In 2012, I was visiting India for a much-needed vacation from the chilly Canada weather. To be in the city of Gurgaon, mere miles away from the Indian capital of New Delhi, in March is the ideal vacation time. In the evenings, after the afternoon heat and the busy rush of the city has calmed, you can open the windows wide and enjoy the relatively quiet fresh air.
On one such lazy evening, while my son was playing cricket with a few of the apartment complex kids downstairs inside the gated compound, Lokhi, my parents’ teenage domestic worker, puttered around the apartment completing chores, allowing me to relax on the sofa.
The distant street vendor’s loud yells melded with the sounds of children playing, lulling me to close my eyes.
A piercing scream and a deafening crash shattered the evening peace.
Silence filled the air for an instant, before panicked yells overtook it.
I ran to the open window, heart pounding and mind hazy with panic.
On the path in front of another building within the society complex, a sari-clad body lay prone on the sand-coloured stone as gleaming dark red liquid spread around it.
I looked away as fast as I could, but the image had already seared itself into my mind as I rushed downstairs to get my son.
The parents who had been down with the children had kept my son and his playmates far from the chaos that now surrounded the body. Harried security guards pushed away onlooking complex residents who wore expressions ranging from shocked to curious.
Holding my son close, I steered him through the growing crowd, and took one of the building’s main elevators up. Though packed with other parents and children, no one said a word as we exchanged uneasy looks. Relief swept over me when I entered my parents’ apartment and closed the door behind us.
My mother glanced up at me from where she had been talking to Lokhi and said, “She was a maid working in our complex.”
Sending my son towards the television to keep him away from the windows, I lowered my voice to a whisper and said in Bengali, “It could have been an accident, right?”
My mother shook her head, sorrow heavy on her brow as she moved to join my son in front of the television. “Lokhi doesn’t think so.”
“Why would she do such a thing?” I asked in horror, the image of the woman’s body still fresh in my mind.
Lokhi hesitated with a troubled expression, as though unsure if she should say anything.
I lowered my voice even further and asked in a gentle tone, “Do you know why she would do this?”
“She maybe had no choice,” Lokhi replied, her eyes dark with understanding and sorrow. “She had no one who helped her.”
“Is this a common… thing?” I asked, unsure of how to phrase the difficult question in a tactful manner.
“It happens,” Lokhi shrugged, turning her eyes away from my gaze. “When too many problems come, you can’t see another way.”
The longing and understanding in her young voice shook me to my core.
“Jumping is easier,” Lokhi said as she wiped the dining table. “That’s what she must have thought before she jumped.”
“You’re sure she jumped?” I asked, trying to steer the conversation away from that morbid thought. “What if she was pushed?”
“Everyone will say she jumped,” she said with certainty, looking me in the eye.
“There will be an investigation. The police will find out what really happened,” I tried to reassure her, but I knew how notoriously slow the Indian justice system could be. An investigation, if one occurred, would take weeks or months to find the cause. “After the newspaper reports it, there will be an investigation.”
Lokhi shook her head, her eyes shining with a sad certainty as she went back to cleaning.
Though an ambulance had taken the body away from the apartment grounds within the hour, I don’t remember that any visible police investigation had followed.
But everyone in the building was certain the domestic worker had jumped.
No one knew why.
With no eyewitness or anyone to speak on her behalf, rumours circulated like wildfire for days. A failed love affair, a possible mental condition, a failed attempt to escape abuse that ended in death—the story changed with every retelling within a few hours. The only thing anyone knew for certain was that she had been working for one of the posh residents who lived on the 10th floor.
The next day, none of the newspapers reported the incident.
Hundreds of domestic workers came to work in the building complex early in the morning and the children were out playing cricket in the evening once more. My son, however, had gotten ill and was in bed with a mild fever.
When Lokhi came in for work that evening, she informed me, “Another jhi(maid) is taking the houses she cleaned before.” Lokhi’s morose expression shifted into worry when she saw my son sleeping in bed. “He’s sick?”
“Only a little,” I reassured her.
“Must be weather change,” Lokhi said with a serious nod. “It’s cold in Canada, no?”
Though it wasn’t exactly freezing when we had left Canada and came to Gurgaon for vacation, I nodded.
“Even I got sick when I crossed the river and came here,” Lokhi said with a much more chipper tone, like we were old friends. “I got better soon.”
Before Lokhi could get busy with her work, I switched the conversation back to what happened the previous day. “About yesterday, why did she jump, do you think?”
Lokhi frowned, unhappy at the conversation topic but checking to make sure my son was still sleeping before she replied in a low voice. “Living in this poisonous place, with no one to help. It’s difficult.”
“What about her family?” I asked, desperate to make sense of the incident.
Lokhi shrugged. “Maybe she was brought here, so no family.”
I blinked at her in incomprehension. “Brought here, by whom?”
“Agencies,” Lokhi said in a cautious whisper, after a moment of hesitation.
“Did you come with an agency?”
Lokhi shook her head. “My father brought me here.”
I didn’t know how to continue the conversation without sounding too nosey.
“No one wanted to help her,” Lokhi said, with an emotionless finality. “What else could she do?”
Lokhi’s words haunted me just as much as the horrific suicide. Anytime I read an article about another domestic worker’s suicide, and there were unfortunately many articles like that over the years, my mind returned to that March evening. For years, I struggled to make sense of what I had witnessed.
But in 2017, I had the opportunity to set out and get some answers. Relying on my experience as a media student, I decided to make a documentary about domestic workers in India. And I decided to start with Lokhi.
When I first told her about the documentary and her possible participation in it, Lokhi stared at me with an unenthusiastic expression, “For what?”
“To show everyone what it’s like to be a domestic worker here,” I replied with conviction.
Lokhi frowned. “Why?”
“To help you.”
Lokhi shook her head. “A film won’t help me. No one helps us.”
Even when I eventually convinced her to take part in the film, she did so with heavy reluctance, holding tight to the belief it wouldn’t help.
But as we filmed, Lokhi changed.
What started out as me wanting to capture stories and showcase them to the world in my film, became a journey of understanding and learning. With each person I talked to, I delved deeper into what it really means to be a domestic worker in India.
This book captures that journey in a few ways.
First, the content ties in to my documentary “Crossing the River of Life”, giving you a behind-the-scenes look at events I couldn’t capture on film. While capturing those events I witnessed, this book also shines a light on what it really means to be a domestic worker in India by providing you with information and statistics that paint a grim picture of how abuse, poverty, human trafficking, and even child labour all share a connection with domestic work in India.
Despite these dark revelations, this book also captures the hope that things can and will change, no matter how long it takes.
By the end of this short book, I hope that these words will spark a change within you, just like Lokhi sparked a change in me.