'When will our good days come?' The Mumbai cook strapped for cash

'When all the money the politicians promise reaches our bank accounts, that’s when I will believe them,' she says.

Manisha at work as a cook in a household in Mumbai [Courtesy of Manisha Santosh Kadam]
Manisha at work as a cook in a household in Mumbai [Courtesy of Manisha Santosh Kadam]

​​What's your money worth? A series from the front lines of the cost-of-living crisis, where people who have been hit hard share their monthly expenses.

Name: Manisha Santosh Kadam

Age: 42

Born: Manchar, in the Indian state of Maharashtra

Occupation: Cook

Lives with: Her husband, Santosh, 48, their daughter, Rithuja, 21, and son, Sujal, 17.

Lives in: A 37sq-metre (400sq-foot) house in Diva, located in Maharashtra's Thane district, which is about an hour's drive from Mumbai, India’s financial capital.

The house, which is located on a busy street, has two small rooms - a medium-sized hall where all of them sleep together, and a kitchen. They do not have a garden or any open space.

Monthly income: Working as a cook for eight hours a day at a household in the Byculla area of South Mumbai, Manisha earns a wage of 17,000 rupees ($203.64) per month. India's daily minimum wage is currently 176 rupees ($2.11).

Manisha's husband works as an electrician and earns an erratic income ranging from 3,000 to 4,000 rupees a month ($35.94 to $47.92).

Total expenses for the month: 16,673 rupees ($199.72) on family living expenses. At the end of March, Manisha only had 327 rupees ($3.92) left in her bank account.

She also paid 90,000 rupees ($1,078) to repay a loan she had taken from the government to cover running costs at their family farm near the town of Manchar, where Manisha is from. She paid back the loan by borrowing money from friends and relatives.

Manisha commutes by train to her job as a cook in Mumbai every morning [Priyanka Shankar/Al Jazeera]
Manisha commutes by train to her job as a cook in Mumbai every morning [Priyanka Shankar/Al Jazeera]

Every morning, in the hours before dawn, more than six million people board suburban railway trains in Mumbai to travel for work or study.

Manisha Santosh Kadam, 42, is among them - on her one-hour, 20-minute commute from her home in Diva, on the outskirts of Mumbai to the upmarket suburb of Byculla, where she has worked as a cook in a household for the past two years.

Manisha wakes up just before sunrise, completes her chores and rushes to work.

She came to Mumbai from her village near Manchar, which is about three and a half hours away from the big city, 12 years ago with high hopes. Manisha and her husband are Marathas - a group of castes comprising farmers, warriors and some landowners.

"Like many who come to this bustling city to fulfil their dreams, I also came here from my village 12 years ago, with the hope that Mumbai will be a nice place to work, earn a livelihood and send my children to school," she says as she looks out of the train window at the passing urban cityscape.

Manisha, who is one of four siblings, has been earning money for her family since she was just 10 years old. Alongside her studies until the tenth grade and then after she stopped going to school, she spent her late childhood and teenage years working on her family’s vegetable farm in Manchar.

She was still farming after she got married and had children but she earned just 25 rupees ($0.30) each day of the season, which lasted from the onset of the monsoon in June until the Diwali festival of November, cultivating rice, potato and millets. Twelve years ago, her husband, an electrician, was unemployed and the family found itself struggling to make ends meet on the little Manisha was earning. So, they decided to move to Mumbai.

"My daughter was in the third grade and my son was just an infant when we came to Mumbai,” says Manisha. “Life is very fast-paced here," she adds as she prepares to get off the train, which is pulling into Dadar station, a busy interchange station for the suburban trains of Mumbai.

Manisha rushes through the crowds of people to catch her next train towards Byculla station, which is close to her workplace in south Mumbai. Nobody seems to pause for breath at this station. Everyone is impatient and determined to get to their destinations as quickly as possible.

"This is what the fast life of Mumbai looks like in my daily commute, where I pay 215 rupees ($2.58) for a monthly ticket. This is the peak time to travel since everyone is going to their workplace,” Manisha says. “While there is no space to sit in the train, it also feels like there is no space to breathe.

"But before this job, life seemed like an uphill battle."

