Hardened hearts

Last Updated 09 January 2010, 09:04 IST

The last time I went home to Kerala on a break, I was unable to sleep peacefully. Every morning, promptly at 5:15, I would be woken up by the sound of Saraswati’s presence in my room. In elaborate, careful movements, she would sweep the floor clean. Even in my groggiest state, I’d see her flashing her most apologetic smile. Saraswati — petite, dark-skinned, with an incredibly endearing smile — who helps my mother keep the house spotless. Annoyed that my plan to sleep in wasn’t quite working out, I took out my frustration on my mother. “As if you can’t ask her to come later,” I hissed.
I could immediately sense my mother’s irritation. “She comes early so that she can go back home before her one-year-old baby wakes up. Do you know she works in six houses six days a week? And she’s all of 22!” my mother said, and stormed off. So when I watched filmmaker Nishtha Jain’s latest documentary film, At My Doorstep, that dreaded lump of guilt rose up again.

The burden of our daily chores is shared by more people than we are aware of. But it’s not often that we acknowledge them. Do we even know their names or faces? Crisp newspapers and fresh milk are delivered to our doorsteps before we even step out of bed. Garbage bags are picked up from our doorsteps. Dhobis collect our soiled clothes and bring them back, clean and ironed. We get pretty much anything we want delivered, from Maggie noodles to condoms to cigarettes to our doorsteps. The heroes of Nishtha Jain’s film are these doorstep people who make our lives far more convenient, without whom we’d probably be sighing dramatically about the miseries of our hectic existence.  
We take them for granted, slotting them mentally into specific roles; turning them, ultimately, into mere symbols of the jobs they do. And we forget that they are just like us. That they experience the same emotions that we do, that they get tired after a long day’s work, that they need conversation and company, that they love, that they cry, that they have families to fend for. Jain manages to pull them out of these cold compartments in our minds by allowing us glimpses into their work places, their homes and engaging them in long conversations.

“I wanted to record the rhythms of everyday work, the slackening pace of the afternoon, the long evening shadows beckoning people back to work, the tired bodies fighting sleep at night, catch the day breaking with the watchmen on the rooftops and see the seasons changing. The purpose was not to limit oneself to showing hardship, inequality, poverty which is very important but also to discover ways to make sense of all this to our hardened minds and immune hearts,” says Jain.

She shot in familiar settings, within her housing society in Mumbai. The subjects of her film — security guards, dhobis, garbage pickers, domestic help, delivery boys, newspaper boys, milkmen — talk comfortably sharing intimate details of their lives. Jain adds, “I don’t treat my protagonists as ‘subjects’. They are my co-writers and co-directors. We work together to tell our stories. They are participating in the films for the same reason that I’m making these films, in the hope that we can get a dialogue started.”  

Providers of service
At 11, when Ramesh Ravi Chandalia, one of the documentary’s protagonists, helped his mother collect garbage from various apartment blocks, he didn’t mind the job, he even sort of liked it. He would attend afternoon school since the job ate into his mornings. But now at 23, married, with a six-month-old daughter, he is embarrassed by the work he does and also fed up with his employers’ attitudes. “We get no leave. Someone could be dying at home. Our house could be flooded, but it doesn’t matter. They have no idea about our troubles. If we say anything, they say, ‘we’ll sack you’,” he explains.
Ramesh and his wife collect garbage from seven apartment buildings and sweep the stairs and landings, for which they get paid Rs 2000 a month. “If you were three people earning Rs 2000 in all, would you manage to run a home? I feel bad about it because I can’t fulfill my family’s needs and that makes me ashamed,” he adds.

But Ramesh isn’t alone in his despair. A man of poetry, Dayanand Mishra Ghayal came to the film city from Jharkand in search of work. Although he works as a security supervisor now, poverty’s cruel clutches haven’t loosened around him. Living away from his family, he still finds it difficult to send home money, sometimes starving himself, only to save a little extra. He hasn’t spoken to his wife and children for months out of embarrassment from being unable to support them. Dayanand usually turns to writing as a means of expression and finds enviable solace in poetry. 

There is a hint of middle-class indifference in almost every story that is highlighted in Jain’s film. A delivery boy at a kirana store says, “The customers know it’s free home delivery. So if we are a little late, they tell us to go away. They expect the stuff to be delivered instantly. ‘I am making tea now, send me milk immediately’, they say. Or they’ll ask for curds just when they are sitting down to eat.” 

Sonu, a young security guard at the apartment complex, is also at the receiving end of his employers’ apathy. “Lots of people yell at me. There are 98 flats and I get scolded all day long. But for the sake of my job, I listen, nod and agree. During the rains, we have to come up to the terrace to open valves. But they don’t give us umbrellas or rain coats, so we get soaked. There’s also danger from electricity. In the rains, we have to be careful while switching on the motor. I’ve often asked the people in the apartment about these things, but nobody takes action. Only when the water runs out they call and say, ‘why have you not pumped up the water’? If I say it’s raining heavily, they say, ‘whatever it is, start the water’! If I don’t, they complain to the boss at our agency.”
Surely, there are some kind employers too, I hear myself mutter. “Yes there are kind employers, even in my own building, but are we talking about doling out charity to millions of people or getting them what’s rightfully theirs? We have to put laws in place, regarding wages, leave, bonus etc and not leave it to individual benevolence,” responds Jain.

What she hopes for is for the film to trigger “a sort of self-questioning process in the viewer. These films are as much about the problems of the working class as they are about our indifference to their problems, our disconnect to the poor, the rural and the uprooted.” 

 There were many moments in At My Doorstep that left my throat feeling dry, that shattered many of my illusions. Why is it that sometimes, despite our usual recreational screaming about equality and freedom and notions of justice, we don’t pay our domestic help as much as they ought to get? Why do we choose to ignore their troubles because it gets in the way of our routine? After discovering the intricacies of their lives, it’s hard to ignore how often their lives are robbed of dignity. It hits you hard when you hear Ramesh Ravi say, “They talk to us in an indiscipline manner, as if they’ve bought us for Rs 2000.” 

So how would they like their lives to change? Better salaries, contribution to pension and provident fund, bonus, paid leave, maternity leave. Most of all, maybe it’s time that we stopped looking at them as the ‘other’.   

(Published 09 January 2010, 09:04 IST)

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