Portraits of courage

Greeshma Sukumaran
Published: May 2019


We see them every day, manning the gates as we navigate our path into the campus. Or at desks, as we swipe our identity cards. Turn to the lifts and they are on hand to provide that extra assistance to get to the next floors with a minimum of fuss. Maybe the one offering guidance to the new faces to reach their destination. Or the guide at the parking bay helping you find that elusive space. Then, there are others with their mops in the offices or lecture halls tidying the space to ensure that your day begins in a sparkling and neat environment. Well, these are the real backbone of an organisation. They are the invisible force. Yet they are visible while being hidden from our plain view.

To put all these into perspective, Jain (Deemed-to-be University) is home to many women who lend their services in different ways to create a wonderful learning environment to students, faculty and visitors. As an employer who believes in equal opportunities to all its workers, the institution has several women in different departments of the organisation. These women serve as lift operators, gatekeepers, housekeeping staff, receptionists and more. They are part of a larger group that cuts across all gender. For a majority of them, these may not be the ideal jobs they dreamt of during different phases of their growing years, but have come to embrace them on our campuses as they help them manage their routine needs. But who are these women, where do they come from and what do they think about work life on our campuses?

In this issue, we turn the spotlight on some of them, who make their presence felt in the life of every individual walking into the precincts of our knowledge hubs. As we cast a glance at their enduring contributions, we realise that each one of them does it in her own special little way. Talking of their stories, they offer insights into their day- to- day life, what it means to them to be working in a place that respects them for their toil and the joy it gives them to be the providers for their families, their routine banter and the lasting memories of being with an ever-growing institution such as JAIN. While it is probably true that their work options are guided by necessity than choice, what matters at the end of day is their significance, determination and willingness to go the extra mile to support their families, balancing their role at home and work and still retaining the smile on their faces in the face of many odds, with the air of seasoned professionals.

Santha has been working as a housekeeper at the Centre for Management Studies (CMS) campus of JAIN in JP Nagar for over five years. Although there are many odds she faces in her daily living, her face radiates a happy spirit even as she goes about her work. It is this work that has enabled her to support her family with her earnings.

Santha along with other housekeeping staff is tasked with keeping the JP Nagar campus clean and tidy.

“Not just me, most of us come to support the family,” she says, still struggling to find the right words to capture her contentment. “Obviously the nature of our work differs from those of other working-class women but it is gratifying to be earning even if it does not provide for all the things we crave in life.”

On a typical day, Santha’s day begins at around 6.00 in the morning. Santha, whose residence is not far from the campus, is at work by 8.30 am. Before getting to work, she has to prepare breakfast for her husband and two children, finish household chores and pack breakfast and lunch for herself. She found balancing work and the demands of the family hard at the beginning.

“Nobody treats us badly here,” she says, aware of the many tales that abound of ill-treatment of support staff elsewhere.

Santha who does a lot of cleaning and mopping has been witness to the changing face of the campus. “The campus wears a deserted look now, after the students were shifted to the new campus in Seshadri Road.” According to Santha, the campus was always vibrant and lively with students. “Now, there is a deafening silence with just university officials,” she says, shrugging her shoulders.

Ratna is perhaps the longest-serving member in the housekeeping department and has tales spanning almost a decade to share with the world. The eldest in her family, Ratna, who appeared nervous and reluctant to talk to us in the beginning, was pulled by the need of work to support her family. It is also Ratna who influenced the majority of those working in her department to take up employment. “I knew that they all wouldn’t face any problem here. True to my guess, they are all happy. Being able to get some of them here to have a regular income, is satisfying.”

For Ratna too, the day goes in cleaning and mopping. It can be tedious at times but as Ratna says, ensuring that the space remains neat is her duty.

For Padma, it has been a year since she joined JAIN. She was forced into the work bandwagon after her husband took ill. “He is being treated for a kidney ailment and cannot go out and work anymore,” she says. Padma too didn’t have a choice but to go out and work. With two kids to look after and an unemployed husband in the mix, her hands are full. “Our elder son is studying in 8th standard and younger one is in 5th standard. Both of them are too young to do anything on their own,” she says.

