Rajheena is from a village near Murshidabad in West Bengal. She lives in a slum cluster at Bhangel village in Noida, in the NCR region. She has five daughters; the youngest is about 6-years-old.
Rajheena came to Delhi with her husband several years back. Her husband worked as a rickshaw puller. After her last daughter was born, her husband abandoned them. The religious leaders in the community and her neighbours helped her get work as a domestic worker in a nearby high rise.
Despite her good cooking skills, Rajheena was not able to get work as a cook because most employers in the housing societies wanted a Hindu cook. She got work of mopping, dusting and cleaning utensils in 5–6 households. Her madams push her to clean toilets as well, a task she resents but does. She also pushed her eldest daughter, who is 15 years old to take up a 12-hour work shift in the same society. She needs money to survive and feed her family of six.
It is at work she learned the news of a strange illness coming to the city. She didn’t understand much about it. This is an excerpt of conversations with Rajheena on COVID — her thoughts, experiences and fears on an impending loom.
30th January: Rajheena heard one of her madams telling her husband: “Thank God the first case is in Kerala, they will control it.” She didn’t understand a bit of what it meant but notes that all other houses where she worked were talking about Kerala.
2nd March: In Rjheena’s evening shift, she notes her madams were very jittery. All of them were on the phone talking about some man and his children testing positive. All she could gather was that there was a party and something went wrong.
That day at night, while watching TV, she understood a little bit and proudly told her daughters that her madams knew the man.
The next 10 days: Rajheena learns new facts from her peers, employers, TV and telephonic messages. The things she learned were:
She is pushed to wash her hands by her employers too many times. Her skin is dry and flaky as she doesn’t have a moisturiser to apply after washing every time. She doesn’t like washing hands anymore.
Her favourite madam arrived from somewhere outside. She doesn’t know the name of the place her madam went. Her madam gifted her two small shampoo bottles. This made her very happy, but her madam looked worried to her. She returned home with two bottles and was confused with her madam’s behaviour.
14th March: Rajheena was in for a surprise when she reached work. Out of her five employers, 2 told her that they would be working from home a.k.a. home will be their new office now onwards.
To her, it meant 20–30 minutes extra work time in these houses as madams and bhaiyas both supervised her work and asked her to wipe the windows as well. She was not paid for the extra time or work. That day, she reached home at 3 pm, didn’t cook lunch and asked her daughters to eat bread.
15th March: Today there were three houses where the bhaiyas and bhabhis were working from home. Rajheena had to help them fold their woollen clothes. She reached home at 4 pm and didn’t feel like eating.
16th March: The work in houses where both employers were home was increasing every day and taking extra time. Rajheena had thought to speak with her madams but could not muster the courage. The guard in society today asked her to use “sanitiser” before entering the lift. She liked the smell of this liquid.
17th March: Today, Rajheena was told by one of her employers to go on unpaid leave for at least 10 days. She pleaded for a reason and was told that as she lives in the dirty cluster and hails from a community where people are not clean, she can bring the disease to their house. She returned home broken and hurt.
18th March: Another day, another house she lost work from. This time Rajheena’s madam and bhaiya gave her full month’s salary and asked her to pray. They also told her not to go to her village.
She knows that a secret illness is causing loss of her livelihood. All the maids working along have asked for a meeting in the slum cluster they live. She attends that discussion and learns more about the disease, its causes and impact.
She comes home and throws away the shampoo bottles gifted by her madam who went out of India. She is fearful, hugs her girls and cries. She has no one to talk to about her fears, sense of joblessness and impending bleak future.
19th March: Rajheena knows that Prime Minister Modi will be announcing something in the evening about the illness. She was hoping that he would say everything was fine and her life would return to normal.
She worked only in three houses. She was checked with a thermometer at the society entrance. She finds it fancy and understands safety is important. But she is worried about herself and her girls. She has no idea where the district hospital is and how can she reach there.
20th March: Rajheena took ₹100 in advance from one of the households and bought a mask for herself. It cost her ₹90. The security guards at the gate instructed her to wear one to work. Her eldest daughter’s employer called her and asked if her daughter could become a 24-hour help. She refused to the idea and was threatened that if she disagrees the employers would throw her daughter out of work. Reluctantly she agreed without any wage bargain.
With most housing societies going into lockdown, employers negotiated with domestic workers to stay back for 24 hours at a bargain and the vulnerable ones like Rajheena gave in.
21st March: The Housing society office which issued Rajheena’s entry pass to work cancelled her permit. The RWA decided to go into self-quarantine till 31st March. She did not understand the new restriction or the fate of her livelihood.
For her, the wage of the previous month was due in one house. She was already asked to leave without notice from another. Out of her five employers, only one had given a full months pay in advance. Two of her employers were yet to pay. She went home dejected.
In the evening, the State Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh announced relief for informal labourers in the state. There were promises of financial aid to accounts registered with the Labour Department. There was a cheer from some corners.
But for domestic workers like Rajheena, this meant nothing. She is not registered as a worker nor has any other certification to help her link with the relief. She knows no financial support is going to come to her from the government. Yet, she will participate in the Junta Curfew as she believes that will help her regain employment.
On being told that the crisis is here to stay and there is a chance that she gets infected, it is poignant to hear her remark: “Let the virus come, I am anyways tired of fighting with life.”
22nd March: The day the Junta Curfew was declared, Rajheena spent the day organising her 6ft by 8ft room in the slum cluster. One corner was occupied by the clothes she needed to wash. She was not allowed to wash clothes by the slum Pradhan in the community toilet due to the curfew.
23rd March: Rajheena gets up early, bathes and joins the women labourer gang in the cluster. These women work in the construction sector and go and stand with the men of their families at the labour chowk. She stood with those women from 5–9 am. No one came to fetch them for work. A policeman came and asked them to go back. All work had been put to a stop.
24th March: Rajheena didn’t feel like getting up from her bed on the floor today. Her middle daughter made kali chai (black tea). There was no milk in the house and the shopkeeper was asking ₹5 more. She quietly drank the tea and started taking stock of food supplies, bare cash in hand and spent the rest of the day imagining divine intervention.
In the evening, the PM announced 21 days lockdown from midnight. She stared blankly at the TV and cursed her destiny.
25th March: Today Rajheena’s daughter, who was now a 24-hour help in the housing society, gave her a call and cried. Her employers were forcing her daughter to work in their “friends” house as well. She now has to manage two households on the same payment and is not getting any breaks. Rajheena consoled her 15-year-old and asked to do as told. This daughter’s earning is all she had to rely on in these dark times.
26th March: Today, the finance minister announced a package of relief for informal workers. Rajheena heard on TV that those women who had a Jan Dhan account would get ₹500 per month. She heard about other benefits to workers. Sadly, she doesn’t qualify for any. She was able to earn an average ₹8000–10000 a month. The room rent is ₹1500. All she has now for the month is ₹500 cash. She poignantly says, “So the minister madam thought ₹500 is the cost of my labour.”