16 January 2014

Post Facto - Life and labour: What does it mean to have servants?

My Sunday Guardian column this month:
At a big Delhi party hosted by an eminent economist and advisor to the government, a grandchild — a little boy — was misbehaving. The gathered guests waited for a parental figure to do the needful. And the needful was apparently done. Said the teller of the story without the slightest glimmer of sarcasm, "— is such a hands-on mum, she immediately called the aayah to haul him off."
It's a delicious anecdote — and timely, given the airtime recently devoted to Indians and their domestic help. Most of that discussion, in the wake of the Devyani Khobragade - Sangeeta Richard case, has been about minimum wages and maximum working hours: a crucial subject that could certainly do with more discussion, especially among Indians not disadvantaged by earning too few dollars. In stark contrast to the Khobragade affair was the already almost-forgotten November case involving Jagriti Singh, wife of BSP MP Dhananjay Singh, and her unfortunate domestic help Rakhi Bhadra. Far from high-profile international attention, Bhadra died of prolonged torture in a Lutyens' Delhi bungalow that her employer had turned into a monstrous high-security, total-surveillance prison.
Certainly it seems that the idea of basic self-sufficiency — being able to perform the basic tasks needed to live — has less value in South Asia than perhaps in any other part of the world. Great men who even drive their own cars are a rarity, while stories of those who couldn’t perform simple household tasks are told with inordinate fondness: 
But while these cases have drawn much-needed attention to the conditions of domestic workers, both circumstances are extraordinary. The media never seems to swing beyond the outrage/defensiveness pendulum enough to actually open up the quieter but larger conversation that we clearly need to have as a society: the complete ordinariness of our dependence on domestic help.

Which is where, snarky hilarity apart, my earlier anecdote seems to serve a purpose. Especially in conjunction with some other conversations I happened to have in the same fortnight. At a potluck picnic, it turned out that one friend who'd offered to bake a cake had actually made her mother bake it. I laughed about this to another friend, at which he pointed out that his contribution had also been prepared by the labour of others — in his case, the household kitchen staff. A few days later, a friend announced that she was moving back to India after over a decade in the UK. Her reasons: more jobs, better weather and an easier life — as she put it, "middle class privilege here really does free up time for intellectual labour." It's true: you don't need to be super-rich in India to be able to completely outsource your housekeeping, cleaning and childcare responsibilities.

But if you pay domestic workers well and treat them fairly, comes the inevitable response, why should it matter whether you look after your own children or cook your own meals or clean your own bathrooms? Certainly it seems that the idea of basic self-sufficiency — being able to perform the basic tasks needed to live — has less value in South Asia than perhaps in any other part of the world. Great men who even drive their own cars are a rarity, while stories of those who couldn't perform simple household tasks are told with inordinate fondness: Satyajit Ray, his wife tells us, couldn't fix a light bulb. VS Naipaul — admittedly a Trinidiadian born and bred, but let's allow for his strongly Hindu upper-caste upbringing here — lived a lifetime in England seemingly without performing any domestic labour, his home and kitchen maintained to his notoriously exacting standards by his 'more Indian than any Indian' wife Pat.
Even within the servant-hiring classes, then, men are at the top of the non-labouring hierarchy; mothers and wives can end up as replacements for — or extensions of — the maid. In this context, Gandhi's remarkable emphasis on individual self-sufficiency: washing his own clothes, cleaning his own toilet — sometimes seems to me his most radical legacy. At least in my family, via Gandhian grandparents, it has passed itself down to me in a way that makes battles over bathroom-cleaning turn ideological in the best possible way.
Perhaps the only answer to the question of why labour matters is that those who do not perform it as a matter of course see it as beneath their status. And see those who do perform it as beneath themselves.
These ideas can often come to a real and symbolic crux in the matter of the toilet. In the 2011 American film The Help, the white women come up with a Home Help Sanitation Initiative that essentially seeks to build separate toilets for black domestic staff because "black people carry different diseases to white people".

South Asians who saw that film knew they didn't need to go as far as the American South or the early 1960s to find exactly the same cringeworthy segregationist sentiments. In the last fortnight, these two conversations took place: a friend renting a new apartment in Delhi announced with some surprise that it had two bedrooms, but three bathrooms. Then she corrected herself — it had two bedrooms and two bathrooms, plus a servants' quarter — with its own toilet. Meanwhile, my mother told me about an old friend who'd been feeling overwhelmed by the domestic demands made on her by an ageing mother, an increasingly finicky husband, and a son and daughter-in-law visiting from abroad who've promptly fallen ill. "Doesn't she have live-in help?" I asked my mum. "No, she can only hire a part-time person. Because they'd never let their help use their loos. And there's no servants' bathroom."