For 47-year old Chandramma, it has been a decade since she first came to JAIN. Chandramma is a proud mother of 13-year-old Devika, who has been a source of strength and support for her. Chandramma lost her husband when her child was only three years old. She was forced out of their matrimonial home after her husband’s demise.

“I didn’t know what to do with a 3 -year-old child in hand.” Chandramma’s eyes well up as she narrates her story. Before coming to JAIN, she was employed at another college as an attendant but wasn’t happy with her workplace and opted to look for an alternative. “I have not regretted it,” she says with pride writ on her face.

She now has a group of colleagues who firmly stand by both the mother and the daughter. Chandramma, a school dropout, is determined to provide the best education for her only child. Chandramma is glad that her daughter, now in her 8th standard in a school in Bengaluru, acknowledges the struggles of her mother goes through and is keen to make her proud. “She is a brilliant student and a school topper,” she says.

Even then, the doting mother has a tight schedule to contend with. Her day starts as early as 4.00 in the morning. She works as a domestic help in private homes in the morning, before getting back to her household chores. At JAIN, she is working as an office attendant assigned to teachers and students from 8.00 am to 5.00 pm. In the evening, the morning routine is repeated. Chandramma goes back for her roles as mother and domestic helper. Her long day ends at around 12.00 in the night. It is a routine she has maintained for many years. But she is happy. Being in an educational institution has made her understand how strong a woman she is. “People tell me that I am strong. But when life throws its challenges at you, how long can you sit and stare at it. I have my daughter to fend for.” Chandramma believes her colleagues and teachers at the campus have been instrumental in helping her make the right choices when faced with challenging situations in life.

Uma Devi K S works with Chandramma in the same department. This is her fourth year at JAIN after she quit her job at a garment factory. She hails from Davengere and lives with her husband and a son. Her son is studying Engineering at a college in the city. “He is a rank holder in CET and has been given a scholarship. That takes care of his fees while my husband and I work to meet the rest of the family’s needs.”

Uma Devi gushes in happiness while talking about her son. She dreams of leading a comfortable life after her son completes his studies. Not just her, even her colleagues are certain that her struggle and hard work will pay off one day.

“I like working and being here in the college. Everybody treats us well and I like this job more than my previous work. Then, I was grappling with a lot of health-related issues.”

The story is not different for others who are working in the same department. But the common factor in all of them is that they are happy being with JAIN surrounded by a group of people who support them in any little way they can.

How often do you see women as elevator operators? Not very often. As more and more women get into roles which are dominated by men, JAIN has two women lift operators who greet you everyday at the lift with a smile. Working inside a lift can be scary, but there are women out there in the elevators just to help the users find their way to the floors they are headed to safely.

Nafeesa, a woman lift attender at JAIN got to know about the vacancy through her friend who is also employed here. “Initially, I was working at a garment factory,” she explains. “When I began working in the lift, it was a little difficult but I have now got used to the routine, thanks to my determination to succeed.”

Nafeesa’s day is spent in the lift. “For someone who is new to this role, it can be a challenge but with time you get used to the routine,” she says. It took Nafeesa a week to get a hang of the job. “Imagine, going up and down in the same vessel,” she continues. “Initially, one feels dizzy but with time you get used to it.” She believes the exposure has made her more proficient now as she has learnt to manage it all alone.

“While you might think spending all that time in the lift would be tiring, I would say, it is not.” What makes it more interesting is the fact that students and faculty who use the elevators, treat them with dignity and they have a big family here. “Even if we step out for a while, they will notice our absence. I will get many questions when I am back to my seat. Where were you, we didn’t see you and it goes on,” Nafeesa cannot contain her joy. “It gives you a feeling that they see you as a part of their existence. That is a special feeling.”

Nafeesa says, though she has not encountered any problems while at work, she has seen students who have developed a fear of the elevators. “Here safety is ensured in all possible ways. There is nothing to fear. But still, people get scared when the power goes off and lift gets stuck.”