Manisha with her son, Sujal [Courtesy of Manisha Santosh Kadam]

'Education is more valuable than a couple of jewels'

When Manisha came to Mumbai in 2011, India, like other emerging economies, was also wading through the effects of the euro debt crisis, which had triggered a global economic slowdown. The Indian rupee was weak at about 50 to the dollar (it has since worsened to 83.52 against the dollar this week) and unemployment, an issue which continues to challenge the country, was widely prevalent.

Manisha and her family were also instantly affected by the economic slowdown. While she was trying to find a well-paid job in Mumbai, Manisha began selling vegetables in the Diva neighbourhood of the city, where she and her family were living in their small house which she had bought by selling all her jewels and other valuables.

"I wanted the children to be comfortable and start going to school. Education is more valuable than a couple of jewels," she says.

But selling vegetables barely scratched the surface of her family’s expenses and her dream of sending her children to school had to be temporarily put on the back burner. The childcare costs for her son would have been unaffordable if her daughter had also gone to school rather than staying at home to watch him while her mother was at work.

"I would wake up early, rush to Mumbai's Kalyan neighbourhood, buy vegetables and then resell them in Diva. I would only earn about 100 rupees per day ($1.20) as profit through this job," she says.

"My daughter couldn't go to school for a month because we couldn't afford it and she didn't want to leave her baby brother alone. I don't know how we went about life then. I feel like crying when I think about it."

Eventually, Manisha found a job at a women’s clothing store, where she was hired as a seamstress. The shop wasn't far away from her house and also gave her the flexibility to take care of her children at home without additional childcare costs for her son.

"I would earn between 3,000 to 4,000 rupees ($35.94 to $47.92) a month and this money helped me pay my daughter's school fees," she said.

While her husband had also secured a job as an electrician during this period, Manisha says he used his earnings primarily for his own needs - which included visiting their family village to check on the farm - only occasionally buying food for the children.

"In many families in our community, it is the women who are the responsible family members and tend to run the household. While I love my husband and we live together, I have given up telling him about the importance of helping the family," she says.

Manisha at her farm WYMW
Manisha working at her family farm [Courtesy of Manisha Santosh Kadam]

Demonetisation and a pandemic

In 2016, India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi introduced a concept called "demonetisation", seeking to tackle black money or unaccounted income in the country. Under this scheme, Modi said that the 500-rupee ($5.99) and 1,000-rupee ($11.98) currency notes would no longer be considered legal tender.

Manisha recollects watching the prime minister's speech on a television screen near the garment store and describes how people instantly rushed to banks to exchange the banned high-value notes.

Within days, the clothing store was forced to close because the business operated primarily through cash transactions and demonetisation had made many such transactions impossible. Manisha found herself unemployed, once again.

"Once again the poor had to bear the brunt of a government policy. We never benefitted from demonetisation. It just made life even harder," she says.

But within a year, with her sister-in-law's help, Manisha got a job as a cook, at an office in south Mumbai's Marine Lines locality - an area known for the city's famous Wankhede Stadium, which hosts international cricket matches.

"This was my first big job which paid me 15,000 rupees ($179.68) every month. The day I got this salary for the first time, I was thrilled and went to buy ladoos (a type of Indian sweet) for my family," Manisha says.

But three years later, with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, her workplace downsized the firm and Manisha was unemployed again and the family moved back to their village to shelter from the pandemic.

"I worked on the farm to earn some money. We also managed to make ends meet by depending on about 15,000 rupees ($179.68) I had saved through my previous job. But we returned to Mumbai after 10 months because for how long could we live off our savings?"

After a brief stint as a cook in another office in Marine Lines - where Manisha also lived in order to not defy lockdown rules - she finally secured her current job in south Mumbai.

"I've been working in this household for two years and earn 17,000 rupees ($200) a month. I enjoy it and finally feel at peace," she said.

Manisha shows her ration cards. They help with family expenses a bit - but it's not enough, she says [Courtesy of Manisha Santosh Kadam]

'When will our good days come?'

Historically, the Marathas - the caste to which Manisha belongs - have been a dominant community in the state of Maharashtra, where Mumbai and Manisha’s village are. Shivaji - the founder of the empire - is widely revered across Maharashtra.

But Manisha feels that the government hasn't really helped their community - nor other poorer communities in the country.

She shows some government cards she has, ranging from a ration card - which allows her to buy groceries at a subsidised rate - to an Ayushman card (health insurance card), which she says are helpful. But it’s not enough for people like her.

