Along with the COVID-19, the upper classes in India are reeling under another scourge — the absence of domestic workers. It was often said: “Where would we be without ‘them’?” Now we know.
In the western world, literature shows an abundance of domestic workers — in the works of Tolstoy, Austen, Mann, Dickens, among others — but the protagonist is hardly ever one of them. But Fydor Dostoyevsky’s novels are somewhat different. He was extremely poor but a student-revolutionary, and so, gave a different take on the world that the “servants” inhabit. Domestic workers themselves neither had/have the education nor the time to write novels. Albert Camus’s mother was a house-maid in the French colony of Algeria and was extremely poor. But it seems to me that this fact does not influence most of his work. His mother’s occupation is mentioned in his half-finished autobiographical novel, published posthumously by his daughter.
But things changed in the western world. In Agatha Christie’s autobiography, she says that the one important thing that the War changed was that the number of domestic workers became negligible. Her novels always had servants in the tradition of P G Wodehouse — seen but unseen. In this context, one is reminded of the redoubtable Mammy from the Gone with the Wind.
Who has written for and about domestic workers? Two names come to mind. Toni Morrison, in one of her novels, goes to the heart of an African-American working in a white household. She completely identifies with the family and does back-breaking work for them, and the family “appreciates” her work frequently. Sadly, she misses the deviousness involved in this appreciation and becomes brain-washed into subjugation that she ignores her own family, children and life. It is as if she is truly alive only when she is waiting on the white family.
Barack Obama, in his autobiography, has written about how he was extremely uncomfortable when his white college friends were going on about the “fun” they were having drinking excessively at a party and how some of them puked and the maid had to clean up. He says that the friends did not even realise what a dirty job the black maid had to do. Michelle Obama’s aunt worked as a house-maid in Chicago.
Coming to India, due to the caste system, the relationship between the domestic workers and the “master” has always had additional layers. Indian literature is varied and rich. Unfortunately, it is less accessible in other Indian languages or English. This puts us at a great disadvantage in catching glimpses from “Indian literature”. It reveals how we can be on the same page with respect to western literature but not Indian literature.
But in there are some creative spaces which are an exception.
I remember the TV serial Mirza Ghalib (1988), directed by Gulzar. The eponymous character, played by Naseeruddin Shah, says at one point, “How dependent do we become on our servant/retainers”. This fate befalls him in those times because he is not getting his pension, is debt-ridden and has become poor. In a recent play written by Girish Karnad, Boiled Beans on Toast, situated in Bengaluru (it could be any city in India), there is a feisty, spirited maid, whose employer has become completely dependent on her. It is a touching, funny and realistic rendering of the relationship between the two. There is a suspicion that the maid has stolen a gold necklace, but her mistress cannot bring herself to look into the matter as she fears losing an extremely efficient worker if the “truth” comes out. And then there is, of course, the autobiography by Baby Haldar, which puts forth with chilling accuracy the life led by domestic workers in contemporary urban India.
Hindi movies have shown domestic workers in abundance and usually, they have been faithful. Earlier, the hero would be accompanied by a side-kick (who was often also a “comedian”). And the heroine would have a maid. The side-kick and the maid would also fall in love with each other with mathematical precision.
But over the years, one increasingly sees the maid being depicted as an explicitly sexual being. She is shown to be making advances at men and a distorted form of the traditional nine-yard Marathi sari is deployed to serve to this end. Does it happen because of the world in the film people live? Om Puri has written in his autobiography that he had a sexual relationship with his maid. Shiney Ahuja was accused a few years ago of raping his maid.
Possibly, the only ray of hope now is the new technology which has enabled Deepika Mhatre, a maid, to speak up. But she had to do it as a comedian because that is the sugar-coating we need if “they” want “us” to hear their stories.
Sathe is Emeritus Professor at the Savitribai Phule Pune University
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