Over 400 vehicles sped past a bleeding rickshaw puller who was hit by a truck in Delhi recently. One pedestrian stopped: to steal his cellphone. The man eventually bled to death. It’s an almost perfect Kafkaesque example of indifferent brutality, except this isn’t fiction.
Hypothetically speaking, if the person struck down had emerged out of a Mercedes, would he have met the same fate? It’s unlikely. Almost 70 years after Independence, we should be examining the conditions that have made us, the privileged in India, so tragically callous towards the disadvantaged. This apathy plays out routinely in smaller ways that may not involve bleeding to death but are still very alarming.
Recently, a four-year-old came over to play with my daughter. She was accompanied by a didi, a driver and a PSO (personal security officer). No, wild animals don’t lurk where I live, this is how the young lady travels within the city, her paraphernelia similar to Louis, the XV. Within 10 minutes of the play date finishing, my domestic worker informed me the didi was traumatised by a verbally abusive boss. She was seeking a new job, could not afford to leave the current one as she was paying for educating her younger brothers in the village.
Considering our utter and complete dependence on our babysitters and cooks and chowkidaars, one would imagine the question of cruelty towards them wouldn’t arise. But this continues to be elite India’s dirty secret. One segment (the rich) casually subjugates the other (the poor). Of course, we are all guilty. Most of us have hired help who make our lives much better, at the cost of their own.This has been such an acceptable arrangement that when diplomat Devyani Khobragade was arrested in New York for paying her housekeeper less than half of what was legally permissible, she got full support from the Indian establishment. How dare the US have labour laws and minimum wage rules that actually work?
It was nobody’s dream to grow up and wash dishes. Some of us are aware that having a servant is not a birthright and that there is no such thing as a servant anyway, just someone doing a job. The rich need to be sensitised to be kinder to those who have no choice but to work for a pittance.
The least we can do (while ruthlessly exploiting them), is not be outright jerks. However, that’s not going to happen until we change our approach to domestic help at a macro level. Every major Indian city has a police sanctioned “servant verification drive” that’s just plain insulting and I’m not even referring to the offensive terminology.
What it basically says is, “I’m rich, you’re poor, you have access to my house and your personal situation could propel you towards crime (against me)”. It’s no wonder this drive has failed because employers are too embarrassed to go through with it. There’s got to be a better way to stay secure; one that doesn’t involve making another human being feel like a criminal even before he’s begun work. When you speak to any domestic worker, they’ll tell you that though they desperately need money; what they want much much more, is respect. When one group has the power to designate another as less trustworthy, it is an unfair violation.
If only there was an app like the Uber one, where the driver rates the passenger. If domestic workers could rate their employers publicly, everything would change. In India’s 70th year, this is the challenge. To shed our imperial ways, and think and feel the lives of others even when they’re completely alien to us. It reminds me of a conversation in Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger, the unsettling book from the perspective of a driver. The saab is pondering: “I wonder what’s the point of living.” The point of living? My heart pounded. The point of your living is that if you die, who’s going to pay me three and a half thousand rupees a month?