my life cleaning and picking up after strangers,” she said.
In 1989, a 17-year-old Lakra left for Mumbai by train, accompanied by relatives. All she carried with her were three saris and family savings of Rs 250. The relatives had already found her a job at an apartment near Holy Family Hospital in Bandra. The employers were a family of four with two children, who required a cleaner.
D’Souza recounted that by the 1990s, it had become common for well-off families in the neighbourhood to hire Adivasi girls, even some as young as 10 or 12, for domestic work.
“They would hire a girl and make her work day and night,” he said. “People were comfortable with it, they would just give her some money. When they would go outside, they would lock the girls in.”
At first, Lakra said, all was well. For the very first time in her life, she had plenty to eat, and her appetite increased. But later in the month, she was shocked when the lady of the house left her menstrual rags in the bathroom to be washed. “Before that, I had never even washed my mother’s or sister’s underwear, and she expected me to wash her blood-stained garments,” she said, recalling the disgust she had felt. After ten months, Lakra couldn’t take this task anymore and left.
Her next job was at Chimbai Road, also in Bandra. The job, which was with a family of four, proved to be difficult. “They were nice people...” she said at first, and then trailed off to slowly list out several injustices she had suffered.
The children of the house, who were only four and six years old, took to hitting her with slippers and shoes. Her employers, whom she called “uncle and aunty”, wouldn’t do anything even if she asked them to intervene. At night, the kids would sometimes sleep in her room. But more often, they slept in their parents’ room – on these nights, the man of the house would come into Lakra’s room and switch off the ceiling fan. This hurt her above all. “Arrey mein bhi toh insaan hoon na, jab maine kuch bola toh woh bolte the tumhara gaon mein aisa hai waisa hai” – I am also a human being, if I said something about this, they would talk about how things must be in my village.
Most nights, she was given one pao along with egg or meat, which would leave her stomach rumbling as she slept. After nine months at that house, Lakra left. Her salary at the time was Rs 300 a month. When she returned home to her village for a month, people were astonished at how much weight she had lost. Still, she was delighted to be able to buy new clothes for her family.
When Lakra returned to the city, she went to stay with a woman from her village who lived in Chembur. But the woman’s husband refused to permit Lakra to stay with them, saying that he didn’t know her personally and so couldn’t house her. Lakra roamed the bazaar that entire day, asking people to find work for her, worrying about shelter. Finally, the same day, someone found her a job in Malad, looking after a young baby. The house was small, and she was made to sleep in the kitchen. At night, cockroaches would come out and crawl over her as she tried to sleep. After a month, Lakra decided to quit. When she told her employers, they paid her only Rs 50, instead of the Rs 300 they had agreed on, telling her to come back for the rest later.
Withholding, delaying, or deducting wages is a common tactic of employers, said Xalxo. Over the years she has received countless calls from migrant Adivasi domestic workers who complain about not being paid what they were first promised – or sometimes, not being paid at all. Since domestic work is unregulated and the workers sign no contracts, it is easy for employers to deviate from the decided pay and work. Usually, Xalxo said, she ensures that employers pay workers what they are due by intervening with a stern phone call and warning them not to let things escalate to a point that would require legal intervention. But a few workers told me that employers would go to the extent of accusing them of stealing to distract people intervening on their behalf.
Xalxo recalled one instance where a minor girl had not been paid her wages for three years, which meant she couldn’t travel back home. Knowing that she had to be cautious, Xalxo took a nun who was also qualified as a lawyer along with her. The employer was courteous to them and then she finally said, “Agar mein kahoon ki mein isko paisa nahi doongi, toh aap kya karoge?” – if I say that I won’t pay her money, what will you do?
Xalxo coolly replied, “Koi baat nahi. Aap bol rahe ho ki ‘agar mein aisa kehti hoon’, iska matlab yeh hai ki aap admit kar rahe ho ki aapne salary nahi di hai” – no matter, you’re saying, “if I say this”, which means that you admit that you haven’t been paying her. Cornered by her own words, the employer handed over the money quietly and let the girl leave.
