When Lakshmi Manikandan returned to work on May 17, after the third phase of the lockdown ended, she was happy to finally get out of home. Being locked up indoors for close to two months had driven her to her wits’ end. Only, life hasn’t quite returned to ‘normal’ again. The 37-year-old soon realised that many people, in whose high-rise apartments she had spent the better part of the past decade as a domestic worker, had started treating her differently.
“Fear can make people react in different ways, and the way they do when they are scared can tell you so much about them. It reveals a new side of those you thought you knew well,” she says.
While some employers acted positively on their fear to ensure that she was safe, helping her with sanitisers, masks and gloves, others imposed arbitrary restrictions like ‘no touching any object around the house’. “They started leaving the room when I entered to clean it and would not look at me properly while talking to me. It hurts, but I convince myself that these are good people at heart, and that their reactions are stemming out of fear and not disrespect,” she says.
A resident of LBS Nagar, which is located just a few kilometres away from software hub Whitefield, Lakshmi’s work starts at 7 am, when she leaves her home to cook breakfast and lunch for her office-going clients. Before that, she prepares food for her husband and two teenage sons, aged 17 and 14. She returns home by 11 am to do the laundry and to cook lunch; pre-lockdown, she would deliver a tiffin to her younger son's school nearby. She almost always has a rushed lunch herself before getting back to work around 12.30 pm. Then, until 5 pm or 6 pm in the evening, she washes utensils, cleans and dusts in about five flats.
She manages to earn approximately Rs15,000 per month, which, put together with her husband’s salary as a cleaning staff at the Kempegowda International Airport, is just enough to afford decent “English medium” education for their children, send money to their parents in Tamil Nadu and meet monthly expenses. Her older son is pursuing engineering, and to pay the course fees, she needs to keep saving as much money as possible. There is no room for additional indulgences.
During the pandemic, Lakshmi says she has got a few new clients. “Domestic workers in many apartments were migrant labourers, who have now left for their homes. So as their employers wait for them to come back, they engage my cleaning services and pay me Rs70 per task on a per-day basis,” she says, adding that all her employers paid her in full during the lockdown, which was a “blessing”.
She remembers that even though she got a lot of free time to “watch television and speak to her relatives over the phone” during the lockdown, she spent almost all her days doing household chores, without any help from her husband and sons. “Not that I have much help now, but I keep myself occupied through the day, so I don’t have time to dwell on anything unpleasant. I would not have it any other way.”
This is part of a daily series on how Covid-19 has upended the lives of essential workers across the country. Read more here