(As told to Yoginder Sikand, New Age Islam)
You’ve all read and enjoyed “Alice in Wonderland” when you were children. It’s all about Alice and the wonderful adventures she has with her friends. But the Alice in this true story lives not in any fun-filled wonderland but in a world where she’s a paid slave. “Alice in Wonderland” had a rabbit to help her out of any little troubles that came her way, but this Alice has no one to turn to but God.
My name is Alice and I am 55 years old. I live in Chennai, where I was born and have lived for most of my life. I work as what they call a ‘maidservant’—in the home of a rich Sindhi woman. That’s the work I’ve been doing ever since I was twenty.
I don’t know why I am telling you my story. I don’t see any point in doing so. My life has been a long tale of misery. Why talk about it since that isn’t going to make my life better? I know that the only way I will be happy is when I die and meet God and my Lord Jesus Christ.
My father was from Goa and he came many years ago to Chennai in search of work. He took up a job as a mechanic in a motor company. He was a poor man and didn’t ever earn much. But, still, when I think of him I see only his happy, smiling face. Just this morning I thought of him as I was going to work, taking me by my hand and going to church. I saw myself wearing a pink dress and all so happy. When I am sad and lonely, I think of him and that gives me some relief. I pray that I meet him in heaven when I die. I’d like nothing more than to be united with him again.
I don’t remember my mother at all. She died when I was not even a year old, and, after some, time my father married again. My step-mother was a Tamil woman. Unlike many other step-mothers, she was good to me. But, I don’t know why but after some years she suddenly left our house and went off no one knows where. My father was so shocked, you wouldn’t believe it. He spent days searching for her, going here and there till he was really exhausted and then gave up. He fell sick, what with all that tension and trauma, and then went to his sister’s house, where he hoped to find some rest. But, all of a sudden, he died. I was in Pondicherry then, and they didn’t bother to tell me. I got a letter from them only after the burial was over.
My father had put me in a church-run English-medium school. He had great dreams for me and thought that a good education was a must. We had some French and Italian nuns in our school. They gave me a lot of love and taught me beautiful hymns. They would smile at me and even hug me once in a while. I really admired their life. They seemed so pure and kind. Since they were unmarried and had devoted their entire lives to God and serving the poor, they were free from the tension of family life and all the nasty fights that wreck most families. How lucky they were to be able to spend much time in church, praying and singing to the Lord!
My aunt Cecilia, my father’s sister, was a nun, and she would always tell me when we went to visit her, ‘Alice, Devote your life to the Lord! You will make a wonderful nun.’ And I would dream of becoming a nun as soon as I finished school. The thought of spending my whole life in service of God and the poor gave me such joy.
But that was not to be. My father insisted I should marry when I turned just nineteen. He would say that I wouldn’t be able to take care of myself without a husband. Who would look after me in my old age? Then, he wanted me to produce children so that he could play with his grand-children. And so he married me off against my will. The man they chose for me was a friend of some relatives of ours. Of course, I didn’t know him at all before. They said he was a good man and I believed them.
My marriage was a total disaster from almost the very beginning. Not many days had passed since our marriage when my husband started revealing his true colours. He worked as a carpenter, and after work he would go straight to the local bar and drink himself crazy. Then, he would come home and yell at me. He found fault with everything I did, with the sari I wore, with the smell in the house, with the food I had cooked. And then he would grab my hair begin to kick and beat me till blood began pouring from my head. I still have the scratch-marks all over my body which I could show you. They won’t go away till I am safely buried in my grave.
There was no one in the house to support me then. My mother-in-law lived with us, and instead of controlling her son she would encourage him. ‘Beat this miserable bitch! Harder!’ she would goad him on.
I had no one to turn to but Jesus. When my husband fell asleep and began to snore, I would go to the altar in our room (we lived in a one-roomed house in a slum) and look upon the kindly face of Jesus and whisper to him, ‘Lord, you are the only one who can see me through this trial.’
