Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The hidden violence at the heart of middle-class existence

Tumpa Manna’s mother with
her daughter’s photo.

by Bhaswati Chakravorty

Malda is very cold in winter. Sixteen-year-old Rimpi Datta shivers in the early morning dark, as she gets ready in her little darma hut on the banks of the Mahananda to run the freezing route to her employer’s house. She has to ring the bell exactly at six. It would not have been so bad if she could enter after that. But the lady of the house, after noting the time of Rimpi’s bell, sleeps for another half- an-hour or forty minutes. But she turns into a wide-awake fury if Rimpi is late.

For the last two years, Rimpi has been having weeping fits, her mother told me. She does not want to work in that house any more. But jobs for a growing girl in the ‘safety’ of a woman-only household are not easy to come by. And without Rimpi’s contribution to the wages her mother earns by working as domestic help too, the younger daughter cannot go to school and the little family, with a disabled older boy, cannot eat.

Not one of the women domestic workers I spoke to that day could explain why employers revel in cruelty. But Rimpi is lucky. She is paid wages, however meagre, and she does have a home to return to. The little ones who are trapped in their employers’ houses far away from home are immensely more vulnerable. Earlier this month in Durgapur, 12-year-old Gobardhan Mahato managed to escape the torture of his mistress and was taken to the police station. He used to be beaten up with serving spoons and sharp objects, often denied food and water, and never paid the Rs 400 promised him as wages. His home is in Purulia. His employer is a senior manager at the Durgapur Steel Plant. Towards the end of May in Howrah, 11-year-old Sumita Oraon was rescued from the clutches of her employers. They assaulted her and locked her up.

The torture on Sumita is of a familiar type. In 2004, Rashida Khatoon, 11 years old, ran away when her mistress, a lawyer’s wife, kicked her face to wake her one morning, and then scratched her till she bled. Rashida had been regularly beaten and her back repeatedly cut with a knife for the eight months she had been employed. The same year, 9-year-old Guria was rescued from her employers, a WHO officer and his teacher wife, by neighbours, after they had been beating and kicking her regularly for two years. They also attacked her with a knife. Eleven-year-old Sonia Khatoon was rescued from her employers in Garden Reach, Calcutta, miles away from her village in North 24 Parganas, with 11 wounds in her head, burns with a hot metal spatula on her face and neck, bruises on her back and stripes from a belt all over her body. She was no longer quite sane.

The list could go on. The weapons of torture provide a fascinating glimpse into the violent criminality that nestles behind the most respectable veneers, and which expresses itself innovatively when it is ‘safe’. Total vulnerability offers this sense of security. Torture is often sexual too, but in some perverse way, that is more explicable. Pure physical torture is usually the secret addiction of the woman of the house. It is only the child washing the clothes and scouring the pots who can hold a mirror up to the hidden soul of middle-class existence.

Just having a tiny, illiterate, half-starved child completely in one’s power within closed doors is not enough to create the sense of security. Part of it comes from a silent but active complicity of equals. I accompanied a member of an NGO to the home of Tumpa Manna, a 14-year-old who was supposed to have hanged herself in her employer’s flat a stone’s throw away from her parents’ slum. Two nights before her death, the girl told her mother that she would not work there anymore. Her mother promised to collect her in three days’ time. The police suddenly picked up Tumpa’s family in the middle of the second night, whisked them to the flat, allowed them a glimpse of the girl’s body laid out — not hanging — with her face undistorted, and then pushed them out. Her father was taken away by the police, locked up for the night and made to sign on a piece of blank paper. A TV channel later showed that the paper said, “My daughter has committed suicide.”

We met only the grandmother, who gave us these details. Tumpa’s parents, who had two younger children, had apparently left for their home in the Sunderbans. But the neighbours had more to say. At three in the morning, the weekly haat was being set up close to the flat. Hearing screams, some people rushed to the door, where they were told that someone was delivering a baby inside. The police came for Tumpa’s family an hour after that.

The police seemed very cooperative, but we made no headway in spite of repeated visits. Until a member of the family complained, there was nothing we could do. Tumpa’s employers had said they found her hanging when they went to check on her. The women in the slum asked us why they should suddenly go to the girl’s room in the middle of the night.

Perhaps because of such unanswerable questions, a crowd from the slum protested in front of the housing estate, threw stones and broke a few windshields. When we talked to other members of the estate, we found that the attitude towards Tumpa’s neighbours in the slum ranged from irritation to hostility. The class lines were nakedly drawn.

Ultimately, this is the security on which the violence-loving housewife and her sexually inclined male kin depend most. There is no other way to explain the string of “suicides” of domestic help that the media keep reporting. There is no deterrent. Cases, if poor people do dare to file them, go very slowly. And there is always money to silence them.

The employers of Sumita and Gobardhan have been arrested. It would be interesting to see what follows. That would show whether things are changing.

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