“Being a good and honest maid was the best I could do”

My Wedding Reception. Bandra, Bombay. February 14, 1982

Image and Narrative points contributed by Sunita Vishnu Kapse, Mumbai

We lived in Shivaji Park, Bombay in a house that our families had lived in for eight generations. My father‘s name was Tulsiram Pawar and my mother’s was Chandra Bai. My grand-mother who lived until the age of 101, used to work in the municipality as a road sweeper. My father also worked for the municipality of Shivaji Park, cleaning garbage. But he was an alcoholic, most of the times drunk and incapable of working. He would beat up my mother and abuse her all the time, but she gulped all the pain and began working instead of him. She is the one who earned and brought us all up. Her salary at the time was only Rs. 200 a month, so it was tough on her. Most men in the chawl were in similar jobs and were all drunks & wife beaters, exactly like my father. All the girls in the chawl were scared to get married anticipating the same future.

My family belonged to the Mahar Caste, considered untouchables and of low caste in India. But we all got saved when my parents adopted the beliefs preached by Babasaheb, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. If it wasn’t for him, we would have been on the streets or dead, of hunger or indignity. My parents converted to Buddhism following Ambedkar’s encourgement and since then we have been restored our dignity.

We are four sisters and two brothers. I was born on November 13, 1963. In school I studied up to class 10 (sometimes as night classes). I used to love dancing, participated in school events and played everyone’s favourite sport at the time Kho Kho. Embroidery was another skill I learnt from the women in the Chawl. On Saturdays & Sundays we would finish the house-work faster so we could rush to watch Marathi movies in a quarter that had a B&W television.

In 1982, when I was 18 my parents got me married. The chosen husband was Vishnu Rama Kapse. He was 15 years older to me. When our parents asked us to marry, we just did, there was no argument or discussion over it. My mother said that they were a well to do family, and they eat a lot, and so I will be happy.  Later I heard, that my husband too didn’t want to really get married, but others advised him that he needed a partner who could also contribute to earnings. 
The wedding was all paid-for by my mother. I think she must have spent Rs. 5000 on it. As was tradition for the In-Laws to do, my actual name Satyabhama was changed to Smita by my husband, but my mother-in-law couldn’t pronounce it so she began calling me Sunita, and now everyone calls me Sunita.

This photograph is from my wedding reception in a small hall in Bandra, Bombay. With us is my husband’s regular employer (since he was a child), Mrs. Ula and her family. They really loved us. Now they live in USA. I am wearing a Blue saree and my husband wore a Grey suit. In Buddhism, during the actual ceremony we wear white, not red as is the norm of most Indian weddings. With our dharma guru as witness, we exchange garlands, listened to a short sermon and that was it, we were married. There were around 200 guests for our wedding. The gifts we received were currency notes of Rs. 2 or 5 in small packets. I got married into a very large family, with mother, sister, brother and cousin in laws.

My husband was a simple decent looking man. He respected, and loved me passionately. He never hit me or embarrassed me in-front of anyone. He used to say “If I disrespect you in-front of someone else, they won’t respect you”. That is the reason my children respect me too, because that is what they saw. My husband really loved me, showered me with attention, but I am aware that he was also afraid that I might leave him, because I was a good looking and to top it, 15 years younger.  That is the reason he never wanted to live away from the large family because he felt it kept me in check. I always found it very amusing but in a way it imparted a lot of self-confidence. We were great partners & friends and would never do anything without consulting each other. My husband would keep me updated on current affairs of the world. When I couldn’t understand, he would explain everything patiently.

My husband’s family came from Ratangiri and his family owned a lot of agricultural land there. But once the Dam and new railway tracks began to be constructed, many new people came and grabbed most of our land and so many of us, also from near by villages, were left with almost nothing. We still have a legal case going on but I doubt anything will happen.

Like thousands of others, my husband at the time in the 1980s was working in the Textile Mill, breaking yarn. When the mill shut down (called the Great Bombay Textile Strike), he began working as a wall painter, or as daily labour (also for the family in the picture). The same year my eldest daughter Annapurana was born, but the earning was not enough for us, so I began working as a domestic maid. My first monthly salary was Rs. 75 with a Sitan Family here in Bandra, I have now worked for them for 32 years and I still work there.  Then we had a second child Abhijeet, a son and a third another daughter, Priyanka. My husband and I worked very hard and educated all three of my kids. They went to government municipality schools, and then they went to college. Fortunately for us they are now married into good families.

I never chose to be a maid, but I did it because if I didn’t work we couldn’t earn. And with my experience, being a good and honest maid was the best I could do. My husband would not give me all the money he earned, because some of it was kept for his brothers and their families whom he supported largely. So I too saved, keeping money aside and buying gold as an investment without him knowing, but the amusing part was he knew all along. I always worked around the Bandra, as it was close to home. The Parsi family next to our home sold their land and in its place a mosque was built. But we all casts and religions lived along as good neighbors cordially, perhaps because we were Buddhists and non-violent. In-fact in times of conflict in Bombay, the muslims neighbours always came around to check if we are okay.

