Bela is thin like a reed, clad in a saree made of two pieces of cloth stitched together which have lost their original colour due to constant use. She is not sure how old she is though she does not look more than 25. Employed in the home of a doctor as a domestic servant in Delhi’s Sunlight Colony, her day starts at six in the morning and rarely ends before midnight.
Before setting out for work Bela fetches water and cooks food for her own family. At her employer’s house during the day she sweeps the house, washes clothes, cooks food, fetches milk, takes their children to school, brings them back and keeps them occupied and entertained… and countless other tasks. At night when she goes back to her own one-room hut, essential and innumerable household chores await her again. ‘I just get so tired,’ she says. For her efforts she is paid Rs 70 ($8.00) per month. Life is just one endless grind for Bela and thousands like her in India today. But she puts up with it for the sake of her five year old son.
Bela’s husband John - an untouchable converted to Christianity - is idle. ‘When he feels like it he works, and when he does not he gives it up,’ she explains. From time to time he gets temporary work. But John is choosy about the kind of work he is prepared to do, while Bela is ready to do anything which will bring some income to keep body and soul together.
At the end of the month when she takes her pay packet home, John is waiting at the door to take it from her unresisting fingers. And he swaggers up to the nearby liquor shop which provides him a refuge from the miseries of daily life. If Bela demurs about giving him her salary, she is subjected to the lashings of his tongue and his stick. Scars on her body are a witness to the beatings which have also become an inseparable part of her life.
Bela and John are heavily in debt and have to borrow money for daily necessities. ‘Why don’t you try and get a better job?’ I ask. Her eyes widen. ‘Where will I get better work? I’m lucky to have this job as it is.’ Does she not wish that she had been educated, that she could rest on Sundays or go out to the cinema? She looks blank. Dreams are obviously a luxury she cannot afford. She has known no other life but this one.
Bela’s parents died when she was a child. She was brought up by her older sister Lakshmi who is legally married to John and has six children by him. All of them live together. Bela was ‘taken in by him when I was very young’ and her son, Das, is a result of this liaison. Lakshmi, who works as a maid in a private nursing home, has been ailing for many months now. ‘Sorrow is eating her away,’ Bela explains, referring to the way John treats them both. ‘If a man won’t work, the woman has to do it,’ she shakes her head wisely. ‘The children have to eat after all.’ Moreover, childbirth six times in quick succession has also taken its toll of Lakshmi. ‘We women can’t even decide how many children we want to have,’ she tries to jest but the joke falls flat. The reason for the present sex ratio in India (107 men for every 100 women) is not difficult to see. Girls do not get as much food and care as boys, and in a country where both are in short supply, this becomes a matter of life and death for the poor.
‘Why don’t you leave John when you are the one who has to feed him and in return all you get are his beatings?’ I cannot resist asking her.
Bela’s sunny smile which lights up her thin face suddenly disappears; her mouth droops. Eyes downcast, she concentrates on making patterns on the floor with her toes. She is silent for such a long time that I repeat my question. ‘What will I do if I throw him out?’ she asks simply. It is like asking someone who has never seen television to describe its advantages and disadvantages. ‘He is the one who threatens to throw me out if I don’t give him my whole salary.’
‘We women often have to do a double shift of work,’ Bela continues in a matter-of-fact fashion. Doesn’t her husband help with the housework? She giggles; ‘no, he would not touch it. It is below his dignity. His friends would laugh at him. It is considered a woman’s work.’
Women like Bela have only their labour to hire out. Eighty per cent of poor households in India are supported by women. Their families would die if they did not put their labour to use. They cannot say no to any offer in the market. The options for them are minimal. But drudgery without help of any sort, day in and day out, hardly leaves any scope for creativity, liberation or development. And home management, food preparation, production and rearing of children are not considered activities of economic value.
Job opportunities for women are declining in India. Whereas at the beginning of this century the labour force was 33 per cent female, today this figure has dwindled to 20 per cent. Of these, half are agricultural labourers and only six per cent hold clerical jobs. And because of a lack of equal opportunity, women invariably have to do the most menial of unskilled tasks. What kind of a development is our society heading for if half its population is subjugated? ‘A woman’s life is very difficult’, Bela keeps repeating.