"Throughout the pandemic and economic downfalls, all the political leaders kept promising aid packages to help us. But their national economic policies remain catered to aid the rich," she says.

"Now as the elections are around the corner, we're hearing big money pledges once again and announcements saying 'acche din aayenge' [a slogan used by Modi's party during elections which says good days are coming]," Manisha said.

"But when will our 'acche din' [good days] come?"

India heads to the polls in an election which will be held in seven stages between April 19 and June 4. It is the largest democratic exercise in the world. The constituencies across Mumbai, including Thane where Manisha lives, will go to the polls on May 20 in the fifth phase of India's mammoth seven-stage election which began this week.

Rahul Gandhi, the leader of the opposition Indian National Congress (INC) political party and Prime Minister Modi, the leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), have begun their electoral campaigns by promising better infrastructure and more jobs for women and the poor, among other pledges.

Listening to some of the pledges on a radio while cooking at her workplace, however, Manisha isn't convinced.

"When all the money they promise reaches our bank accounts - that time I will believe them," she said.

"Politicians take from one hand but eat from two hands," Manisha adds.

"I will vote in the elections but I don't expect politics to help my situation. In the end it will be the city of Mumbai which will help me reach my dreams."

Manisha’s greatest dream is to ensure both her children are educated and can live a comfortable life. But with the cost of living rising, luxuries are impossible.

"A few days back, my daughter asked for 100 rupees ($1.20) so that she could enjoy trying out a motorboat at the Juhu beach in Mumbai. But even to give her this small amount of money, I have to think twice," she says.

“For now, we are able to make ends meet and after everything I've experienced when it comes to money, I have learned not to spend unnecessarily. The rest is in God's hands," she said.

WYMW Mumbai cook

Over the course of a month, from March 1 to April 1, 2024, as part of a collaborative project, Manisha tracked her family's monthly expenses with reporter Priyanka Shankar.

Expenses over a month

Mumbai at sunrise - when Manisha is on her way to work [Priyanka Shankar/Al Jazeera]
Mumbai at sunrise - when Manisha is on her way to work [Priyanka Shankar/Al Jazeera]

Loan will ‘pinch our pockets’

Last year, Manisha and her family took out a loan of 90,000 rupees ($1,078) from the Indian government to help them manage their farm during the monsoon season.

"This loan is something every farmer can get and it helps in paying for all the farm expenses," she says, adding that paying it back is going to “pinch our pockets”.

Manisha managed to pay the loan back this year a few days before its March 31 deadline, by borrowing money from her brother and friends in Mumbai.

She aims to start paying the amount borrowed back to everyone from April.

"I am immensely thankful to the people who helped me pay the loan amount in time. We are all friends and family and while it is our tradition to look out for each other, it is also my principle to pay people back," she says.

March 2023: - N/A

March 2024: 90,000 rupees ($1,078)

WYMW Mumbai cook

House utilities and groceries: ‘Whatever is cheap, we use’

Manisha owns her house in Thane but, while she does not have to pay rent, she has yet to pay an electricity bill of 12,000 rupees ($143.75) covering three months’ supply (January to March).

"I could not afford the electricity bill over the last three months and am yet to pay it. It  feels like the price of electricity is rising every other month and it is really impacting how we spend money," she says.

In January, Torrent Power, a franchise of the Maharashtra State Electricity Distribution Company (MSEDCL), which supplies Manisha's home, increased electricity bills sharply. Manisha says she does not know why, exactly, her bill shot up from about 650 rupees ($7.79) per month last year to 4,000 rupees ($47.92) in March this year - only that the cost of electricity has risen.

“We are sitting in darkness,” she says. The family relies on the street lighting at night to help illuminate the house.

Part of the rise is down to a new "fuel adjustment charge" set by MSEDCL in January, which according to local media reports, added about 300 rupees ($3.59) per month to customers’ bills.

Anticipating a month where she might have to pay a high electricity bill and also use some money from her monthly income to pay for the loan, Manisha had already warned her husband and children to skip extra grocery items in February.

"We are a family of four so we had to spend money to buy some vegetables worth 50 rupees and oil, soap and sugar worth around 300 rupees ($3.60) totally in March," she says.