Lakra’s luck improved from 1992 onwards, with her fifth job. She worked for two years at an apartment complex at Perry Cross Road in Bandra, where she was well treated. But she left because she was only allowed to use a washroom outside the house, between two floors – after a fellow worker left the job, Lakra felt unsafe with this arrangement, and chose not to return following an annual visit home.
She then worked at a house in Nepean Sea Road, where she was well treated, but paid only Rs 1,000 a month. Here, she met fellow domestic workers who were employed by foreigners and earned twice as much as her. Four years later, a friend found Lakra a job at a household of foreigners: a Korean couple, of which the man worked for Chohung Bank, and the woman was a homemaker.
When she first met them, the woman told Lakra’s friend, “I don’t like how she looks, I want a prettier girl.” But her friend convinced the woman to give Lakra a try. “Was she planning to keep me in a showcase? At that moment I became determined to show them that I was very hard-working,” said Lakra.
She and the couple communicated with each other in broken English. The lady began liking Lakra, who learnt how to make kimchi, and bonded with their young child. She was paid Rs 2,000 a month. After two years, when it was time for the couple to leave, both women wept as they said their goodbyes. The employers found her work at another Korean couple’s place.
A decade after she arrived in Mumbai, Lakra returned to Jharkhand and got married. Her husband migrated to the city with her, and they both started living on rent in Janakipada, from where she would take the local train to work. After two years Lakra became pregnant, and it became difficult for her to work. But she couldn’t sit at home for long – her husband, who worked as a daily wage labourer, didn’t earn as much as she used to. After nursing her child for eight months, she began work again, at first nearby and then in Bandra. “Since I had my son, things went well for me,” she said. “Especially after starting to work for foreigners, I haven’t had any problems at work.”
Lakra lost her husband during the Covid lockdown. Today, she lives with her son, who is about to join college. She said she hopes for a better life for him. She currently works at a Brazilian family’s house at Bandra Kurla Complex, cooking and cleaning for Rs 15,000 a month. She commutes about 50 km each day, which takes her a little over an hour, in crammed local trains and buses.
Not all Adivasi migrant workers change as many jobs as Lakra. In 2003, 17-year-old Amrita Xess from Kadamtoli village in Chhattisgarh’s Jashpur district arrived in Mumbai in dire straits. She had studied up to Class 8 but had had to quit school that year because of her mother’s death from stomach cancer. Whatever little savings and assets their family had were all spent on her mother’s hospital bills. But the money had not been enough. “We couldn’t afford to get her treated properly,” Xess said, tears welling up in her eyes.
The eldest of five children in her house, Xess decided to take charge after her father said he would not be able to afford their education.
Her aunt’s family, who lived in Mumbai, suggested she accompany them to the city so that she could earn money and support her siblings. Sixteen-year-old Xess agreed and travelled with them, then spent two months at Regina Pacis convent in Byculla, which runs a facility that trains domestic workers and assists them in finding jobs. Xess was hired to work in Byculla itself, at the house of a family of six, including a young couple and the husband’s mother. Her job was to cook, wash dishes, wash and dry clothes, and carry out other miscellaneous tasks around the house.
At first, her employers paid Xess Rs 1,300 per month. When, after four years, her employers refused to raise her pay, Xess left and worked at another place for a while. But the mother of the previous family was fond of Xess, and requested her to return, promising that she would increase her pay.
While the younger couple who had hired Xess continued to pay her the same salary, the man’s mother secretly paid her more. Then, over the years, the couple too raised her pay, gradually. It was only after 2015 that she started to earn Rs 10,000.
Xess worked at the household for 14 years in all, until 2019, when she got married.
“The family was nice, although they didn’t pay adequately,” Xess said. “Others would suggest that I work elsewhere, but I would tell them I didn’t want money. I was safe and treated well. I had heard of many stories of girls being mistreated, receiving stale food to eat, and not getting paid at all. So, I stayed where I was.”
From these earnings, Xess devotedly saved some money and sent it back home every year. She sacrificed her dreams of studying further for her siblings’ sake. She single-handedly funded repairs of her family home, put her four siblings through school, got them married off and bought two plots of land for them, as well as farm animals like bulls and goats.
“I never went outside to roam etc,” she said. “I didn’t know the city, so I was scared of it. I also didn’t want to spend my money. At the back of my mind, I would always be tense about my family.”
