There were about 40 of them. They weren’t raising any slogans. Some standing, some sitting on the kerb, some chatting and laughing, some quiet, resolute — all of them visibly upbeat about being together in whatever they were doing. It had to mean something. A group of labour-class women do not gather on the street for nothing.
Well, as it turned out, it was quite simple. In a classic case of class discrimination, the women — all of them domestic help or maids — were disallowed from using the facility of lifts in the society building where they worked. Their quiet patience in navigating the six floors by stairs had turned into a strike that day, only after the humiliation took terrible turns — such as, guards scolding them for breaking the sacred rule, and some of the women being summoned to the management office and being told to pull their ears and say, ‘Sorry, I will not use the lift again.’ Remember school? Remember social studies? No kidding!
Indeed, ugly middle-class realities do not bare themselves in such broad daylight every day. But don’t act all surprised. And if you’re in shock, you’re in grave denial in fact. This discrimination in a society at Dhakoli in Zirakpur — a suburb of Utopia — only brings to the street something rotten that’s sitting in most middleclass kitchens. Forget lifts, I am talking about that separate cup in which the maid is served her tea. Go on, blame the over-analysed mercurial temper of opinion-writers, or call me a lazy generalist who doesn’t do his research before getting angry. I’d be happy to concede, and you can go back to la-la land. Easier still, go on and tell me you don’t have that separate cup; I’d be happy to count the exceptions. In fact, to counter the argument once and for all, why don’t you take the hygiene alibi? Yes, about maids not being clean enough to share your crockery but being adept enough to clean it spick and span.
Or, you could learn from the man himself. “We are only saving electricity,” said Mr KR Sharma, president of the Gulmohar Trends society management. “We have exempted older maids, and those physically challenged or pregnant, from this rule,” he added. “The lifts are old, so we need to use them sparingly,” he further said. “I tell you what; the maids just want a salary raise!” he concluded, before leaving to hear some residents who had gathered to show solidarity with the protesting maids.
This was the pious lot. All hassled and worked up, these were mostly women who practically wanted to hang Mr Sharma. “Why should we suffer a protest by our maids when it is this Sharma guy who made this no-lift-for-workers rule?” they echoed, as reporters and photographers started arriving at the spot. “I am ready to give mine a salary raise if she finds it difficult to climb the stairs,” one of them declared in all humility. “You, shut up! I live on the ground floor. I want mine to resume work anyway,” another replied. The protesters were watching, probably amused. “Where is Modi now? Is this his Beti Bachao?” screamed a liberal-type, who said she had protested even when the rule had been made two weeks ago.
But, as the maids underlined, the rule was in place for almost two months anyway, much before it was passed as a resolution at the society’s general body meeting.
It wasn’t long before a reporter finally asked the question that was hanging in the air all along: “Where were you earlier, ma’am? Didn’t you know about this ban, since you live on the fifth floor?” Perhaps she was waiting for the Prime Minister to talk about the issue in his ‘Mann Ki Baat’. She only said she had heard “rumours” but never got the time to ask any of the maids about it. The reporters did not laugh. Professionalism, you see!
After a while, the bleeding-heart residents managed a middle-of-theroad solution, and Sharma ji agreed: “The maids can use the lift while going up, and take the stairs on their way down.” No one asked the maids. They smiled, dispersed, and have since resumed work. Everything is fine again. And, sure, that separate cup doesn’t mean anything. It’s a mere hygiene issue, as we all know.