In quick succession I produced four children, two daughters and two sons. You might have thought that now that I was the mother of his children my husband would have mended his ways. But, no, he kept up his almost daily beatings, even in front of the kids. When I think of what those poor little angels of mine had to witness I shudder with horror. When they grew up they no longer remained silent spectators of their father’s behavior. They would rush to my defence, but yet my husband would continue beating me, and my children, too.
You might ask me why I couldn’t just leave my husband instead of having to undergo such torture for so many years. I am a Catholic, you see, and we got married in church. The priests say that once you are married you are married for life, or so I hear. And, then, after we had children how could I have left? Who would have looked after them? What would people have said?
Not long after my marriage I began to work. My father had dreamt that I would get a good job but I was pulled out of school when I passed the ninth grade because my father couldn’t afford the school fees any longer. Being just a ninth pass, what work was I capable of? The only job I could find was as a ‘maidservant’ in someone’s house. And that’s what I became, and have been ever since. I changed several jobs till I landed up with the present one. I suppose I will die being a ‘maidservant’, too.
You won’t imagine how difficult it was for me to manage a job, house-work, my children and my husband’s treatment all at the same time. Being a ‘maidservant’ was almost as harrowing and demeaning as being the wife of my husband. As a ‘servant’ you are treated as a slave—no, even worse than that because you aren’t even treated like a human being. I had to suffer that treatment because, my husband said, we needed the money to run our expanded household.
I thought that the money I brought in would make things better for me. I even hoped to be able to save up some of it for my future because I realized, soon after I got married, that I couldn’t rely on my husband if I fell sick or when I turned old. But my husband insisted I should give him all the money I earned, slogging in people’s houses twelve hours a day. He spent it on his daily quota of liquor, of course, and I could never use it as I wanted. That’s why my children weren’t able to receive a proper education. They were taken out of school very soon, and now my two girls work as ‘maidservants’, like myself, and my sons as daily-wage labourers. They are all married, but I don’t think they are happy. One of my daughters ran off with a Muslim man. He was a replica of my husband, and beat her blue almost every day. Thank heavens she divorced him soon enough.
After listening to all that I’ve said about my husband I know you won’t think I am bad or immoral when I say that I was delighted when my husband died. That was some years ago. He literally drunk himself to death. It was such a wonderful relief to be liberated from his presence! I continued being a ‘maidservant’ after his death, but without him my life is so much better or, should I say, much less miserable.
Not long after my husband’s death I took up a job with an extremely rich Sindhi woman. That was eighteen years ago and I’m still a ‘maidservant’ in her house. I had thought the lives of the rich were much better than ours but that’s not true at all. I can say this with confidence because working in this house for such a long time I have seen things for myself.
Madam is a divorcee and got married again some years ago. I was with her when she was married to her first husband. She was pregnant then—in Bombay—and her mother, Senior Madam, had come to take care of her. I knew that things between her and her husband weren’t good but I didn’t realize they were so bad! One day, her mother and I entered the main bedroom—and do you know what? I saw her husband in bed with another woman! That woman turned out to be the widow of her husband’s best friend, who had recently died.
You can imagine what a shock we got! Madam’s mother went straight to the hospital and told Madam what we had seen. Poor Madam! She was dazed and it took her quite a while to realize that her world had been shattered. In just a few days she delivered a son and decided to divorce her husband and return to Chennai, where her parents lived. I think her former husband never came to see her again, nor did he bother about his son, who is now almost eighteen years old.
Madam’s got a new husband now. She met him on the Internet. He was younger than her and quite good-looking, but from a somewhat poor family. I think she dazzled him with her wealth and that’s how the chap agreed to marry her. If you marry for the wrong reasons, and not because you really love the person you marry, your marriage is bound to fail, and that’s what happened with Madam’s second marriage, too. The two can’t stand each other at all, and I’ve heard that Madam is hoping to divorce him soon and get a third husband to take his place, as if in this way she can get the happiness she so desperately hankers after despite being so rich. I know that’s not going to work, though. My own bitter experience with marriage has taught me that.