It was only after she had fulfilled all her responsibilities that Xess decided to marry. Soon after, she moved to Janakipada, to live with her husband. She stopped work after her daughter was born in 2020, because there was nobody else to look after her.
For women who live and work close to Bandra, this problem has been alleviated by the affordable childcare provided for working mothers by the Urban Community Development Centre – many of those who avail of the support are Adivasi domestic workers. These women leave their children here to work at their jobs taking care of other people’s children.
“Do you have any regrets?” I asked Amrita.
“You know I always wanted to get a proper bed made for my father,” she said, tearing up again. “It hurts that in so many years I couldn’t do this for him. He’s so old now.” Her two-year-old daughter, who had been cheerfully playing with her toy while we spoke, paused, and looked at her mother with wide eyes.
Despite the precarity of domestic work, it continues to be a popular choice for Adivasi women from Chota Nagpur because of the difficulty they face in finding well-paying jobs in rural areas.
According to Xalxo, earlier years primarily saw distress migration, as women sought to escape grinding poverty back home. Now, however, even women who have finished high school and college degrees seek out domestic work in big cities. She believes this is a result of the increasing difficulty in finding well-paying employment in rural areas. “People earn Rs 2,500-Rs 3,000, at the most Rs 4,000, after completing a BA degree and working as teachers employed on a temporary basis,” said Xalxo. She mentioned that one domestic worker she knew used to earn Rs 3,000 at their teaching job in their hometown, and had earned Rs 10,000 as a domestic worker in south Mumbai. “If they can earn more here, why won’t they come?” Xalxo said.
Another reason that several women from the community that I spoke to cited for continuing migration was the glamour and attraction of life in a big city. “People observe those who return from the cities, how they change. Unka rehan-sehan gaon mein hi-fi lagta hai” – their lifestyles and behaviours feel hi-fi in the village, said 35-year-old Lily Kujur, also a resident of Janakipada. “Those who have government jobs do alright. Otherwise, there’s only agriculture to pursue. There’s no money for people to start their own businesses.”
Kujur herself moved to Mumbai before she sought work. Born in Karanjtoli village in Jharkhand’s Gumla district, she studied up to Class 11 in her hometown. She then came to Borivali, Mumbai, to finish her Class 12 because her brother and his family had also moved to the city. After she finished, she returned home. There weren’t many work options for women her age – many of her peers were going to attend nursing school and she too wanted to go with them.
But her parents, who were farmers, couldn’t afford the fees and other expenses. She was the fifth of eight children in her family. She fought with her parents and asked them, “If you couldn’t afford to raise us properly, why did you have us in the first place?”
Nevertheless, Kujur was determined to broaden her horizons, and in 2015 she left again for Mumbai. She had a friend working in Bandra whose employer let Kujur stay with them in exchange for doing a few chores. She looked for work for three months, and finally found a job at a small apartment, also in Bandra. When she moved to the apartment, she discovered that, owing to a lack of space, she would have to keep her clothes and other belongings below the kitchen sink. Repulsed by this, Kujur left within a few days and went to stay near Mount Mary, in Bandra, with a woman she knew from her village.
But, as a single woman, other troubles awaited her there. The woman’s husband was not happy about Kujur staying with them. He asked aloud in front of her, “She’s not our relative, so how can we keep her with us?”
And yet, at night, the man would not let her sleep, making advances at her, which she rebuffed persistently. Desperate to escape, Kujur finally found employment as a cook at a house on Waterfield Road, also in Bandra, where she worked for three years and was paid Rs 8,000 a month.
Kujur then switched to a job with better pay with a family of three that lived near Khar Gymkhana. By then, she had started living at an informal settlement with fellow domestic workers near Mahim station. As part of the social and spiritual care that the Church offers, it encourages migrant workers to live with each other so they can have some free time of their own, away from their employers. But after the first Covid-19 lockdown, during which Kujur’s employers did not pay her, she moved into their house. The couple ran their own business and had a son in his late teens.
The couple asked Kujur to sleep in the kitchen, but she refused. “Their son was young. Who knows what goes on in young men’s heads?” she said. She added, “For my safety, I told them that I would get disturbed in the kitchen if they got up at night. So, I would sleep in the balcony where I could close the door.”
