The Domestic Help

Sakuntala Chowdhury


She used to come everyday to clean our dirty clothes, floors 
and dishes. For a starting monthly wage of 50 Indian rupees, 
which was the standard in the early 1970s, she offered her 
services to our household for about two decades. Ours was 
one of the five houses that she had provided her services to. 
She was our domestic help Menoka-di. Her name was 
Menoka, but we were taught to show respect to all our 
household help - drivers, guards, gardeners, cooks - by 
adding a ‘di’ (meaning elder sister) or ‘da’ (meaning elder 
brother) to their first names. So she was my Menoka-di since I 
was about six years old - despite the fact that her daughter 
was about my age. And referring to them as our elder sisters 
or brothers were not just formalities, but often they became 
terms of endearment to demonstrate how these individuals 
were integral parts of our household. Menoka-di was seen as 
part of the family, someone for whom we would purchase new 
saris every year on the occasion of Diwali. Many time, she had 
requested my mother to give her cash bonuses, instead of 
buying her new saris. My mother always obliged. 
We previously had another domestic help - Aloka-di. She had 
some health issues that troubled her for years. Finally Aloka-di 
had decided to quit her laborious job. It was Aloka-di who had 
recommended Menoka-di in her position to my mother. My 
mother gladly accepted. We needed a replacement right away 
and it was safer to hire someone with reference. “Oh! She is 
completely trustworthy. Poor Menoka…she is grief-stricken…
her husband has abandoned her!” were exactly the words 
Aloka-di used to get a ‘Yes’ from my mother, and she had 
succeeded. 
So Menoka-di started from the beginning of next month. 
I was very curious to know what ‘a poor grief-stricken wife, 
abandoned by her husband’ looked like. Menoka-di entered 
the house on a Sunday morning - tall and straight, with a 
rough tanned face but no sign of grief in her whole 
appearance. With my 6-years’ knowledge of the world, I tried 
my best to reconcile her confidence with the portrayal of a 
‘poor abandoned wife’ - but I could not. I was in awe of her 
no-nonsense, no-tears, demeanor. 
I saw her almost every morning entering the house at the 
same time for about 18 years - barring a few vacation days 
and sick-leaves. I was always amazed by the speed with 
which she would enter the house, clean all the floors, wash 
our clothes and then rush out saying she would be back to 
wash the dishes after doing her rounds at the other houses. 
I grew up observing her. She had never shied away from 
scolding me when I was being mischievous, nor did she ever 
hold back from telling my mother to back off if she thought my 
mother was being too strict with me. Although she was never 
a big talker, she had a habit of talking while cleaning the floor 
of my room. It was almost mumbling - as if she was talking to 
herself. Most of the time it was about the importance of 
paying attention to my studies and growing up to be a ‘big 
person’ working in a ‘big office’, or how ‘small work’ and 
‘small places’ can keep people closeted. As I grew up, I 
gathered her life story from those mumblings and began 
gently prodding her for more - especially when no one was 
around. Sometimes she would shush me but other times, 
especially if ours was the last house to clean, she would talk 
more. I started gathering the pieces till the picture was 
complete. No, it was not a sob-story. Aloka-di was wrong. 
Menoka-di was not a ‘grief-stricken poor abandoned wife’ by 
any means.
Menoka-di was born in a tiny remote village on the eastern 
side of India. Life there was limited by the paddy fields where 
men would go 365 days of the year - barefoot and bareheaded 
in the scorching heat or heavy rain - to earn two servings of 
rice a day for their family members, and seasonal labor jobs of 
wood-cutting or brick-making that would provide some extra 
liquid cash for the villagers to earn one or two luxuries of life. 
There was hardly anything in the village that could provide 
entertainment. As such the men, being the bread-earners of 
the family, would visit the only liquor store of the area as soon 
as it opened its door. The owner of the store started earning 
good money, while the women started cursing him day and 
night; booze became more important to the husbands than 
providing for the family, but the complaint of the wives were 
falling on deaf ears. 
