It was a bomb waiting to explode.

A gated community surrounded by a sea of deprivation, called Mahagun Moderne – modern with a meaningless extra “e”. On one side were people living within high gates, protected by security personnel and closed circuit television cameras. On the other were occupants of tin sheds on vacant lands.

They connected without really connecting: everyday, from the surrounding squalor emerged women and men who “helped” those living in these luxurious enclosures of privilege. Yet for the people they help, these women and men were virtually non-persons.

When Mahagun Moderne in Noida sector 78 burst into the news on July 12, this hidden world of invisible workers and insensitive employers came into view. On that day, there was a riot-like situation in the posh society located in the National Capital Region after Zohra Bibi, who worked in one of the houses there, went missing the previous night. She was found in the basement, police claimed at the time, even as her compatriots were virtually breaking down the gates. In photographs, she appeared dazed and near-unconscious.

Though both sides traded charges and police cases were filed against the workers as well as the residents, only the group of workers who stormed the society were detained. Of these, 13 were charged with attempted murder even though none of the FIRs filed over the incident mentioned a physical attack on residents. About 81 workers were “blacklisted” and barred from entering the society for protesting on July 12.

But beyond the particulars of the Noida case is the riddle of why a country like India continues to tolerate, even justify, the exploitation of domestic workers. In fact, the “e” at the end of “Moderne” in the name of the Noida gated complex signifies the pretension, the unreality, the make believe that attempts to hide the feudalistic mindset that continues to justify the exploitation of domestic workers.

Zohra Bibi shortly after she was found on July 12. [Photo: Nilanjana Bhowmick/via Facebook]
Zohra Bibi shortly after she was found on July 12. [Photo: Nilanjana Bhowmick/via Facebook]

Hidden world

The millions of women, men and even children employed in domestic work in India, who cannot be accurately counted because most of them not registered are a daily reminder of how far we are from becoming the modern society we aspire to be.

The very concept that these women and men who sweep, swab, clean, cook, serve and sustain us are our “help” is vulgar. It is we, the employers of these invisible people, who occasionally help them, not the other way around.

The problem goes beyond the poor wages and the lack of legal protection. It extends to the very attitude we hold towards domestic workers that is so entrenched that it doesn’t even change with the generations. We commonly call them “servants” and we want them there to serve. She has a name but we care little about where she lives, what she eats, whether she has children and if yes, then do they go to school and how do they survive. What happens when someone falls ill? How many people does she support with her meagre wages? A hundred questions, never asked, by the people this woman helps.

It is also interesting that even as the Supreme Court debates the extent of our right to privacy, privileged Indians are willingly relinquishing their privacy because they want someone else to do their household chores. So, a stranger lives in our home, knows our likes and dislikes, cleans up after us, cooks what we like, overhears all we say, watches us watching TV, listening to music, arguing or talking on the phone. Yet, we pretend this person does not exist. Except when something goes missing. Then suddenly the, person comes into view. Without a moment’s hesitation, she is the first suspect. She is poor, you are rich; therefore she must be the thief.

Ironically, with the notion of safety, the rich are even willing to equip their homes with closed circuit cameras so that they can keep a watch on their help without seeing these as an intrusion on their private space.

So, while what women like Zohra Bibi do has to be recognised as work and not help, there have to be laws that guarantee her a fair wage, institutions she can approach if she is mistreated, there also needs to be a drastic shift in the perspective of those who employ domestic workers.

Exploitation and cruelty

What happened in Noida is not the first time a domestic worker has complained of mistreatment. In my memory, one of the worst such incidents took place a little over a decade back in Mumbai.

Ten-year-old Sonu from Bhopal was employed by an affluent family in the Lokhandwala area. There were three adults in the family for whom she worked – the mother, father and a grown up son. A married daughter lived in the same complex.

In June 2006, the daughter found Sonu trying out lipstick that belonged to her mother. For this supposed crime, the child was tortured, beaten and left to bleed to death. More horrific still was the cold-blooded way in which the family cleaned up the mess and suspended Sonu’s inert body by a rope from the ceiling fan. They then went to the police and reported it as a suicide.

Fortunately, despite their privilege, they did not get away. For this sickening case, all four members of the family were sentenced to life two years later.

Whenever an incident like this comes to light, there is some discussion about the conditions of domestic workers. But little changes. We need to stop and ask: why does this happen? Why does the Indian society turn a blind eye to such crass exploitation? How do generations of Indians grow up accepting that there are some people whose life’s mission is to serve and clean up after them? Why do we accept the concept of a “servant”?

Commenting on Katherine Stockett’s book The Help about black women domestic workers in the American South in 1962, Harsh Mander writes in his seminal work Looking Away:

“What deeply troubled me after I read the book was that the humiliation and exploitation suffered by domestic workers in southern US half a century earlier was, in fact, in many ways less oppressive than the daily lived experience of an estimated three million domestic workers in middle-class homes across urban India in the second decade of the 21st century. And that this causes us so little outrage.”

Indeed, there is only momentary outrage, until another Sonu is tortured or another group of workers break down the gates of our burgeoning gated communities.