This article is the third in a series that follows the lives of four Assamese Muslim refugees currently living in a slum in the Rahimnagar section of Lucknow, India. Having fled religious persecution, three of the women make their living as domestic workers, and one works as a rag-picker. Vaidehi Joshi originally reported their stories in her short Urdu film entitled “Lucknow’s Refugees.”
In the Rahimnagar slum, everything and everyone is exposed. Few secrets seem to remain in this neighborhood, where everything from personal space and private property is shared amongst its thousand residents.
The slum is built on sunken ground, which makes life unbearable during the monsoon season when rainwater collects in the lanes and houses. But even on winter days like this one, the elements are unrelenting. The north wind mercilessly whistles through the streets, sweeping up dust from the dirt pathways and rustling the tarp rooftops of the houses around me.
Built nearby on manmade hills is the affluent neighborhood of Vikasnagar, where sprawling mansions and condominiums with private terraces look out onto this slum. Women like Amna know neighborhoods such as these all too well.
Wrapped in a sari the color of eggplants sold in the vegetable market, Amna sits in front of me while I adjust my camera. Like Zaheda, Amna is one of the few women in Rahimnagar who speaks fluent Urdu and can communicate with me without a translator. By her side stands her young son, who hums a song while clutching onto the edge of his mother’s dress. When his mother begins to speak, he sits down on the ground and quietly listens.
“I’ve been here since I was this big,” Amna tells me, holding her out her hand three feet above the ground. Originally from Assam, Amna’s family fled to Kolkata (and later, Lucknow) in search of a better life. Forty years later, she has no intention of returning to her homeland.
“I never go back to Assam; I don’t like it there,” she says, firmly shaking her head. Instead, Amna and her husband are raising their four children in Rahimnagar. She works seven days a week to support her family, and still holds the same jobs that had when she was just a child.
“I started working when I was eight or nine,” Amna tells me. “I used to work in houses as a maid, and then I used to collect trash. These days I work in nearby stores. But I still go out some mornings and collect trash.”
Although she knows that she could potentially earn more if she worked as a maid, Amna says that she would much rather be a rag-picker. “When you work in peoples’ homes, they come after you because they want you to clean in a certain way,” she explains. “They tell you to do it like this or like that. Some people can tolerate it, but I can’t.”
As is the case with most of the women in Rahimnagar, Amna has her own stories of facing abuse and harassment as a domestic worker. “Some people will yell, ‘Sweep and mop properly, don’t do it so quickly!’” she tells me, while imitating their harsh voices. “Since we only get 10 or 20 rupees a day per house, there’s no point. We think that if we can clean this house quickly, then we can go and clean another house, too. But that doesn’t ever happen,” she explains. “For one hour’s worth of work, they make us take two or three hours. So, for this reason, some speak rudely while others speak respectfully.”
Amna currently earns about 50 to 60 rupees, or $0.92 to $1.10 a day sorting trash as a rag-picker. “In the shops where I work now, I organize and clean all the trash that comes. No one says anything to me, and I can work peacefully,” she says with a smile.
As we talk, a harsh wind blows through the slum, swooping up grains of dust that have gathered in every corner. The wind finds its way through every crack and crevice of the slum, squeezing in between the cramped houses as though it were embracing the entire community, leaving no inch untouched.
From the corner of my eye, I see Amna’s son squirm uncomfortably, covering his eyes from the dust flying up form the ground. I ask about Amna about her children. Delighted, she points to her son on the ground beside her and she tells me, “He’s my youngest. I have another son, and two daughters. The oldest one just got married here. Now I think we’ll all stay here forever.”
Of all the women I interview in Rahimnagar, Amna is the only one who has managed to send all of her children to school. She says that she doesn’t want her children to work, and emphasizes that they want to study instead.
Towards the end of our interview, the crowd gathered around us has slowly started to dissipate. Most of the women have returned back to their laundry and washing. I can hear the sound of water splashing on plastic from behind the row of houses nearby, which I later realize are two young boys bathing from a blue bucket. An elderly woman who had been squatting behind Amna stands up and wanders off through the camera frame.
Curiously, Amna tells me that life is much better here in Lucknow than in her own state. “I grew up here. There are so many opportunities,” she says with a smile. “You can do anything — work in a house, collect trash. You can find a job anywhere. In Assam, they won’t let you get a job. They say that it if our daughters work, it will bring dishonor to our family.”
After we finish talking, Amna picks up her son and scoops him onto her hip. Before dawn tomorrow, she will walk to work while the rest of the city is still swept up in its dreams. At four in the morning, she will leave her sleeping family behind to walk on the empty streets, collecting trash littered about from the night before. This is the story of most mornings for Amna, a woman who does a thankless job that — literally — goes unnoticed, just so that her children can get an education.
As I watch Amna make her way back to her home some yards away, I can’t help but feel impressed by this inspiring and incredibly driven and devoted woman — a woman who has brought everything but dishonor to her family.
Vaidehi Joshi is 23, and lives in Richmond, Virginia. She studied English at Barnard College in New York City and will be joining the movement to end educational inequity as a 2013 Teach for India fellow in Mumbai. You can see more of her work on her website or follow her on Twitter @vaidehijoshi.