The village also had one school, that started as an elementary 
school but eventually became a high school - thanks to the 
hefty donation and political connection of the local 
businessman who was aspiring to run for the office by 
defeating the incumbent landlord. The boys of the village had 
slowly started to join the school, but not the girls - they were 
kept in the house to help with the chores till they were married 
off. So for the women, the only luxury was gossiping at the 
public pond whilst bathing. And for the younger girls, they all 
dreamt of being married off and finally escaping this village 
that had provided nothing special for their lot.
Menoka-di was no exception. She was the eldest of the four 
siblings, among which three were sisters. Her brother, the 
youngest one, was about six years younger than her. With two 
or three more conceptions and miscarriages, her mother was 
in a perpetual cycle of being pregnant, until the lady doctor of 
the village health center was able to convince her father to get 
a vasectomy. Her father finally agreed - partly because his wife 
was in a poor state of health, and partly because he was 
finally satisfied after having a son that no more children were 
needed. 
With a tiny feeble body, Menoka-di’s mother was unable to do 
much work. As the eldest daughter, Menoka-di had her share 
of household chores along with tending to her mother. Her two 
sisters helped her as much as they could, while her brother 
was enrolled in the school by the age of six. Therefore, 
Menoka-di’s father was the only earning member, and worked 
very hard to provide for the family while trying to save for the 
dowry of his three daughters. Her father had never visited the 
liquor store though, instead he spent all his evenings sitting 
next to his wife’s bed and chatting in the dim light of the 
lantern. They seemed to be happy with each other. The 
villagers used to call her father a hen-pecked husband, but 
that did not bother her father at all. Although money was 
scarce, the family had a peaceful daily rhythm. Menoka-di’s 
own household however was not exactly a reflection of her 
mother’s. 
Menoka-di was happy when her parents had decided to marry 
her off at the age of 19. The amount of dowry was acceptable 
to her parents so the marriage was fixed in a week. They had 
two other daughters to marry off and fund the education of the 
son, so ‘sooner the better’ was the thought. Menoka-di had no 
objection to that. She was excited about the possibility of a 
new home, as well as a newfound love life that until this point 
was completely unknown to her.
Menoka-di’s new home was fifteen miles away from her 
parents’ home - another tiny remote village, not very different 
from her own. Men were working either at the paddy fields or 
at the labor jobs, and were finding their relaxation at the liquor 
store of the village. The women were taking care of the 
household, fighting with their husbands for money and 
spending the afternoon gossiping at the public pond. 
Their family was small - Menoka-di, her husband Ramu and 
her mother-in-law Gita. Menoka-di, with her strong physique, 
was the perfect one to take care of all the chores of the 
household. Gita was lazy and between the occasional jobs 
and the gambling at the liquor store, Ramu had no time for 
anything else. The little land they had was long gone to repay 
the debt Ramu had incurred from gambling. Unlike Ramu’s 
father, who used to work hard on the land to provide for his 
family through whatever he harvested, Ramu had no interest in 
farming. Apparently, reaching the secondary level of education 
had given him a false sense of pride. He first started working 
for a local businessman, but his bad temper caused some 
issues there and he was soon fired. Since then, he started 
taking up small jobs, but nothing that was stable. He was a 
man of more ego than substance, and was always irritable. 
Gita herself was not of a sweet temper either - she could not 
control her son after her husband had passed. She thought 
the marriage would provide a solution, both through financial 
means as well as by making her son more responsible, but 
that did not happen. For Ramu, a wife was needed for 
cooking, cleaning and giving birth to his son. Ramu had no 
interest in romancing his newly-wed wife, and had no reason 
to change his lifestyle for her. Between Ramu and his mother, 
Menoka-di had no place to nurture her own dream or think 
about a future brighter than her past. 
