The story of the other in the gym

It is 3 am on a hot July morning in New Delhi, India. The shrill of the alarm pierces through the sounds of the night. Meena (name changed) wakes up. Within minutes she walks to the corner of the room which is her kitchen. She lights the stove to make some chai (tea)for herself while hurriedly cooking and then packing the 5 family member’s lunch boxes. It is already getting closer to 4 am. She needs to be at the gym by 5 am. She has to be at the gym by 5 am.

Quickly she puts on her uniform, slings the id across her neck and grabs her bag to make a dash for the nearest bus stop. Navigating the narrow by lanes of SangamVihar as well as the Delhi heat, Meena miraculously manages to catch a bus that will take her to Saket. She reaches with only 10 minutes to spare. Hurriedly Meena makes her way to the lift lobby and then crosses that to enter the designated area which houses the service elevators. She knows she must not ever step into those other lifts. She has been told not to. Punching in her card at 5:01 am Meena gets to work. The gym floor needs cleaning.

The distance between SangamVihar and Select City Saket is just 7 kilometers but they are light years apart. Meena feels it is a different world with happier prettier people. She is the first one from her family who has managed to visit this glittery new world. However she has not yet explored it. Infact she knows it is near impossible for her to do that. She is not welcome here. This is not her world.

What brought her to this world? “Majboori ek cheese hoti hai. Kaam karna padta hai.(Being poor is a curse. We have no choice but to work).A year back Meena was working as a domestic help making 3–4 thousand rupees a month with no vacations and no fixed hours. It was then that someone told her about these things called the gym. The idea of 6–7 thousand rupees, a fixed 10 hour work day and 4 vacations a month was very tempting. She registered herself with a housekeeping agency and soon found herself in a gym.

Meena is just one of the many men and women across urban Indian who have found employment as housekeeping staff in gyms. They typically work between 8–12 hours a day, earn between INR 4–8 thousand a month and get 2–4 vacations a month. Unlike thousands of others they are part of the organized labor market and on paper have far more rights than they are aware of.It is the better money and working conditions that attract most of them. “Kaam toh wahi hai saafh safai ka lekin kaam karne ki jagah aachi hai. Music chalta hai. Garmi mai AC aur saardi mai Heater. Kabhi kabhi beech mai rest karne ko bhi mil jata hai.”(The work is the same cleaning and mopping. Just the work environment is slightly better. In the summers the AC is on and in the winters the heater. We also manage to gets moments of rest in between). They typically rest on the changing room floor. Most gyms do not have a separate room for them. Infact in some places even the lunch is eaten in one corner of the changing room. The lucky few get to use the microwave to heat their food.

Without complaining Meena goes about her daily job — on some days she is mopping the gym floor and cleaning the gym equipments on others she is in the ladies changing room cleaning bathrooms and scrubbing toilets.

Meena and people like her are critical to keep the gym functioning. Her role is similar to the role of the grease found in the equipments lying below — she ensures the smooth functioning of the entire gym machinery. It seems like she is embarrassed to hear this analogy. She has never thought of herself as someone important, someone critical. Neither have most of the gym patrons.

Most of them just walk past her. Few acknowledge her presence. Very rarely does she hear a thank you. Almost never does she hear a how are you. She is typically called by “hello” “didi” or sometimes just a gesture of the hand. Barely anyone knows her name.

Surrounded by all the light it seems like Meena has a cloak of darkness over her. Most simply look through her blankly. They only spot her when something needs to be wiped or picked. Other times it is like she becomes invisible.

She doesn’t mind. It is the reality of her life and she has come to understand that not everyone is equal. She goes about doing her job. It ensures her family gets three meals a day and she doesn’t need to go house to house working from sunrise to sunset.

Though as an afterthought she does add that it would be nice to get a polite smile, a friendly wave or a chirpy good morning. Actually even a simple thank you may not be so bad.

Note: Meena is a representation of the average housekeeping staff. She has been created as a result of multiple conversations with the house keeping staff at various gyms.

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