The Maid’s Tale(s)

An ongoing project documenting the life stories and portraits of maids in Kerala. Interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.

Shamala

My father was in the military and my mother was an elementary school teacher. I had a nice childhood; we grew up in the center of town. I am Hindu, of the Erhva caste. We were not lower caste and never faced any discrimination. But there was a lot of discrimination against the lower castes — if you touched one of them you had to wash your hands. They couldn’t walk with us, and marrying them was out of the question. If you had friends who were from the lower castes and they came home, they were not treated well or given food. My mother was too progressive to do this, but my aunt would beat my cousins for bringing lower caste friends home. If she saw me walking with them she would sprinkle cow dung water on all of us. I think it is better now, but traces are still there. Some lower-caste people converted to Christianity but the stigma stayed with them — at their son’s wedding higher caste Hindus wouldn’t eat the food.

I studied until high school, and then I studied agriculture for a year until I got married. We were very educated. I was sad to leave college, because I loved to learn. Even now, if I get an interesting paper or cutting I will write it down. I love to learn new things. There are so many Hindu verses that I know by heart. But then, if you were a girl and there was a marriage proposal and if your parents said to get married, that’s what you did.

My husband was coming to see a girl next door, but he didn’t think much of her. When the person who brought the proposal saw me sitting and drawing, they stopped to talk to me. That’s how he saw me. And he liked me, so he asked my brother and my brother said yes. My husband was not educated, but because he had a job in Delhi he was considered a good catch. And the person who brought him said that the whole family doesn’t drink, which was rare.

I liked Delhi. Anything that you wanted to do, there was hope. People would help each other. Nobody is actually a Delhite by generation, so people help each other out. Malayalis would help Malayalis regardless of religion, but even North Indians would help because everyone felt like an outsider. I didn’t work outsite the home the home, but I helped with our catering business. I started the business on a small scale: a few vadas, snacks for a tea party. My first big event was 500 parotas for a function, I borrowed the stove from my relatives. I really like to cook!

We came here from Delhi to start a hotel business, we were here for 7 years, but the business didn’t do well so we went back to Delhi. Later my husband passed away, and I had come to Kerala for the first death anniversary. Before I came, I was having issues with my daughter-in-law, so once I came here I didn’t feel like going back. I decided to stay and find employment here. Eventually I would just like to go back and live with my son again.

I have a son and two daughters. For them, there was no question — they had to finish their education.

Chinnamma

I am from Nureacker, a forest area that means “100 acres.” Elephants would come and destroy the fields, and we used to work really hard to survive. My father had land, and we had about 10 workers, but my family also did labor. I went to school until the fourth grade — I liked school, but I could not pursue it. The town I grew up in only had school till the 4th. After that, we had to go to a school that was 20 km away. Kids would walk — every day at 2 o’clock in the morning they would get up, walk to school, and get there by 7 am. School gets done at 2, and then they would get home around 7 in the evening. I had four siblings — the rest went to school, but I had to stay home to help take care of the house. I was good with agriculture, so I was asked to stay back and help with that.

I got married at 17. My father liked the boy, so he said ok, now you should get married. Roy was 20. Once I saw him, I liked him. I was very fond of my father. He felt he owed me something because I had given up my studies. I bonded with him, and maybe he had a sense of having sacrificed me for the family’s good.

I was concerned about moving to Roy’s home, because there were 13 people. I was not used to such a big household. Till my oldest son was 22 I lived in that joined family.

When my second son was 3 years old, my husband started drinking. Maybe because of the nature of his work — he had joined the forest surveillance team, and they would go drinking every night. He never hurt me, but I’d had other proposals, and I saw how they all had reached better stations in life. After my husband started drinking, I realized my friends had moved on and were living better lives. I had no education, no job, nothing. I went to the riverbank with my kids and was going to fling them in and then drown myself. Then I felt there was a strong voice in my ears saying, “What have your children done? They are innocent. Go back to your house.” This happened twice.

My mother in law said, “Ok you can go back to your house if you want.” But I said no, that even if my husband is drunk and lying by a tree I will lie down next to him. I was worried that my brothers would not get good brides — it would be a stigma against the family

A turning point came when I got bitten by a snake. There was never enough food in our house; some days I used to walk back to my parents’ house for food at night. I used to take my children with me, holding them, and on one of those walks the snake bit me. I didn’t want to tell my husband, because I didn’t want to be responsible for a family fight. I said I had stumbled on a rock. My husband told me to trust him and tell the truth, and after that he became more empathetic towards me. We started going to church together.

After my second son got married I started raising goats. I supported my sons with that money. Roy would spend all his money on drinking. For food I would rely on my parents. There is a custom where when the girl’s father and mother visit they will give the girl money. After my father died, my brothers still bring me money every year, because my father told them, “Your sister sacrificed her life to help keep the family property up.”

My sons study well. I have two grandchildren: one grandson and one granddaughter. My older son does odd jobs. The younger one has a small job and now he has a marriage proposal in the works. It makes me happy to think about him getting married. When my oldest son got married he didn’t have a proper job, so I bought an auto rickshaw for him. Auto rickshaws are very expensive, so I took a loan. To pay off the loan I looked for another source of employment and found that being a maid was quite lucrative. I like being a maid, and taking care of people. But I’m not used to the food. And not having my family close by and not being able to go to church is bothersome.

It will take a year to pay off my debts. And what I would like is if my son gets married and says ok, come and live with us. If I were to go back to my village, I would like to rise chickens, rabbits, and goats. That’s all I know. If my son supports me it won’t feel so desperate. It’s what I’ve done before, it’s what I would feel comfortable doing again.

Munni

Until I was 13 my sisters and I grew up with my mother. I was the youngest of my sisters — it was fun. After that, we went to the paddy fields to harvest, to help our mother out. We had no option. I went to school until the sixth standard, and after that my mother was finding it difficult to send me to school — we needed money. So I stopped going. I liked school — Malayalam was my favorite subject. I was sad, but my father was sick and we needed money so I set out to help my mother.

I was 21 when I got married. When I was growing up, I had the idea of having a job where I would be financially well off. But family circumstances didn’t allow that, so when my parents arranged the marriage I agreed. My sister’s husband said what about this man, and he asked my father, and they arranged it. My husband and I are from the caste of barbers. I had no problem with it. I wanted a happy life — I suffered when I was small so I wanted to be happy. That didn’t work out, but I kept on working.

Three years after my marriage, when my youngest son turned three, I started working .When I started doing housework I was working in one house, then I did two houses. I have been working for 30 years. In one house I have been working almost 20 years. I want to work until I can’t. I don’t want to get tired, I want to keep working because I don’t want to beg for money from anyone — I want to support myself.

My husband does not contribute financially to the house. It was a problem. He wanted money for alcohol. He bought my daughters what they wanted, but the girls didn’t like him drinking. The eldest daughter was very mad at him about it. But I accepted him and didn’t want to give him up. He had no parents, he didn’t have anyone else. So I thought with love I could manage him. And it has become much better — he drinks less and less. When I got married it was very difficult for me because he wouldn’t give me any money. Finally, when I started working, I could buy things for my children.

Working enabled me to take care of my parents and build my house and marry off my daughters — all of that I paid for. You have to know both happiness and sadness; it is because we cry that we know happiness. My children’s marriage was the happiest thing in my life. My responsibility was over.

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