My normal routine everyday for years was getting up at 6 am, pack my husband’s and kids lunch tiffin, go do all my work and return by 2 pm to fill water that would only come in taps twice a day. I learned a lot by working as a maid, like cooking different Indian Cuisines from my employers and then I would try it all at home. My family loved my cooking. Even when my daughter got married, I had every feast cooked at home. I have been lucky that all my employers respected and taught me a lot. Looking at our employers helped us aspire for a better lifestyle. But one thing that makes me sad is how people spend on things much more than they need to. Wasting food is probably the biggest problem I see in so many households, the wealthier the families the more food is wasted. But people and women are also more independent and that is admirable, though I still get worried if my daughter doesn’t come home on time.

In 2006, my husband developed a heart problem and he began to keep unwell often. So I got a couple of more jobs and continued working as a maid cooking, cleaning, sweeping, and washing to earn enough to pay for his medical bills. Many employers too helped with the medical bills. But in 2012 his health worsened and he passed away. I now continue to work as a maid, because if I didn’t work I would go crazy. Because of my children, I am not struggling for money, but it is good for me, it makes me independent, I work in places I like to work, I am respected and I get to step out. But I really miss my husband a lot. He was my friend, my protector, my partner of life. I really feel alone and cry when I think of him, but I thank Buddha and Sai baba because of whom I have great children, siblings and their families.

BECOME A PATRON : Work on Indian Memory Project takes time, money and hard work to produce. But it is necessary work because parallel views on our histories matter. If you like the project, admire it, and benefit from its knowledge, please consider awarding us an honorarium to make the future of this project robust and assured. You can support Indian Memory Project for as little as Rs. 500 or more


This Post Has 11 Comments

  1. Nadira

    I have been hooked to these pages since morning when I came across this site on a friend’s FB page. Such warm nostalgia!

    This is wonderful project…wading through history through the annals of individuals who lived in those times. No text book can give a better picture. Kudos to you.

  2. Himmat Ratnoo

    That’s India (that is bharat) we can to learn from!

  3. Kanakasabapathy S

    A real role model.We are proud of her.

  4. kavita

    This brought tears to my eyes, not of pity, no, of joy!

    To read an account so real and down-to-earth. Hardships mentioned matter-of-factly yet so meaningful. What a good constructive life you lead Sunita!

    So much dignity in a few brief passages. Hard work, honesty, humility: qualities that Satyabhama embodies. She ought to be the role-model for all those who look up to fake brands and fake names for inspiration.

    Thank you for sharing your life with us.

  5. Anonymous

    Satyabhama, i love your name.It feels divine when i pronounce it.You have described your entire life so beautifully in such simple words.

    You are right when you say “people these days buy more than what they need”.If only all could realise and follow hinduism/buddhism more spiritually than being religious.

    It is your spiritual learning which has made you such a good person.You should start a blog and write more often.

    Your husband was a very broad minded person.May the force be with you always.

  6. Raakesh

    It was a pleasure to read this article. The words coming straight from the lady’s heart and the direct language are wonderful. A refreshing change from the negativity and cynicism that one gets through the mainstream media.

  7. sangeeta

    It is a refreshing change to read this beautiful account of a simple life, its dreams and the fulfillment of small desires. It is indeed a pleasant change from the usual backgrounds I often read here in the Indianmemoryproject. Pl correct me if I am wrong but most stories I have seen do have an element of elitism attached to it. No offence intended.. but thats how it comes across.
    Bringing in inclusiveness to the whole project would be lovely- and a challenge too..

    1. admin

      Thank you Sangeeta. To answer your point, which while I agree only partly with, I would like to highlight that photography was purely an elite indulgence for an entire century and more. And thus It is going to be so, that so many will submit images from people we consider ‘elite’ or “english speaking educated people” (which are hardly the same thing in the 21st century) are the ones whose families could afford it at the time. The irony is that so many whose families were elite once upon a time, are not so now or vica versa. We do not see stories as elite or not,(so many stories you read here are not so) but yes this is a first from a lady whom you could call the other extreme of elite. :) To also offer reason to your wish to see the opposite extreme stories, the ‘simpler’ stories you speak of do not have access to the internet or a scanner, and so collecting their stories is a physical effort. An effort that can only be expounded with funds and resources. We will be announcing a call for Patronage very soon from people like you who would love to see this project flourish with all kinds of stories, elite and simple or neither. I am sure you wouldn’t like it any other way. :) Warmly, Anusha

  8. KP

    Such a pleasure to read a direct and uncomplicated view of a life – and a candid view of marriage and life in a large family! The inclusiveness of the indianmemoryproject to get more people sharing their stories ( in which language ? english only ? )- is the only way we can know our country oustide our own narrow lives. Greatly appreciated!

  9. Jason Tilley

    Sunita or should I call you Satyabhama? Your family must be very proud of you, if any one tells you that the founding fathers or politicians made India, don’t believe them. People like you did.

    1. Joe

      Agree with what Jason Tilley says. It is stories of people like Satyabhama that has made this country stand.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.