The Open Cage: Modern Day Slavery

My teen years were spent with my mom in a rural village called Kutra in Odisha, India. She was practically a single mother juggling between her duties as a doctor and a mother. Hence to get help with the household work, we hired domestic helpers, individuals who would stay in house and assist in chores.

We have had over twenty domestic helpers in our house in the course of 10 years. Some stayed for over a year, and some didn’t last more than 5 days. Mostly girls, in their early 20s from poor families.

They used to stay with us, in the house, away from their families, with a monthly salary of 2000–3000 rupees. They were allotted a small room, with no windows. The bed was made up of a plank placed over twelve bricks. The room had a portable fan, a cardboard box over which the maid would place her belongings. Also, the tiny room housed a bicycle pump and a heap of newspapers. Lighting the room was a tiny CFL bulb.

The maids were supposed to cook three meals a day, clean the house, do the dishes and ask patients who came for a checkup to wait outside. On festive occasions, they and my mom arranged flowers and made delicacies. When relatives arrived, their workload increased threefold and they were supposed to be very nice to them. I being the pampered brat, used to call out the maid’s name whenever I needed a glass of water.

Around the time when mobile phones weren’t all that popular, in their spare time, they watched TV, mostly cinema and soaps. They made friends easily, with girls of the same age in the neighborhood. I think they were domestic helpers too. Although it was frowned upon, they were not stopped from roaming around in the evening. Once when a maid was out the whole night and didn’t return until morning, she was rebuked and scolded harshly.

With time, when mobile phones became more affordable, most of them bought one; usually a Nokia phone, the one with many buttons. They were on phone very often and were upbraided when they didn’t respond while on phone. They probably talked with their lovers and people from their family.

I had no siblings, but I used to call the maids ‘Naani’ or ‘elder sister’. In my spare time, I would teach them few basic things. I taught one of them to do additions and subtractions. I would lose my patience after her repeated mistakes. She eventually gave up after learning to add. I taught another girl to play chess and she caught up pretty quickly. To most of them, who stayed for enough time for me to break ice with them, I explained what I was learning in my school: about the solar system, about different countries in the world. I told them about politics, science, history, biology. They were fascinated by my stories and wanted to know more. They would ask numerous questions and I would answer passionately. I taught most of them to read and write in Odia and English, but in the limited time I had after which I had to do my own study, it wasn’t possible to teach them beyond few simple sentences.

When I had a fight in my class or had something memorable to share, I used to narrate the stories to them when I returned home from school. They also shared their stories about their families, their numerous siblings, what they were up to, how bright their brothers were and how they had fun in their villages as children. Their faces lit up as they narrated the stories.

They were allowed to go home during the festivals and usually stayed longer than they said they would.

But very soon within few months, the expected day would eventually come. Right when we thought the maids were comfortable and at ease, we would find the room is empty, and her belongings are missing. They would have left.

Rarely, few would tell us before leaving but then they would be convinced to stay. Nevertheless, they would eventually quit within two weeks, at maximum.

I failed to understand why.

“Now they will realize how hard life is when they carry weights on their heads in construction sites. Free food, comfortable life, give them all, but they still won’t be satisfied” seemed like a valid reaction to me.

Few years later would we know from sources that one of them is a shopkeeper now or a local trader somewhere.

It took me to be a twenty something to empathize with the maids.

They wanted to be more than domestic helpers. They were intelligent, talented individuals whose potential was underutilized. Life to them must have been more than accessing food, water and shelter. What we thought of comfort must have been a cage to them. The fire of the youth couldn’t have let them waste their lives serving someone else. They eventually became self-employed entrepreneurs staring own shops, selling fruits, selling panipuris, doing odd businesses and then starting families of their own.

Sweet freedom, who can pay a price for thee?

Sometimes the cage looks different. The bed on bricks looks like a reclining chair and the dim lit room is an air conditioned cubicle. The timed evening walks are now the much awaited weekends to get drunk, and festive holidays are short vacations to escape the mundane life. Nothing much is different. Creativity was wasted in cutting vegetables before and now is wasted in making PPTs.

The masters still wonder why on earth the servant would be unhappy; the slave has everything a servant would need. The slaves on the other hand plan their escape grudgingly. Only, it is increasingly difficult to quit because the slaves don’t even know they are slaves.

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