To come back to my story, I began working with Madam, as I said, eighteen years ago, even before her son was born. I do the same things, day in and day out, every day, working from six in the morning till eleven at night, for which I’m paid six thousand rupees a month plus food. Most days I stay in Madam’s house, where I sleep on the drawing-room floor, but sometimes I go to the room I’ve taken on rent (for which I have to spend more than half my salary) in a slum, where my mother-in-law and one daughter of mine, who’s divorced, live.
You might wonder why my mother-in-law still lives with me, now that her son—my husband—is dead and also since she has other children, including two sons, of her own. Sometimes, even I wonder why I am putting up with her, and that, too, at my own expense. I even pay for her medicines and food because she has no money of her own. As I mentioned earlier on, my mother-in-law was no good to me when my husband was around. She would instigate him to beat me and took a special delight in it. It seemed that the sight of blood pouring out of my ears gave her great joy.
Yet, after my husband’s death I decided to let my mother-in-law stay with me, and I arranged for the room for her in the slum. God tells us to help the needy and to forgive those who sin against us, and that’s what I tell myself. And, then, none of the other children of my mother-in-law, not even her other sons, wants to keep her with them. ‘We’d rather poison the old woman than have her with us,’ they say, because she is known, even by her children, to be a major trouble-maker.
I’m digressing again, so let me come back to my work, which I was telling you about. I get up at six, hurriedly brush my teeth and then rush to Senior Madam’s house, where Madam’s eight-year old daughter (from her second husband) generally spends the night. If I come even five minutes late, Senior Madam will bark at me, ‘Don’t you have any sense? The child has to get ready for school, you lazy wretch!’ And she’ll make such a grumpy face you’d think she would eat me up right there! I have to swallow my pride and say that I’m sorry even though I am not.
Tending to Madam’s daughter is now my major work. You may think it’s simple enough, for which normal eight year old girl needs to be fussed about the whole day? But my work doing the girl’s things isn’t at all easy and it takes up the whole day. Before that, I had spent many years looking after Madam’s son, who is now eighteen, and the work was the same and equally demanding. You won’t have thought that a child needs a special servant all for herself, but that’s not the case with Madam’s eight-year old child. What fuss they make over the child, you’d think she was the daughter of the Queen of England! When she was little I had to bathe and powder her, wash her bum and clean her nappies, cook all sorts of special food for her, feed her, sing songs to her and put her to sleep, and, after that, wash, iron and fold all her sheets and clothes. That took me all day and much of the night. That’s exactly the work I also did for many years when Madam’s son was little.
Now that Madam’s daughter is eight you would have thought that the burden of my work would be less. But no! Even though she’s eight and big enough to do most things herself, Madam and Senior Madam still want everything to be done for her, and so she’s thoroughly spoiled, the poor little thing, for no fault of her own. How these rich kids are pampered! My own used to run about in the gutters and I couldn’t take good care of them because I was busy working in people’s houses most of the day. I have to brush the girl’s teeth, lead her to the toilet, see that she sits on the commode properly, wash her bum when she’s over shitting, give her a bath and oil her hair, and then take her into the dining room. There, I have to literally feed her myself, scooping up food into her mouth with a spoon. Shouldn’t a girl of her age be able to do all this herself? I should think so, but Madam and her mother don’t.
After the girl is through with her breakfast I have to rush about packing her school-bag and tiffin-box. If I miss one thing—say a book or a pencil—Senior Madam hollers at me as if I am a criminal. ‘You’re so dumb! You’ll never learn,’ she will scream, in front of the other servants and the girl and her brother. No wonder the children have no respect or love for me. Even the girl has begun to talk to me like Madam and Senior Madam do, ordering me about and only rarely showing me any sign of affection. Only the other day she told me, ‘Alice, you are a servant, and you must do as you are told.’