Kujur had to use her wits to protect herself. But all too often full-time domestic workers who do not have their own rooms to sleep in must sleep in kitchens or other shared spaces. Xalxo explained that this makes them vulnerable to sexual harassment or assault by male employers or other working staff living in the same household. Over the years, she has observed women workers having to sleep in the same areas as male drivers, cooks, gardeners, and other staff. She has found that employers generally do not care about the safety concerns of women workers sharing sleeping spaces with men to whom they are not related.
The pandemic stretched everybody’s schedules, melding days and nights together. After Kujur moved into her employer’s house, she was at their constant beck and call, frequently fetching them water, coffee and snacks, apart from doing her regular cooking and cleaning. Often, the woman employer would cook dinner late at night and since Kujur had to help her, she herself would only get to bed by 1 am. Unused to such late hours, she asked her employer to allow her to finish her workday by 10 pm. Though the employer agreed, the hours continued to run late.
One particularly late night, at around 12 am, Kujur was asked to use a mixer to blend a chutney. Drowsy with sleep, she did not seal the lid properly. The mixer flew open at once, and the ingredients splattered the kitchen walls. Fortunately, Kujur did not hurt her hands. Finally, her employer understood Kujur’s concerns, and let her turn in earlier.
Long and late working hours are a regular feature of the job for live-in domestic workers.
Xalxo recalled rescuing a few workers from the house of a Bollywood producer a few years ago. They were woken up every day at 6 am. Every other night there would be a house party, after which they would clean up by 2 am and then eat dinner at 3 am, leaving only a few hours to sleep.
Later in 2020, the building in Khar where Kujur lived with her employer was refurbished. Concerned about the construction workers toiling away in the heat, her employer instructed her to offer them water, and anything else they required.
When she approached them, Kujur instantly realised that the men belonged to the same community as her and were speaking to each other in Kurukh. She pretended not to understand and listened, amused, as they discussed her. “This woman doesn’t speak at all,” they would say to themselves. “I wonder where she’s from, must be Maharashtrian.”
One day, after asking her for some pickle, one of them asked aloud in Kurukh, “I wonder if she’s married.” Kujur, who wasn’t married, turned to him and replied teasingly in Kurukh, “Yes I am, but I left him in the village.”
The men were stunned at first, but were then thrilled to learn that she was from their community. They soon became friends with her.
“You don’t really seem to be married. Would you like to get married?” they asked occasionally. “I will never marry one of you,” Kujur would reply.
After the work on the building was done, the men left – but they took Kujur’s phone number, and often invited her to local football matches. Kujur never had the time to go, however, and they eventually stopped calling.
A whole year went by, and then, one of the men called her again. “I’ve found you a boy to marry,” he said.
“At first I didn’t believe him, but then he introduced me to him,” said Kujur, blushing and pointing at her husband, as we sat in the hall of her marital home in Janakipada. They were married in February this year, after which she moved into the house, which they share with her in-laws.
Kujur continues to work at the same house, commuting to Khar daily for work. She said her monthly salary was Rs 23,000, but that her employer cut her pay for taking Sundays off, because of which she earns Rs 20,000 nowadays. “Hafte mein ek din chutti toh banta hain na?” – isn’t one day off in a week a standard practice, she said. “I end up spending Rs 3,000-Rs 4,000 a month in travel, and I take care of all her housework. I requested her to see things from my point of view, but she didn’t listen.”
I asked Kujur if she ever thought of returning home?
“Apne toh jaise-taise nikal gaye but jo aanewale hai unke liye kuch accha karna hai. Gaon mein kuch zyaada nahi ho sakta hai”– I’ve lived my life anyhow, but I want to do better for my future children. There isn’t a lot that can happen for one at the village.
Despite being cheated out of her education 24 years ago, when her employers took her application form for Mumbai University and hid it, rather than submit it, Phulo Toppo was determined to complete her undergraduate degree.
In 1999, Toppo’s sister’s employers helped Toppo enrol for the January intake at Mumbai University, She was accepted, and studied economics and commerce, moving into a room at an informal settlement in Bandra with other migrant workers, where she could focus on her studies.