Life was going by in that monotony and by the rule of nature, 
Menoka-di got pregnant within a year. She was happy with the 
news and thought to spend some time with her maiden family 
- whom she did not visit since her marriage - before the baby 
arrived. That was the custom in India at that time - to bring 
home the pregnant daughter so that she can be well-rested 
and nourished. Menoka-di’s parents however were unable to 
do so. They were preparing for the marriage of their second 
daughter at that time and could not afford the extra 
expenditure of a child birth. Menoka-di was disappointed but 
complaint was not in her nature. She carried on with her daily 
chores. Around the end of the first trimester, Menoka-di lost 
her balance while carrying the bucket of dirty clothes to the 
pond for wash. She had a miscarriage. The lady doctor at the 
village health center had advised her to take bed rest for a 
month - she had lost a lot of blood and was feeling very weak.
Her mother-in-law, who then had to pick up the household 
chore by default, got very upset with the ‘fuss’. She 
announced her ‘bad luck’ to all the neighbors and kept on 
telling her son to remarry - this time a strong and ‘lucky’ 
woman who would bring more money to the house and give 
birth to a boy without any issues. Ramu had no emotional 
attachment with his wife, but he was not convinced that he 
could get rid off her so easily. As a result of all these 
complicated dynamics, on top of Ramu’s inability to earn a lot 
of money by some magic, he started becoming more rude to 
Menoka-di and started hitting her on the slightest pretext. He 
would come home late every night, drunk, and abuse his wife 
for not having enough money to run the household. According 
to Ramu, if the husband could not find a lucrative job after his 
marriage that means the wife had brought in the ‘bad luck’ to 
the house. A very convenient logic indeed! Needless to say, 
Gita was in full agreement with her son.
Life was becoming more unbearable for Menoka-di, and this 
only increased when she had conceived for a second time and 
gave birth to a girl. With that, the proof of Menoka-di being an 
‘unlucky and inauspicious wife’ was complete. It was decided 
that she had a faulty womb which gave birth to a girl, instead 
of a boy, after so many trials. Ramu and Gita would not even 
look at the baby girl, let alone touch her. Menoka-di was 
happy that she had a normal healthy baby - she named the girl 
Dipa. Menoka-di had tried her best to protect Dipa from the 
fury and abuse of Ramu and Gita, which had become a part of 
the daily routine by then. It was however not always possible. 
One morning Menoka-di was cooking while carrying one-year 
old Dipa on her lap. It was a Sunday so Ramu did not go out. 
Gita had been provoking her son for a while, sitting outside in 
the courtyard. Suddenly Ramu, feeling that he needed to 
‘discipline’ his wife on account of her failing to fulfill her basic 
duty of giving birth to a male heir, rushed to the kitchen, pulled 
his wife up by her long hair and started hitting her. Menoka-di, 
fully caught-off-guard, fell down on the floor and Dipa dropped 
out of her lap. As Ramu started hitting and pushing her 
mother, Dipa started screaming at the loudest volume. It took 
Menoka-di a few minutes to gather herself. Then, with all her 
strength and pent up anger, she pushed away her husband 
and hit him hard on the forehead with the metal spatula she 
was cooking with. Blood started flowing out of Ramu’s 
forehead and he sat down on the floor calling Menoka-di 
names that are not suitable for any wife. Gita rushed to the 
scene and held a soaked cloth to Ramu’s head. Menoka-di 
could not care less. She quickly picked up Dipa from the floor, 
went to her bedroom to pack a few clothes for herself and her 
daughter, took out the little money she had saved from here 
and there, and rushed out of the house with Dipa before Gita 
or Ramu could stop her. 
This was the first time in her twenty plus years of life that 
Menoka-di was traveling out of the village without an escort, 
but she knew that she could not lose her way. She did not 
want to be confronted by the neighbors, so took the shortcut 
through the paddy fields to get out of her village and reached 
the next bus stop on the highway after thirty minutes of 
walking. Hiding her face and her daughter’s face under the 
long veil of her sari, and asking for directions to unknown 
pedestrians, Menoka-di finally had reached her parents’ house 
in the afternoon by taking first a rickshaw and then a crowded 
bus that ran twice a day on the route. She took a deep breath 
as she entered the house. 
