A maid's feud in India flares into class war

NOIDA, INDIA (NYTIMES) - The madams in the luxury gated community went to yoga classes and toddler playgroups; the maids soundlessly whisked away dirty dishes and soiled laundry before retreating, at night, to a nearby shantytown of tin sheds and plastic tents.

This kind of arrangement has persisted across India for decades, in apparent harmony.

But early Wednesday, at the Mahagun Moderne in Noida, on the outskirts of India's capital, the madams and the maids went to war.

A dispute between a maid and her employer erupted into a full-blown riot, as hundreds of the maid's neighbours, armed with rocks and iron rods, forced their way into the complex and stormed her employer's apartment. In response, thousands of families have locked their maids out, saying they can no longer trust them in their homes.

Ashok Yadav, the development's head of security, wondered how long the madams could hold out.

"The fact is that it is a symbiotic relationship between the madam and the maid," he said. "Right now, the residents are very angry and shocked at the violent way the mob attacked the society. But before long, they will have to find new maids. How will life go on otherwise?"


People gathered outside the Mahagun Moderne in Noida, India, on July 15, 2017. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Conflicts between domestic workers and employers are a regular feature of Indian crime logs, but mass violence is almost unheard-of. In Indian cities, many maids live in their employers' homes, giving them little opportunity to build networks, said Tripti Lahiri, the author of "Maid in India: Stories of Inequality and Opportunity Inside Our Homes".

That has changed, however, as luxury high-rises proliferated in farmlands on the outskirts of New Delhi, and slum neighbourhoods appeared beside them, in what Lahiri called "a perfect setup for an us vs them clash".

In the case of Harshu Sethi and her maid, Johra Bibi, in Noida on Wednesday, the clash was Alfred Hitchcock-grade, awakening subterranean anxieties about the true relationship between the rich and the poor.

On Tuesday, Sethi accused Bibi of stealing 17,000 rupees (S$362) from a safe in her apartment. She said Bibi had admitted taking 10,000 rupees in back wages, and then disappeared. Bibi, 30, denies confessing to anything, and said Sethi "kept me locked at her place" that night, an allegation that her husband shared with other residents of the slum. The police say the maid spent the night in the apartment of another employer.

"I don't remember anything," Bibi said in an interview. "The next morning there was a big ruckus. A lot of people came. The guard came and took me out." Sethi, a schoolteacher, described something more frightening. She was in her apartment waking her 8-year-old son for school, she said, when she saw a "huge crowd," led by women, coming toward her unit, shouting, "Today we will kill her; we will kill the madam." Video shows a loud, aggressive crowd surging toward the complex while security guards try ineffectually to beat it back. Sethi said people in the crowd jumped over the balcony of her ground-floor apartment and shattered a plate-glass door with a flower pot.

Sethi said she pulled her son from a glass-strewn bed and hid in the locked bathroom with her husband for an hour and a half, while the crowd ransacked her apartment.

"We were only thinking of saving our lives," she said in an interview, sobbing, and displayed a heavy iron rod left in the apartment by one of the intruders. "They tried to show that they did not have rights. I feel that we do not have any human rights. We are the poor ones."

Sethi, 34, considers herself a benevolent boss. "We worship them, because they are such an important part of our lives," she said of the maids. "Hindus believe that if you are eating something and someone with an empty stomach is watching you eat, you cannot digest this food. We first feed them and then eat. I would give her tea before making her do her chores."

But she has, she said, lost her faith in that bond. "I think they hate us," she said of the maids. "There is a definite class divide. They hate us for the money, they wonder: 'Why are they so well off, so rich? Why do they have everything?' They envy us, and this is how it comes out."

Bibi, the maid, had a different take on the relationship, saying Sethi had not paid her 3,500 rupees for the past two months, and had falsely accused her of stealing.

"Just because she has money, does she think she will get away with anything?" she said. "All over, everyone is listening to her, and nobody to me. Will she throw us in the garbage just because I am poor?"

Within hours, the conflict had drawn a bright line through the complex, which has 2,700 units, and the residents announced a decision to bar all servants from the complex.

The Hindustan Times reported earnestly that "a large number of families ordered their food from outside on Wednesday and Thursday".

"The point is that they must be taught a lesson," said Mamta Pandey, 50. "If they can unite, why can't we?"

Pandey said she now woke up an hour earlier to do chores, and was planning to buy "a wiper which is made with new-age technology" so she could more easily swab her floors. She said she "had a problem sitting and wiping the floor the traditional way". Sandhya Gupta, another neighbour, said employers should be careful not to let their guard down with their maids.

"They are like that bone that is stuck in our throats - we can neither swallow them, nor can we spit them out," she said. "We need each other, and must learn to co-exist with mutual respect."

Residents of Bibi's shantytown said the week had been frightening and exhausting, and many said Bibi was at fault. The police swept into the settlement overnight on Wednesday and Thursday, detaining about 60 people and arresting 13 of her neighbours. Other residents fled into a field of okra and cowered there until the police left.

One of the workers, Sadanand, said the police were detaining men indiscriminately. Down the road, women from the Mahagun Moderne slipped outside the compound's gates to give resentful comments to the bank of news cameras outside.

The police said criminal complaints had been lodged by the Sethi family, Bibi, the residents of the complex and the security guards.

Arun Kumar Singh, Noida's superintendent of police, said it was striking how quickly the homeowners had turned on their employees, accusing them - falsely, he said - of being undocumented migrants from Bangladesh.

"I asked them a question: How did they then find shelter inside your house for all these years?" he said. "It's like this, the day we have a difference with our brother, that's the day our brother turns into a history-sheeter, a Naxalite," referring to ex-convicts and Maoist insurgents. "Otherwise, before this, he is our brother."