But who stands behind some of these successful women? Writing in her regular Sunday column in The Hindu newspaper, my friend Kalpana Sharma suggests an answer: the unsung, unappreciated and often poorly paid housemaids or domestic workers.
Here’s how Kalpana opens her column, aptly titled ‘Invisible women’:
“They flit in and out of our homes like ghosts in the night. They sweep and swab, wash and cook, look after our children, care for the elderly. Yet we know little about them. Most of us just about know their first names. We don’t know where they ’re from, where they live, whether they are married, how many children they have, how many other homes they work in, what they earn — how they survive. They are virtually invisible.
“We usually wake up to their existence when they don’t turn up for work. And the first response is annoyance, because of the inconvenience caused to us. Many professional women don the title of being superwomen because they manage jobs and homes — work life balance. But in fact the real superwomen are these silent workers, without whom few professional women in India would be able to function. Yet, while those in formal employment get sick leave, casual leave, privileged leave and weekends, our domestic help is not entitled to any of this. If she rests too long, she’s lazy. If she doesn’t turn up for work, she’s a shirker. It would appear that these women don’t have the right to relax, to fall sick, to have some fun. And of course, no one acknowledges that when they’re done with our homes, they still have their own homes where they have to do the very same jobs, sweep and swab, wash clothes, cook and take care of children and elderly.”
With this, Kalpana introduces a recently made Indian documentary, Lakshmi and Me (Nishtha Jain 59′, India, USA, Finland, Denmark, 2007), where the middle class film maker turns her camera on her 21-year-old part-time maid Lakshmi.As Kalpana says: “Nishtha Jain, a Mumbai-based documentary filmmaker has done what all of us need to do. She has not just acknowledged that this silent worker in her home has a name, but she’s followed her life so that we see the person behind the name — a person just like any of us. And instead of viewing the woman from a distance, the filmmaker has bravely placed herself in the frame, honestly dissecting her own relationship as an employer. “Lakshmi and Me” is a remarkably honest documentary about 21-year-old Lakshmi and the filmmaker, Nishtha.”
I haven’t yet seen the film, and after reading Kalpana’s review, I quite look forward to catching it. I hope it goes beyond the clichéd approach of offering glimpses of how the other half lives, which afflicts many documentaries of this kind made by well-meaning middle class film-makers who can’t quite break free from their own social framework.
Photos courtesy Lakshmi and Me film