Cultures of Servitude: Modernity, Domesticity, and Class in India

By Raka Ray; Seemin Qayum | Go to book overview

5 The Failure of Patriarchy

Will you not hire me to work, oh mother

Will you not hire me?

There was a flood in Kishore Ganj

And we lost our home

My husband has turned me off

What else can I do but come to you for work?

Runa Laila, song of lament1

We meet Zeenat in a room in her employer's house. As a live-in servant, new to the city and entirely dependent on her employers, she has no separate space, no place of her own, to which she can take us to talk. A few minutes into the interview, she leans forward and whispers, “Can you please get me out of here!”

Zeenat is a young Muslim woman who grew up in a small town in northern Bengal, now working in her first job as a domestic servant. She is not accustomed to this life yet and, indeed, never imagined she would be doing this sort of work. Zeenat's life, like the lives of many women servants described in this book, has followed a certain trajectory. Her parents died when she was a child. Her brothers, unwilling to bear the burden of an unmarried sister in the house, married her off very young, although she just wanted to go to school— “I wanted to study.” Of her married life, she simply says that she moved to Delhi with her husband. He ultimately used her illiteracy to his advantage, tricking her into a divorce by obliging her to sign a piece of paper renouncing the marriage. Young Zeenat was thus left in a new city with a small daughter, no education, and, of course, no job.

As a divorced woman, she was a disgrace and an embarrassment to her brothers in the town of Asansol, and they refused to have anything to do with her. The only person who did not turn her away was her sister, who lives in a town some 350 kilometers (about 220 miles) from Kolkata. While with her sister, she was

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