Simple love story of one-night-stand: A software engineer marries a woman he met at a pub and their intimate moments become public. Watch video Singled Out is a fortnightly series that honours the ego and broadsides of Mumbai’s party people. Shefali Luthria is the Mumbai-based writer who swears by vodka martinis, cough syrup and waffles. Scroll.in In the last week of March, Narendra Dabholkar, who was the leader of the citizen’s group Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti, and three of his associates were gunned down by unidentified assailants in Pune. It was a bloody and tragic end to the activist’s life. It was also an absurd end to the life of the central character in The Battle for Bhabhi-mandira (2004), his novel about the fight for the rights of domestic workers. A software engineer in Pune, Dabholkar’s obsession with a woman who works as a maid in his building led to an obsession with an idea: to build a village for maids to live and work in.
This was not an entirely unusual obsession in India, but Dabholkar was particularly fixated on the idea of building the village for “social rehabilitation” and women’s empowerment. His ideas were widely ridiculed and “Bhabhi-mandira” eventually died out. It is easy to see Dabholkar’s obsession with the maids’ village as a proxy for his life’s other concerns – particularly his pet project, and the other half of the story of The Battle for Bhabhi-mandira – the village itself. It is easy to see the hero of this story as the central character, Vithoba, the god of Lord Vishnu in the Vishnu-Hindu tradition. But in the end it is the maids – who he calls the “Eve-tresses” – who drive the plot. Born in Bombay in 1963, Dabholkar, who graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Chemistry from the University of Pune, was an active member of the city’s literary and cultural scene. In 1986, he founded the Movement for Religious and Social Equality, an organisation that fought for the rights of the city’s poor. This was shortly after the government passed the Bombay Prevention of Wastage of Food Act, 1986, which banned the distribution of free food, including that given to beggars, to the poor. Dabholkar was a key advocate of the Act and published several articles arguing for its implementation. The writer and activist Narendra Dabholkar, who was gunned down by unidentified assailants in Pune on 20 August, 2013.
Dabholkar wrote the bulk of The Battle for Bhabhi-mandira, a novel about the violence waged against domestic workers in the city, when he was a graduate student at the Harvard University. It was first published in 2004 in the anthology God and Other People: Indian Writers on Their Lives and Beliefs. It was selected for a West Asian book-convergence organised by the Center for the Advancement of Arab Media in 2005. The book has never been translated into English. Dabholkar was a vocal critic of the inequalities that made the maids’ village an impossibility. He argued that the maids, though entitled to housing and compensation, would not accept it because they lived in fear of their abusive employers. He believed that the point of a “sadula nishad”, or safe home, would be to replace their fear with friendship and sympathy. The maids themselves, however, were willing to make the compromises that Dabholkar asked for. They, too, were unwilling to turn against their employers because of their fears.
One example of this is shown in the book’s most moving scene, where a married woman rejects Dabholkar’s offer of a husband, despite his strong protests. Dabholkar, a lifelong bachelor, had seen firsthand how domestic workers had married their employers and were also abused by them. After a child is born, a maid will feel obliged to stay, even though she does not want to. Dabholkar gives the maid a choice: if she agrees to divorce her husband, she will receive payment. If not, her daughter will be forcibly sent to an orphanage. Dabholkar was a vocal opponent of the inequalities that made the maids’ village an impossibility. In the end, she agrees to marry Dabholkar, the next morning putting on a gold wedding necklace and the clothes that she bought with her mother’s money.
In the scene, we see the maid’s vulnerability. We also see Dabholkar’s empathy – and the fear that drove him to try to create a peaceful world for the maids. The plot of The Battle for Bhabhi-mandira is set in the village of Ehas near Pune. As its name suggests, it is a small settlement of workers, who in most cases hail from Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha and Uttar Pradesh. Ehas is also where the maids live, after they are tricked by men they owe money to into leaving their villages. On the night of 16 May, 2013, while the men are at a wedding, the maids wake up to find that they have been robbed, and three of them are dead. The men accuse the maids of killing them, which turns the village into an urban battleground.
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