2 December 2011

The maid’s tale

An op-ed I wrote for today's Indian Express.

The Help may seem like a sentimental movie about another time and place, but it deeply implicates the Indian viewer.
Based on a bestselling 2009 novel by Kathryn Stockett, The Help — released in four Indian cities last Friday — is among the most talked-about American movies of 2011. Odd as it may sound, one wishes it were among the most talked-about releases in India, too.

Set in Jackson, Mississippi, just before the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, The Help centres around a 23-year-old southern white girl who puts together a book on the experiences of the black women who work in her friends’ homes. The conflicts of the segregation-era South may appear very far away from our 21st century urban Indian lives, but it only takes a few minutes of clear-eyed watching to render the distance superfluous. No Indian middle class viewer can possibly see this film without thinking about his or her own relationship with that figure who has largely disappeared from contemporary Western life but still features so crucially in ours — the maid.

The plot runs as follows: Eugenia ‘Skeeter’ Phelan returns to her home-town after college, full of writerly dreams. The girls she grew up with are already married, with children, and Skeeter is an awkward, slightly bored presence amidst the charity evenings, bridge and chocolate pie, until she is struck by the idea of looking at this world through the eyes of the black women upon whose labour it is largely founded. It’s also a personal quest: to get to the truth about the disappearance of Constantine, the maid who raised her.

The servant’s significance in the bourgeois child’s life is, of course, undeniable. The German critic Walter Benjamin began his wonderful 'A Berlin Chronicle' thus: “Now let me call back those who introduced me to the city. For although the child grows up at closest quarters to the city, he needs and seeks guides to its wider expanses, and the first of these — for the son of wealthy middle-class parents like me — are sure to have been nursemaids.” For most well-to-do Indian children, as for the white children in the film, the maid is the first guide not just to the city, but to every aspect of life — simply by virtue of being the adult with whom the child spends most time.

But while ostensibly foregrounding the black experience, the narrative produced by Stockett and Tate Taylor — the film’s director, also Stockett’s friend from a late-’70s Jackson childhood — is filtered through the eyes of the sensitive white person, the adult who still remembers with affection the wise old maid who brought her up. This undeniably heart-tugging device — the bond between a (white) child and a (black) maternal figure — allows us to hold on to the convenient old-fashioned idea that love can cut across race. And, in our case, class.

Which, of course, it can. But the child who is still blind to distinctions of race and class is also blind to the harsh hierarchies of the world s/he inhabits. Stockett has herself said in an interview that until she was 20, she didn’t notice that her grandparents’ help had to use a separate outside toilet.

But in a culture like ours, where the deep divisions of class come weighed down by the invisible ballast of entrenched pollution-and-purity beliefs often not even recognised as being about caste, such blindness can last all our lives. Servants are central to the Indian middle-class home — and expected to be invisible within it. Hilly Holbrook’s argument for separate toilets for the help — “everybody knows they carry different kinds of diseases than we do” — isn’t something we can laugh at, because we hear versions of it all around us. The separate toilet — not to mention separate utensils, eating in the kitchen, never sitting down except squatting on the floor — is simply assumed to be the way things are, not just by Indian employers but also, tragically often, by the help. The slightest glimmer of a refusal to kowtow to that norm is met with anger, irritation or at the very least, bemusement: we all know the conversation that begins, “Maids these days...”.

Stockett’s Skeeter gives the privileged viewer a comfortable position from which to safely empathise with the disadvantaged other: we’re only too happy to identify with Skeeter, “cause she the kind that speak to the help”. It makes it easier to distance ourselves from the truly evil white people — the ones who make their maids work punishing hours, enforce domestic segregation, refuse loans in the interest of self-help and are quick to levy accusations of theft. But as we watch the pasty-faced Hilly Holbrook satisfyingly given her cinematic comeuppance, we might do well to think how close we really are to her.

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