We Wash Other People's Dishes

A village midwife shared a lifetime of stories with us including how she has witnessed the end of an era as ancestral farmlands are sold to make room for high-rise dwellings and business parks filled with multi-national corporations.

The village we visited consists of a cluster of small brick and mud homes bordered by a small patch of tenant farmland on one side and the ancient ruins of a Mogul fort on the other. In the near distance are concrete high-rise buildings that tower 20 to 50 floors high. The village midwife, 70 some years old, has watched the transformation of her ancestral home. “Twenty years prior, this was nothing but fields of wheat and mustard,” she reminisced while stretching out her arms to signify the vastness of their lands. “Everyone farmed the land in those days—men, women and children.” With urban development burgeoning and real estate agents offering instant wealth, illiterate farmers began to sell off their land—little by little.

In the past twenty years, the landscape and livelihood of this community has drastically changed. Instead of fields of wheat, the people in this village view dozens of buildings rising from the ground. Most women make a daily trek to these high-rise homes as domestic workers.

Overhearing our conversation, an elderly villager commented: “What we sold for one rupee, they (agents) resold for fifty.”  What remains for these indigenous villagers is just enough space for most families to have a 100 square foot house and a small common area, shared with other residents. In the daytime, this common area is filled with children playing and women washing clothes or cooking on wood burning stoves. At night, rope beds fill the courtyard as villagers seek relief from poorly ventilated homes. During our visit, we slept outside under a starless sky. The only illuminations were the lights shining in buildings fifty stories high—buildings erected on land that had been tilled, seeded and harvested for generations past.

“Who owns that field?” I asked surveying one of the last pieces of farmland left. “I don’t know his name. It is some man who doesn’t live here. Village women do farm work for him.”  These two women work an eight-hour day earning Rs. 200 ($3.00) per day.

“After you sold the land, how did you earn a living for your families?” I inquired. “We started doing domestic work. There is no laboring work anymore so we have all moved to domestic work—we wash other people’s dishes. We have to do this because we have to feed ourselves. All of the women in our community work in other people’s houses.”

“What work do you prefer, farming or domestic work?"

“Farming. We like farming,” answered the 70-year-old spokesperson for her village community.

“Why?”

“Because there was food all the time. When we were farming, we had buffalo so we had food and milk. Now we don’t have anything, we just have to clean houses and wash dishes [to buy food.]”

We accompanied our host through a labyrinth of narrow dirt roads to reach the marketplace on one of the city’s newer roads. With the money earned from washing dishes, she was able to buy the kind of vegetables she used to grow.

We accompanied our host through a labyrinth of narrow dirt roads to reach the marketplace on one of the city’s newer roads. With the money earned from washing dishes, she was able to buy the kind of vegetables she used to grow.

“The wheat that we would grind, everyone would eat from that—the mother-in-law, the father-in-law, the sister-in-law, everyone would eat. Now we take the wheat and give it to someone else to grind. There is no strength in that food. All the energy is taken away,” she explained with a noticeable tinge of sadness.

The story that developers and urbanites tell is that the “farmers became millionaires and do not need to farm anymore.” The myth of developers is contrasted with the reality of the villagers. For many of these farmers, unscrupulous family members and lawyers negotiating land disputes quickly seized a hefty portion of the land funds received. “I have never been able to fix my broken house,” our host lamented, even though all of her family’s farmland was sold. The living condition of villagers has drastically changed over the past two decades but the improvements are tenuous. Although children now receive an education at local government schools, they are deprived of their mother’s practical teachings as women work 10 hours a day, seven days a week.

Most of the land is sold, but developers still make regular visits to the village. Inevitably,  when need meets poverty, even the little they have will be taken away.

Because her daughter-in-law works in other people’s homes, this grandmother takes care of all the cooking, cleaning, and caring for children. “I am very strong,” she assures me, “I can outwork any of these younger women.” This day she is collecting water that is piped into the village twice a day.

Because her daughter-in-law works in other people’s homes, this grandmother takes care of all the cooking, cleaning, and caring for children. “I am very strong,” she assures me, “I can outwork any of these younger women.” This day she is collecting water that is piped into the village twice a day.

“No one shall take a mill or an upper millstone in pledge, for that would be taking a life in pledge,” (Deut. 24:6). The principle in this verse speaks to the practice of exacting a person’s source of income to satisfy a guarantee for a debt.  Although the prohibition is specific to the equipment of a miller, the “millstone” is representative of any piece of equipment necessary for economic survival. Here, the villagers lost the benefit of their livelihood. The sole inheritance they could have given their children was land—land to farm and provide for future generations. When urban developers shrewdly proposed an end to poverty with the sale of land, they, in essence, took the “millstone” from those with little education and no legal representation or advocacy.

Everyone agrees, Gurgaon has undergone a drastic change. It is no longer a place of scattered villages and open fields. With development, there has been an influx of multinational corporations and consequently, an employment explosion. For a portion of Gurgaon’s two million plus residents, this kind of progress is something to celebrate. However, counted among the city’s newly employed are also the villagers-turned-domestic workers whose voices are drowned out by the din of this city’s endless expansion projects. It is our responsibility to listen to those voices and help their stories be told. To many, this won’t seem like “enough.” And, to us, it’s not enough either. But, it is a necessary portion. Without taking the time to hear from their perspective, without providing the space for their critique, we will also lift our eyes to an impressive skyline and forget the people of the land--who they are, what they used to have, and what they hope for their children and children’s children.

Rosemary Sherrod has been researching and conducting interviews on the psychology of women in India since June 2015. Her work not only aids India team members as they learn more about the culture and people of India, but also humanizes the women she interviews as their stories are heard and given value. 

Rosemary Sherrod has been researching and conducting interviews on the psychology of women in India since June 2015. Her work not only aids India team members as they learn more about the culture and people of India, but also humanizes the women she interviews as their stories are heard and given value.