She now knows how to handle such situations. “Even when it gets stuck, power will be back in two minutes. The supervisors and other staff are just a phone call away and we have saved all their numbers on the phone.”

While Nafeesa works in one of the lifts her colleague Shobha will be found in the second elevator. Shobha’s husband also works in the same institution in the housekeeping department. When asked about her job, Shobha is all smiles. “It is just like an extended family here. The students are like our own children and I enjoy every bit of my work.”

Both of them have now learnt Hindi, English and Tamil apart from their mother tongue Kannada. “When students and staff ask us questions like ‘did you have breakfast, what time are you going for tea’, it feels like they are also concerned about our well-being,” says Shobha.
Shobha works the 8.00 am to 5.30 pm shift here. Other than for lunch and tea breaks, she spends most of her time in the elevator, talking to students and staff and directing the visitors to the right floors or departments.

“We have been given guidelines to ensure smooth passage and running of the elevator and we keep to it. Everybody listens to us and follows the directions,” she adds.

While Shobha and Nafeesa are regular sights at the elevators, Kavitha is another woman who performs an unconventional role. Kavitha works as a security guard, which requires a lot of energy and hard work. Her work starts at 8.00 am in the morning and she can be seen at the gate or the entrance till 5.30 pm. Kavitha along with her husband, who is a vegetable vendor, support a family of five.

“While I am happy being here, it sometimes demands a lot of energy. Dealing with students is not an easy task. But most of them cooperate. And after this, I have to deal with ‘galatta’ (ruckus) with my kids at home,” she laughs.

Kavitha is not the only woman in her team now. “There is one more woman who just joined three days ago.” Standing at the entrance, they both check the ID cards of the students and staff and ensure a smooth passage.

Kavitha says that sometimes people get annoyed and irritated when stopped to check their ID cards. “But it is our job. We are here to do that and cannot let anybody in, without verifying their identity. They don’t shout, but we can make out from their expressions,” adds Kavitha.

Suvarna has been working with the institution for three years now. She was working in the Chemistry lab until six months ago and has now been moved to the Principal’s office to attend to teachers and students.

“Despite the fact that I didn’t have a clue about the chemicals and apparatus when I joined, I was able to start as a lab assistant in the department and learnt quickly the names and other related details,” she says.

She has gained a lot of experience with a variety of analytical techniques and chemicals used at the lab and at the same time, also learned the art of manning the students. Suvarna, who comes from Hosakerehalli lives with her husband and two children. “I enjoy every bit of my work, though I was sad when I was asked to switch from lab to Principal’s’ office.” Suvarna’s colleagues also vouch for her sincerity at work and skills in handling chemicals and lab equipment.

“I don’t know if it is the students or the smell of the chemicals that is pulling her back to the lab now,” Revathi joins in the conversation by teasing Suvarna. Revathi is one of the senior lab assistants on the campus. It has been 13 years since she joined the group.

“I was at the VV Puram campus for first five years before moving to Jayanagar 9th block in 2010. VV Puram was close to my home,” says Revathi. Today, she commutes from JjR Nagar to Jayanagar 9th block every day. “Just like everybody else, shifting from VV Puram to this campus was not easy. But we adapt to change, isn’t it?” Revathi also worked with the admission department during admissions, helping in collecting the fees and maintaining the accounts.

“That was a really good opportunity for me to learn something new. After working as a lab assistant for so many years, when I was given a chance to assist in a different role, I didn’t wait, just went ahead and grabbed it,” Revathi still cannot contain her excitement. Revathi has been a pillar of support for her colleagues and juniors on the campus for many years.

“It is also because I have been here for long. The institution has also given us all support and we are all part of one big family,” she concludes.

All these women with several others in the group are there to ensure the smooth flow of work. Their grit and determinations have seen them through myriad challenges and being there each day to make the days perfect for others. It may not have been what they had hoped for but JAIN has made them realise that their place in the society is as significant as any other. That is what counts!