"While we do have a ration card, in general, whatever is cheap, we use. So if the price of rice goes up, we eat rotis (a type of Indian flat bread). We are used to adjusting," she says. The family also enjoys meat occasionally, but Manisha says they only eat it when they are visiting their village and do not spend money buying it in the city.

Food inflation has also cut into the family’s budget. Manisha's family has also felt the pinch and begun scaling back their needs.

"The other day, my son wanted to order rice from outside. I told him we have to save money and not order food. He was initially upset but then I made him chutney and roti. That is our comfort food, and makes us happy, especially when times are tough," she said.

March 2023: Electricity 650 rupees ($7.79); Groceries 250 rupees ($2.99)

March 2024: Electricity 4,000 rupees ($47.92); Groceries 300 rupees ($3.59)

Manisha lights the Holi festival bonfire [Courtesy of Rithuja Kadam]

Holi: Throwing colours and lighting bonfires

Manisha has been celebrating Holi, the Indian festival of colours and spring, since she was a young girl.

This year the festival was celebrated across the subcontinent between March 25 and 26 and people gathered with their family and friends to light a bonfire, symbolising the victory of all good things, and also welcome the spring season by throwing coloured powder on each other.

In the household, special dishes like puran poli (Indian sweet flatbread) were prepared and Manisha also bought some Holi colours and wood to burn on the bonfire.

"The festival this year will be a simple family affair where we will light the bonfire on Sunday and my children will throw colours on each other the next day," she said ahead of the celebrations in March.

"It is a nice festival. I love celebrating all festivals. They are tradition and a way for us to teach future generations about our roots, religion and culture."

March 2023: Holi expenses 200 rupees ($2.40)

March 2024: Holi expenses 300 rupees ($3.59)

Holi festivities at Manisha's house [Courtesy of Rithuja Kadam]

School fees: A necessity

Manisha considers schooling to be an absolute necessity. She hopes it will help her children secure well-paid jobs in the future.

As well as school and college fees for her children, she also spends anything from 150 to 1,000 rupees ($1.80 to $11.98) every month on travel and school stationery expenses.

"I also want them to be financially independent before they get married," she adds.

But this past month, Manisha has struggled to pay her son's school fees. While her daughter studies at a college in a village near the town of Manchar, where the fees are not exorbitant, her son goes to school in Mumbai and Manisha has not been able to pay his entire school fee amount.

"He's not gone to school over the past week because I still have to pay the fees. He isn't bothered since he enjoys spending all his time working out or watching videos on his phone," she says.

"But I am worried and breaking my head while trying to find a solution. I don't want them to miss school," she says, adding that the government should chip in further to support people in ensuring education is affordable for everyone.

March 2023: College fees for daughter 7,000 rupees ($83.85) per year.

School fees for son 12,000 rupees ($143.75) for the year. 

March 2024: College fees for daughter 9,000 rupees ($107.81) for the year.  

School fees for son 8,000 rupees ($95.83) at the start of the year but she has yet to pay an additional 4,000 rupees ($47.92).

Manisha at her family's farm [Courtesy of Manisha Santosh Kadam]

Six quick questions for Manisha:

1. What’s one thing you had to forgo this month? I did not buy too many groceries. Whatever extra items we had from last month, we continued using.

2. What’s the hardest financial decision you had to make this month? Securing and paying for the loan was a difficult decision. I was anxious for most of the month thinking about how I would get that kind of money. But I managed to collect it from my brother and friends and paid the amount. The loan will help the farm but now we have to start paying back people from next month which will mean I will not be able to save any money for the next couple of months.

3. What has been the most worthwhile expense this month? No expense is good. Does it even exist? I can't even spend any money to buy anything for myself right now. I do not believe in such a concept.

4. When finances get tough - what advice do you have? Save every penny. Even if you earn very little, try to save as much as you can because you never know when it will help you.

5. What’s your biggest money worry? My biggest financial worry is whether I will be able to save money to get my children married. Right now due to the big loan expense, saving for the future looks blurry. But once I've paid everyone back, I will start saving whatever I can for their weddings.

6. What’s the saving hack you are proudest of? I had managed to save 3,000 rupees ($35.94) since the beginning of this year and it helped me pay some part of my loan. That makes me happy.

Read more stories from the series: What's your money worth?

Source: Al Jazeera