It is considered insolent in India for a maid to talk back. But one housekeeper in Mumbai is challenging the expectation to be submissive and obedient by lampooning the world of domestic employment in a standup routine several nights a week.
“Although my employers were mostly nice to me, I used to hear horror stories from other maids,” Deepika Mhatre, 43, told the Guardian. “I used my experiences for my routine, like other comedians,” she said.
Mhatre’s daily routine hardly lent itself to laughs. Her day would start at 4am. From 4.30 she travelled on various commuter trains, selling imitation jewellery to passengers on their way to work in downtown Mumbai. By 7am she arrived at the first of five homes in Malad where she cooked.
At 2pm she would leave for the 90-minute journey home, where she did her household chores, looked after her ailing, asthmatic husband, who has not worked for 15 years, and their three daughters, and bought and packed jewellery for the next day.
At 6pm she would start cooking dinner for the family. These days, however, in the evenings she catches a train into town and performs at one of Mumbai’s comedy clubs.
Standup comedy in India is in its infancy. The humour Indians enjoy in private is missing from public life and entertainment, and Bollywood’s idea of humour is slapstick. A maid doing standup comedy is unheard of.
On stage, a matronly figure in a salwar kameez and dupatta – a long scarf – with her long hair tied back, she tells the audience she is special. So special that in the building where she works, she says, they have installed a special lift just for her. She pauses. In the homes where she works, they even have special plates and glasses just for her, she says.
It takes a second or two before the audience understands that she is satirising the habit across India of forcing domestic staff – maids, cooks, nannies and drivers – to use separate elevators so they don’t “pollute” the lifts used by the rich residents, and to eat off separate plates.
“That’s fine. Go and hide your precious utensils that I am not allowed to use,” continues Mhatre. “But whose hands made the chapattis you eat? And whose hands apply the balm when a tired madam [lady of the house] needs a massage?”
Mhatre goes on to talk about how maids have to sit on the floor, use a separate chair or stand in a corner, and she makes fun of how the rich haggle with the poor over a few measly rupees but will happily pay whatever price is marked on goods in a swanky mall.
Mhatre’s sets can be seen as an attack on India’s extreme social inequality, and the inability of the rich to treat the poor as their equals. “Why do they do this? It’s because they have no heart, no feeling for poor people,” she said.
Mhatre had always made her family crack up. But it was only when one of her employers, Sangeeta Vyas – who Mhatre says was much nicer than most – one day arranged a talent show for people who work as maids or drivers that Mhatre got a chance to perform. “All the other participants sang or danced. I got on stage and talked about madams. The audience liked it.”
After a journalist heard about her, she was invited to perform at gigs and received encouragement from Aditi Mittal, a Mumbai comedian who has a web show called Bad Girls, which features unconventional women doing unconventional things. Her two-minute routine has gradually expanded to 10 minutes. “She can mine this madam material – their classist and superior ways – for ages because their behaviour is so ridiculous,” said Mittal.
Making fun of oneself is not common in India, where blowing one’s own trumpet is more widespread, but audiences seem to appreciate her self-deprecation – despite the fact that, as Mittal says, she speaks truth to power.
The gruelling routine of rising at 4am and getting home at midnight after a gig became too much for her, and two months ago she stopped her cooking work. Now it’s only the jewellery income that supports the family. “It’s tough but I don’t want to give it up. It’s the first opportunity I’ve ever had to be someone.”
Given the profoundly subordinate status of maids in India, Mhatre could be forgiven for being worried about any possible repercussions, but she says firmly that “no madam can scare me”.
“My struggles in life have made me strong. Appearing on stage has added to my confidence now, so no, I don’t fear any repercussions. In fact, some madams who bumped into me near the lifts spoke politely to me for the first time. Before, I had been invisible.”