Domestic Days (Women, Work, and Politics in Contemporary Kolkata)
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Domestic Days (Women, Work, and Politics in Contemporary Kolkata)

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Item Code: NAZ279
Author: Samita Sen and Nilanjana Sengupta
Publisher: Oxford University Press, New Delhi
Language: English
Edition: 2016
ISBN: 9780199461165
Pages: 328
Other Details 9.00 X 6.00 inch
Weight 520 gm
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In 2002 a book called Aalo Aandhari was published by Roshnai Prakashan. It was written in Bengali by Baby Halder, a domestic worker, translated into Hindi by her employer, Prabodh Kumar, a professor of anthropology and the grandson of Premchand. This revolutionary event-the publication of a book authored by a ‘maidservant’-invoked some but not quite enough attention. In 2006, the book was translated into English by Urvashi Butalia and published jointly by Zubaan and Penguin, called A Life Less Ordinary. This version of the book found national and international readership and created quite a stir in literary as well as social science circles.

Baby Halder writes-in the first person-of her experiences of child marriage, very young motherhood, induction into domestic service, migration, and her attempts to make a living for herself and her children by working as a maidservant in more than one city of India. The very act of her speaking is of overwhelming significance. She is breaching a silence that has resounded around the echo chambers of many strands of scholarship, even those politically committed to giving voice.

A recent report titled The Word Is Respect’ in Outlook magazine dated 23 April 2012 is based on an interview with Baby Halder. According to the report, Baby Halder says that those who mistreat their domestic workers cannot be called educated. It is only those who think of the well-being of the poor and the nation at large are the educated ones. She adds: ‘The middle class is busy running after money. It’s as if the poor don’t exist, as if they are machines that the rich can use and simply forget about!

to the marginalized. Scholars of work and workers have never quite engaged with the domestic; feminist scholars, keen to recover women’s own voices through their writings, focused perforce on the educated elite at the cost of unlettered workers. Thus, women workers, including women domestic workers, have been subalterns, literally-not just metaphorically-unable to speak. When Baby Halder speaks from the ranks of these doubly silenced women, the significance of her utterance is difficult to overestimate. Moreover, her book came at a time when a group of activists and scholars, primarily feminists, had begun to perceive that the rather unique configuration of the domestic service industry in India demanded exploration, engagement, and explanation.

This study follows from a curiosity about the relationship of work and domesticity within the specific interplay of gender and class as experienced by domestic workers. Domestic work provides the great continuity in women’s shared experiences-across caste, class, and historical contexts. At the same time, it divides women in the most visible and explicit fashion-between women employers and women workers, madams and maids. Moreover, female domestic workers are most easily and unproblematically subsumed under wider ideologies of domesticity and dependent femininity. Do such attempts survive the experience of heavy manual labour in exploitative conditions? What are the possibilities of collective politics given the privatized nature of the work? Some of the difficulties in the way of political organization of women, privatized as housewives and embedded in the family, also attend the collectivization of domestic workers, for whom the home is the workplace. How do domestic workers negotiate their identity as workers? This book seeks to explore, in addition, the ways in which women domestic workers negotiate the double domesticity of unpaid and paid housework, further differentiated by a stark contrast in material contexts. It explores, thus, the constriction of gender and class identities, shaped and influenced by a variety of intersecting relationships.

The conception of the study draws on two major strands in the burgeoning literature on domestic workers. The economics of domestic work-its labour content, its relationship to the wider labour market, conditions of demand and supply-provide one framework for the study. Such enquiries relate crucially to an array of conceptual questions associated with the informal sector. In this introductory chapter, we will review some of the major debates about the informal sector to contextualize some of our findings about the nature and characteristics of domestic work in the specific context of Kolkata. At least two issues need highlighting in this context: domestic work was until recently characterized by extreme informality; and there is, in fact, a very slow and gradual tendency towards formalization in some sectors of the occupation. In Kolkata, especially, questions of informalization go hand in hand with the increasing presence of juvenile female labour. The trend of feminization of domestic work is found in many other parts of the country, but the decreasing age profile of female domestic workers is a distinctive feature of a few regions, including West Bengal.

The extreme informality characterizing domestic service has prompted research into its cultural meanings and significance-and this is the second major strand in the existing literature. It is often argued, in political as well as scholarly literature, that domestic service continues to carry overtones of feudal servitude. In a recent study, the authors, Raka Ray and Seemin Qayum, name this a ‘culture of servitude’, arguing that paid domestic work is neither just ‘work’ nor like any other work; and that it should be understood as an ‘institution’ rather than as an occupation. The relationship of domination/subordination saturates experience of not only the providers but also the recipients of such personalized service. The significance of domestic service (or servitude, as the authors prefer to call it) is not wholly in the domain of capital- ism and cannot be captured by analysing it as wage labour within a framework of class relationships. It is, however, not to be understood as ‘pre-modern’, since it constitutes a key element in the ‘self-conscious evolution of the modern Indian elite’? Its association with unfreedom imparts a unique specificity to the experience of paid domestic labour; and also contributes to its stigmatization. The International Labour Organization (ILO) Background Paper on Decent Work for Domestic Workers (2011), for instance, raises the age-old debate around status and contract in considering domestic work. Clearly, such characterization impinges directly on economic concerns, since subservience and labour market arrangements mutually reinforce the low status of and poor returns from domestic work.

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