A maid of mine was very worried when she and around thirty other residents were told to vacate a plot they occupied . She spent sleepless nights; all her belongings were packed in case they had to leave. Fearing everyday would be the last day she had a home, a job and her dhobi shop.
I told her not to worry; nobody could evict her if she had her papers. Didn’t she say her mother was given the land by a visiting political leader? She told me; only ten huts were given with proper papers to ten women. Her mother was one of them. It was a small village, no electricity, far from even the outskirts of the city. That land had no value at that time.
Now, a few years ago, new construction started in that area, a residential complex, a school and some shops opened. Middle class families moved into the area. Suddenly new jobs were created for maids, dhobi, raddiwala, grocery store delivery boys, car cleaners etc. Some of the local people got sheets of tin and tarpaulin and put up shabby sheds and rented them to these workers who came from nearby villages. Where did they put up these sheds? On the same plot my maid also illegally occupied. The land did not belong to any of them! They charged extra if the tenant took an electricity connection. Where did this electric connection come from? They all had TVs!
My maid needed to stay here, because here, close to her mother, she felt safer. Her husband lay, all day, in a drunken stupor. She had found work. Her three children were going to a local school; she knew she could turn to us if she needed urgent cash. She had bought an old colour TV from an employer, a mixer grinder and an old gas stove from another. She had a ‘godrej’ cupboard to protect her belongings. (There was no way to lock the ‘house’ which was made up of some sheets of tin, tarpaulin, used car covers etc.) And I was happy hearing the progress she was making in life, all on her own. And then she made another shed – on public land, and rented it for Rs 500/- to a young boy who worked in a restaurant.
Life wasn’t easy here. Liquor became readily available. Her husband remained drunk all day. His creepy friends visited them and she worried about her young daughters. She was beaten almost every evening for little things she did wrong. When her mother tried to intervene, she was pushed and she fell so hard she cut her chin. The whole neighborhood was the same. Most of the men and young boys were addicted to alcohol and evenings were always noisy. Women screaming, children howling, men yelling, she said she wished he would die.*
“If it’s such a sad situation why don’t you just leave him?” But of course he won’t leave her. I had seen enough such cases to know leaving him was not an option. He used to follow her to make sure she was not spending the money she earned on some other man! And one evening he persuaded her to come to a pond where women washed clothes in the mornings, once there, he tried to drown her, saying he knew she had a lover.
The slum grew. She had been there for two years when the talk of encroachment and eviction started. The ten small huts had become a slum of thirty by now. She considered her options.
She could not go back to her husband’s village because her husband had got into some brawl there, in which a man had died of stabbing. She said she had paid the police in her village, Rs 5000/- (Bail? Bribe? ), she had sold everything they had, to get her husband out and brought him to this place. Now where would she go if they were evicted from here?
I had seen such things in movies and was really worried about her, although I disapproved of their encroachment and her husband’s criminal background. And then suddenly without explaining much, she took four days off to run around and ‘regularise’ her house. Some paperwork, some signatures, some bribing and her shed cum shop, now belonged to her. A local political group was helping them.
Did the people living there benefit from this move? NO. Just a few tough families, got most of the shanties registered in their own or their family members’ names. The actual slum dwellers remained tenants of some local bullies who had built these make-shift sheds and rented them to those poorer than themselves, for Rs. 500/- to 2000/- depending on electric connection and the amount of space etc. SOME comparatively RICHER locals got further RICH! Some politician got some more confirmed votes. And the poorest had to pay higher rent because now the plot legally belonged to the owner!
Nothing came to most of the people who were actually living there.
And so today there are around 350 bricks and tin houses/sheds. There are grocery shops, paan shops, biscuit and vada pau shops, a cobbler, bicycle repair shop, vegetable and fish vendors to cater to these 350 families. The area is dirty (only ten toilets for all 350 odd houses, most people prefer the road side for nature’s call), many including my maid’s husband are petty criminals, there are drunken brawls, life is noisy, violent and unsafe. She has had her hair pulled, she has scratched and been scratched, there is pushing and kicking, fights over drinking water are a matter of survival, flies and mosquitoes keep the children ill all the time. It’s unsafe for young maids to walk home late from work. One young mother was chased by a drunk when she had to take her child to the public toilet at 11 PM, luckily the child howled, and other people woke up. One young man got inside a shed when a maid’s nine year old daughter was alone at ‘home’, the child managed to scream, despite the threatening knife.
A political group has put up their board over there. They don’t care to get the place cleaned, but free liquor is distributed on all festivals. One thing I am sure of, if someone truly banned liquor here, they will get all the women’s votes.
* She will never get a role in Ekta Kapoor’s serials.
Edited to add: The above post had started as a comment to Corinne Rodrigue’s post ‘I didn’t speak up’.