It is only when the girl has gone to school that I can breathe comfortably and sit down for a cup of tea. But, soon after that I have to get back to work, with a brief respite for breakfast. I slog continuously till lunch-time, always on my toes, and I don’t get a minute’s rest. If there’s really no work Senior Madam makes sure that I am doing something or the other. Maybe she thinks that just because I am paid by them I must work every minute of the day and that by resting I’m cheating them of the money they pay me. So, when I’m over with my work she will yell out for me and tell me to do this and that: switching on or off the fan, bringing her a glass of water, polishing shoes or cutting vegetables.
I take half an hour off for lunch, after which I’m back to work—some odd thing or the other. I’m fifty-five years old now, and you know how at this age people would love nothing more than a little nap in the afternoon. But do you think Senior Madam and her daughter would allow me this? I won’t even dare ask them! I once did, but Senior Madam barked at me, ‘You aren’t an old woman that you should sleep after lunch. Get back to work!’ So, I’m busy rushing about like a mad woman, working non-stop after lunch till the girl gets back from school at 3-ish. And then how my head begins to reel! Senior Madam will be at me, ordering me about, telling me to make the girl a snack and to stuff it into her mouth and clean her dishes. Then, I have to lead the girl into her room, change her clothes, give her a wash, take off her shoes and play computer games with her or pat her to sleep. At 5 or so I have to take her downstairs to play. If the girl comes up dirty—and naturally that happens because children love to play in the mud—Senior Madam will howl at me. In fact, things are so bad that she’d howl at me even if I did everything properly and there was no real cause for complaint. That’s how she is. She doesn’t seem to need any excuse to find or even invent fault and scream at me.
I bring the girl up to Senior Madam’s flat in the evening, and then have to give her a bath and change her clothes, after which I have to make her dinner and feed it to her with my own hands. Then, I have to sit with her in the TV room as she watches her cartoons. I can’t sit on the same couch as her, because as ‘servants’ we have been taught that our place is on the floor. Senior Madam has two big dogs and Madam has seven—they are allowed to sit on the couch, but we ‘servants’ can’t ever think of doing that. And so I squat on the floor as the girl bounces about on the couch and munches the fancy food her grand-mother makes for her, which, of course, I have to stuff into her mouth myself. The dogs are so badly fussed over and kissed and cuddled and fed all sorts of expensive food, but do you think Madam and Senior Madam would ever show even a fraction of that love to us ‘servants’?
It’s such a relief when the girl goes to bed—at 9:30—after which I go to Madam’s flat and have my dinner. Then, I have to wash the dishes and arrange for the girl’s dress for the next day. I only get to turn in by 11, curling up on my mat on the floor. And then I quickly drift off to sleep and dream dreams that have no bearing at all to my reality. I sometimes see myself as a nun, bending before the image of the Lord in church, or of me as a child, holding my father’s hand and laughing out loud. You can imagine how I cringe when I get up the next day and discover that I’m on the bare floor in Madam’s drawing-room and have yet another day of the same work I’ve been doing almost all my life ahead of me.
Day in and day out this is what my life is all about. The only time I really am happy is on Sunday mornings. After much cajoling and pleading, Madam has allowed me to take some hours off so that I can attend Sunday mass. When I’m in the church and praying I happily forget Madam and her family. It’s like being taken into a completely other world. Once the service gets over I have to rush back to Madam’s house, and if I’m ten minutes late I’m sure to be in for a lashing from Senior Madam’s razor-like tongue.
You might think that working with Madam and her family for almost two decades I’d get a lot of love from them. After all, I have spent much of my life faithfully serving this family. I’ve brought up their two children, doing for them almost everything that a mother would. I did this at the cost of my own children, whom I was forced to neglect since I had to work with this family for the money. But, despite all this, I know I remain in their eyes just a ‘maidservant’. I know very well that the moment they don’t need me any more they’ll throw me out without any remorse. That’s what they did with some other servants who faithfully served for them for years.