But very soon, she had to find work again to sustain herself. She then took on a string of jobs: she would work for a few months, save up money, and then quit for a few months to make time to study. At some points, she tried to do both together, but strugged. “I would work really fast, but there would be so much to do, that I could only study after 11 pm,” she said. She managed to finish her bachelor’s degree, and then took up a master’s course for a year, but quit because the financial strain was too much to bear. “I knew nobody in Mumbai whom I could approach for support financially or otherwise,” she said. “I didn’t know what to do.”
In 2002, she went to an agency for domestic workers that found her a job with a family that was moving to Bangkok, and were looking for a domestic worker to take along.
Toppo shifted to Bangkok and began to take care of all the domestic duties of the household. She was paid Rs 3,000 a month.
Problems soon cropped up. The family nagged Toppo about her work, and shamed her for the fact that they had spent money on bringing her to the country. The food didn’t suit her either – the family ate rice for all three meals, which she soon tired of. They would also constantly berate her for supposedly eating too much food.
One day, Toppo decided to stand up for herself and spoke back to her employers, criticising the way they treated her, and demanding to be sent back to India.
Six months later, Toppo returned to Mumbai with her employers. But once they reached the city, the employers refused to return her documents and insisted that she travel back to Bangkok with them, since they couldn’t find a replacement for her. Toppo had to file an FIR before they finally returned her documents.
Toppo’s experience as a domestic worker affected her deeply, and over the years, she has stepped in to help several girls and young women from her community who were being mistreated by their employers. She has fought with employers who denied workers wages, and even rescued a few who were trapped at their place of work and not allowed to leave.
One time a friend approached her, in tears over her 18-year-old sister, who wasn’t being paid or even let out of her employers’ house in Andheri. When Toppo and her friend arrived at the building, even the watchman said he did not know that someone had been employed full-time at that house. Toppo and her friend stood outside the employers’ doors for two hours, but they wouldn’t let the girl out. Instead, the family made the watchmen turn them out from the building.
Toppo and her friend then went to the local police chowki – but the police refused to register a complaint. At their wits ends, they finally called Xalxo, who went to the home a few days later, and, speaking with the experience and authority of having dealt with innumerable exploitative and abusive employers, secured the girl’s release.
“So many girls today directly come to the city and get into problems with their employers,” Toppo said. “I do what I can to keep them abreast of the situation and their rights. Several are only 14-15 years old, and are made to lie about their age.”
She explained that the Church often served as a space of support for the women. But there were others, many who follow the original Sarna faith that several Adivasi communities in Chota Nagpur practice, that do not access this support, simply because they don’t go to the Church. “Often, those who are non-Christian aren’t informed about these things,” she said.
With time, things have improved a bit for Toppo. When I asked about her family, she pointed to two other women sitting near us, with whom she rents a house in Gazdhar Bandh, Santacruz. The women are all in their late thirties. During the lockdown in 2020, Toppo got married. Her husband lives in Nallasopara, a suburb that is about 75 km away, where he works in logistics management. Toppo travels to meet him on Sundays when she has a day off.
At present, she works in four different households as a cook, and occasionally takes up additional work for parties. Her day begins at 5 am, and by 6.30 am she has to leave her home to reach on time at her first workplace, where she has to get tiffin ready for school-going children. She returns home by around 10 pm and goes to bed by 12 am. In all, she works more than 15 hours a day, and earns about Rs 30,000 a month.
“Life goes on like a circle and we’re unable to get out of it,” she said. “I’m so involved in my jobs that I can’t quit. If I do, then what will I eat tomorrow? I have bills to pay.”
She explained that her elder brother was disabled and diabetic. “I support him and his children,” she said. “I wanted to get ahead in life, but I couldn’t do so. Half my life is over because of obligations. Today even if I want to, I can’t leave this line of work. But I still have hopes. You know there’s so much more that’s happened in my life, I can write a whole book about it.”
This is where Toppo wrapped up her story. Most Sunday nights, the families she cooks for order their dinner from outside, but this was not always the case. “Look, I just received a WhatsApp message from one place,” she said. “They want me to make mushroom soup and corn sandwiches for dinner.” She showed her housemates her phone with a sigh. Then, smiling at us, she squared her shoulders and walked off.
This reporting is made possible with support from Report for the World, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project.