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India’s Great Hope
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Having almost completed building a house in Goa, we have been actively searching for a reliable person or a couple who could take care of the place. After some failed attempts, Radhika spread the word far and wide. Yesterday, she said that a super-confident Hindi-speaking lady had rung her up and wanted to be interviewed; and that she would be coming to meet us the next day.
At 11.30 in the morning, in walked two young ladies. Sisters. Let's call the job candidate Uma, and her accompanying sister, Ruma. Here is the story. They are two of three sisters, all in their 30s. Their father, who is in his 70s, used to work at the Chelmsford Club in New Delhi. After losing his wife five years ago, he has become increasingly depressed, and is now cared for by the girls. Two of the sisters are married. Uma, the one who wants to move to Goa, split from her husband 12 years ago, and has a girl who has just finished Class 6. From hearing about all three and talking with two of them, it seemed to us that the siblings were close-knit, extremely independent and seriously competent working women.
Here is what we have gleaned about Uma from herself, her sister and her brother-in-law, whom we know otherwise and who recommended her to us. She studied up to Class 10. Was married off early and became a mother at 19 or 20. The husband split soon after child-birth. She wanted a divorce, for which her husband demanded custody of the child. She refused. So he went AWOL (absent without leave), and hasn't been seen since. She and her sisters brought up the child.
Having studied up to Class 10, Uma started working as a sales-girl in a large store in New Delhi's tony Khan Market for six to seven years. Thereafter, she began working as a child-minder and housekeeper for expatriate couples in Delhi — mostly Europeans — and continues doing so till now.
For a while, Uma entertained hopes of getting a domestic help's job abroad, which the lucky ones do get, for either expatriate Indian families in Singapore, Hong Kong or Dubai, or the diplomats and World Bank / IMF / UN families as they return to bases abroad. She even got herself a passport. Unfortunately, such a job didn't materialise.
So, she was looking out for a higher-paying job of a full-time housekeeper, which brought her to us. Radhika explained to her the travails of taking care of a large house in Goa — oftentimes living alone on the property in a part of the world very different from the Delhi that she was born, brought up and worked in; away from the support of her family; and in an unknown, less urban area where people spoke Konkani instead of Hindi. Nothing fazed her. She exuded the confidence to make a success out of a better-paying job.
We offered Uma the job, on her terms, making it clear that since we didn't negotiate with her about what she asked, we would expect her to work with us as long as our other maids have in Delhi. She understood that and acquiesced. We shook hands.
Neither Radhika nor I know how Uma will turn out to be. Hopefully well, as has been the case with our other maids. But we were both hugely impressed by her confidence; her determination to make a better life for herself and her daughter; the support that she had from her sister; and the simple clarity with which she wanted to move on and improve her pay and well-being.
Uma made us feel good about the fact that there are still so many independent-minded women who want to earn a decent livelihood; and will go far enough to do so, if the odds look good. We pray that she will continue impressing us as she has today; that we can take care of her daughter's education and upbringing; and that two more good people will be liberated from a certain life — because of the capability, confidence and chutzpah of a mother who wants change. May there be many more Umas in India. They bring hope.
The author is chairman of CERG Advisory.
(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 16-04-2012)