I brought up Madam’s son myself—I’m sure they wouldn’t have managed on their own—but the boy, who’s big now, gives me no affection at all. I’m just a piece of furniture, yet another of his ‘servants’, as far as he is concerned. It isn’t that he’s rude to me, but he’s learnt from how Madam and Senior Madam treat me to order me about as if I were his slave. ‘Alice! Get me some water,’ he’ll shout as he sits like a statue in front of the television. As if he can’t get it himself! If I take some time to do what he wants, he’ll scream, ‘What the hell are you doing? Can’t you hurry up?’, and he’ll make such a disgusting face that I’ll begin to tremble with fear. He won’t, of course, say ‘thank you’ and ‘please’, nor will he even smile at me. I have to force myself to say ‘Good Morning’ and ‘Good Night’ to him every day, and then he’ll murmur something in reply, not even looking at me when he does. It isn’t that I really want to wish him. Why should I always take the initiative, especially since I’m much older and I know he doesn’t really love me despite having brought him up from birth? But, I know if I don’t put on a smile and wish him Senior Madam will find yet another excuse to bark at me.
Madam, when she’s in a rare good mood or when she wants to convince me to do something for her that she knows I might find difficult, will sometimes say, ‘Alice, How could I have ever brought up my children without you? They are your children as much as they are mine.’ You think I believe all this? Not a bit, of course. If they were really ‘my children’, as Madam sometimes says, do you think the girl would say, ‘Alice! I really hate you!’ Do you think she would sometimes spit at me? If Madam really loved me would she have marched me off me to the police station that day, where I was beaten and insulted, because she thought I had robbed her jewels? They later found that the robber was someone else, but Madam didn’t even bother to apologize to me. If Madam really meant what she sometimes says do you think she would have circulated that rumour about me having an affair with another ‘servant’ of hers? If she really were good at heart do you think she would have snapped at me the other day when I simply mentioned that I had a head-ache, and she accused me of faking it so that I could have a holiday? If I meant anything to her, would she and her mother make me work like a slave? If they did really value me for all that I’ve done for their children wouldn’t they think that I’m a human being who, like them, needs to be treated with love and respect? Wouldn’t they have done something for my own children—after all, I’ve slaved for their children for so long?
I’ve heard Senior Madam sometimes go on about how good she is to her many ‘servants’. Now, I have to admit that she isn’t half as bad as the others I’ve worked for. At least she doesn’t beat me. Sometimes, when she’s in a good mood, she’s funny and we joke with each other and she talks nicely to me—but it’s mainly all sorts of negative gossip, for that’s what she just loves doing. Once in a while she’ll give me some old saris of hers or some clothes for my grand-children for Christmas and even, in some rare gesture of generosity, a couple of thousands of rupees. I’m grateful for that, for who else would do this for me? None of my other employers ever did so much. But, if you ask me, I could do without all that if instead they recognized me to be a fellow human being. If I were paid better, had fixed work, didn’t have to slog all day, and was treated with love and dignity, I’d be much happier, and then I wouldn’t need to be given charity. What’s the use of being insulted all day and then being treated somewhat kindly once in a while?
You might ask me why I continue to work at Madam’s place even though I hate it. But, I will ask you, where else can I go, now that I am fifty-five and poorly-educated? Who’s going to employ me? Who’ll feed me if I don’t work? I don’t have a bank account, leave alone a fat bank balance, to see me through. And so, I’ll continue to work as a ‘maidservant’ as long as I can, though my bones have already begun to creek with all the work I’ve been doing non-stop ever since I was twenty.
One day, someone asked me, ‘Alice, how on earth are you going to manage when you are old? Your children are as poor as you and you have no savings, not even a house of your own.’ And I told her—and this is what I tell everyone who asks me the same question—‘I have reposed all my faith in God. If He chooses that I should live that long He’ll definitely provide for me in some way. And if He thinks my time is over and I don’t have to suffer more, He’ll take me up to Him, lifting me out of this world, saving me from having to worry myself mad wondering how I am going to manage when I’m old and unable to work. So, I really don’t have to worry at all about the future.’