Her parents were not quite ready for the surprise. Neither were 
they prepared to face the backlash of this social scandal - 
they still had one more daughter to marry off. But Menoka-di 
was adamant. She would not hear a word of compromise or 
the advice of that staying at her in-laws place was what was 
‘destined for her in this life’. She announced her wish to go to 
the near-by city and earn her own living in order to provide 
Dipa with a better life. Her cool-headed mother had tried to 
caution her that nobody would marry Dipa without a father to 
do the ‘giving away’ ritual, and that earning a living in the city 
would not be easy. By that time Menoka-di had lost faith in 
‘being happy through matrimony’, and therefore she did not 
budge. Her brother, who was in high school by then, 
supported his sister and opposed the idea of sending her 
back to her abusive husband. He took Menoka-di to the 
nearby police station and lodged a domestic violence 
complaint against Ramu. While this remedy has been available 
under the Indian constitution for some time, there were very 
few women at that time who had the courage to stand up 
against their husbands, usually because they knew they would 
have no support. The officer on duty stared at Menoka-di, 
likely in shock over her complaint, but he could not ignore it - 
her bruises were proof enough. Menoka-di did not care what 
happened to Ramu at this point; all she cared about was that 
with this complaint against him, Ramu would never come after 
Menoka-di or force her to go back to the shackles of her 
marriage. So on the third day after leaving her husband’s 
house, Menoka-di borrowed some money from her father and 
boarded the train to the city with Dipa, leaving behind her 
baggage forever. Menoka-di’s only hope was her widowed 
aunt Khemi, who was living in the same city and was working 
as a domestic help. 
Khemi’s house acted as a temporary shelter for her and her 
daughter for the first month. Very soon after, Menoka-di found 
the job of domestic help in two houses and rented a small 
room of her own in the same ghetto next to her aunt. Carrying 
Dipa with her, Menoka-di continued her work for five years 
until Dipa was admitted to a free elementary school in the city. 
By that time, Menoka-di had added more houses to her 
service. The workload was manageable for someone who had 
been handling household chore for years. The only difference, 
this time she was earning money for her labor and was in 
charge of planning her own future. Menoka-di’s dream was not 
closeted in a ‘small place’ any more. The path however was 
tough - but she was tougher. Taking educational guidance 
from the houses she worked at, applying for free tuition at 
every institutions, and occasionally borrowing money that she 
would repay the following month, she did what she had to do 
to ensure that Dipa graduated from a college with a degree in 
accounting. Within two months of her graduation, Dipa 
bagged a Federal Government job for which she had to 
appear for a special examination. It was not a small 
achievement for someone who never had any of the privileges 
that most of the other Government job applicants had. So, at 
the age of 24, Dipa was ready to travel to the capital of the 
country and settle in Government housing with her mother. 
Menoka-di, by this time, was only in her mid-40s but she 
looked much older. The struggle over the years had made a 
permanent mark on her already rough appearance. 
I remember seeing her for the last time when she came with 
Dipa to bid us all farewell. She had finally achieved what was 
practically unheard of in the village she came from. Something 
was shining on the wrinkles of her face and I realized they 
were tears rolling down her cheeks. Those were tears of joy 
and triumph. And that was the only time I had ever seen 
Menoka-di cry.
***


Dr. Sakuntala Chowdhury was born in Kolkata, India. She grew up at 
the Professors’ Quarter of the campus of the Bengal Engineering 
College - Shibpur. She did her undergraduate and post graduate
studies at Jadavpur University in Kolkata. Post marriage she moved to 
North America where she did her PhD in Data Science and Economics. 
She is currently settled in Michigan, with her husband and two 
daughters. Sakuntala has been writing from a very early age. She was a 
regular contributor to her school and college magazines. She has 
contributed poems, essays, short stories and novels for publications in 
Sananda, Bangla World-Wide, Batayan, Irabotee, Porobash, Rwitobak 
among many others. Some of her poems have been released as songs by singers like 
Srikanta Acharya, Rupankar Bagchi, Nachiketa Chakraborty, etc.

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