We are all Hari Sadu: Veena Venugopal

VEENA VENUGOPAL writes: Saw the ad about the horrible boss? The one in which the employee comes in with a new idea and in return he gets a load of sarcasm? And even when the boss likes the idea, he reveals it with an air of impudent superiority. Seen that one? What was it called? Hari Sadu?

Well, no. This ad is for a new brand of cookies; Gold Star, it is called. A male “attendant”/“peon”/“employee” comes in to a plush white room and serves a plate of cookies to Amitabh Bachchan. On biting into one, he realizes these are not his regular cookies. “Arre suno,” he calls because come on, he isn’t expected to know the name of all the people who serve him cookies at home. The employee admits they are new. “Maine socha ki…” (I thought…) he says at which Bachchan rolls his eyes and says, “aaj kal aap sochne bhi lag gaye?” (you have even started thinking now?). But then he realizes he likes the new ones and instructs the man, “ayenda yeh sochna band karo,” (please stop thinking in the future).

Now let’s think back to Hari Sadu. He was hated, universally. After all, he sat in an office, wore a white shirt and a tie, and wanted to reserve a table for a fancy dinner. He could have been our boss. Hell, we’ve all worked for bosses like him, at some point and the other. The reason there is no comment, much less angst, about Amitabh Bachchan’s Hari Sadu-ishness is because now the tables are turned. He could be one of us. Not having an employee at home is an urban rarity, we may not have hired ours to bring us cookies, but we certainly have them sweeping and swabbing, cooking and more often than not wiping the dirty backsides of our children. Yet, we are all on “arre suno” terms with them. Not because we don’t know their names, but because we can’t be bothered with calling them by their names.

This brings me to the word I’ve been avoiding. Servants. Because they are servants. Not employees, not domestic help, not staff. Semantics, they say, is unimportant. This case, however, is all about semantics. If they are employees, then we become employers. It’s a responsibility and that will not work well for us. If we call them employees, soon they will demand a fair wage, days off and reasonable hours. And what will be next – medical reimbursement and LTA? That’s laughable. When they are servants, we become Masters. That’s a role which is easier to play. We can bestow kindness occasionally. Treat them to a Ferroro Rocher from the box and tell everyone who’d care to listen about how charitable we are. We can even occasionally call them by their names or ask after their children or hand down a pair of pants or a salwar kurta.

It is significant that the ad ends with Bachchan asking the “servant” to stop thinking. It is important that he does, for all of us. The only reason we have been able to get along so conveniently while treating our employees like servants is because we have managed to prevent them from thinking.

A couple of years ago I watched the Oscar nominated movie, The Help. In the air conditioned Gurgaon multiplex, scores of people, people like us, wept at the hardship faced by African American maids faced in the 1960s in southern America. One of the definitive scenes in the movie (based on the book by Kathryn Stockett) is when a maid is fired by her employer for using the bathroom in the house instead of the one outside even though a thunderstorm was raging. Yet, in how many homes of the viewing weepers are the maids allowed to use a bathroom. In India in 2013, “servant’s bathroom” is a prominent feature in real estate advertisements. Gyms and clubs for us, bathrooms for them, so that we don’t have to feel the inhumanity of denying them access nor the indignity of sharing ours with them. And even though our “servants” are clean enough to cook our food, they are too dirty to sit on our sofas. Or eat at the dining table. Or eat from a plate that is not separately “theirs.” Or eat on the floor from a separate plate without us calling out, “arre suno” and interrupting their meal. It’s no wonder at all then to read in Nivedita Menon’s book Seeing Like A Feminist that in the first all India survey of non-union sex workers, 71% said they had moved voluntarily to sex work after having found other kinds of work to be more arduous and ill-paid. The largest category of prior work? That of domestic helpers (or as we like to call them – servants), who work for people like us.

It is easy to read about the elite and their callousness and share it on Facebook or Twitter. “Look at these fools, we comment, more money than good sense.” I don’t drive an SUV, we can tell ourselves, I am not like that. Or I don’t live in a South Delhi bungalow, I am not like that. It is more difficult however to look for hardheartedness within ourselves. Yet, we are callous and proudly classist. We make efficient masters but terrible employers.

A few months ago I read a column dissecting the Delhi party. It was written in a humorous vein – talking about how late you should turn up for one and recycling the obligatory gift of bad wine. Don’t trust the flower vases it says, because even if a drunk guest hasn’t urinated in it, a servant would have. Don’t eat dinner at the party, it says, because the servants have been digging in since 11 pm. Because really, allowing the servants to pee or eat while your party rocks on till 4 am is a notion both unimaginable and hilarious. There were two dozen Likes for the post. I scrolled down the names – MNC employees, Twitterati, activists and writers so vocal about the “ills of India” had Liked it unanimously. That is, people who point fingers at other people’s atrocities everyday while conveniently ignoring their own. People Like Us.

(Veena Venugopal is a journalist in Delhi. She is the author of the book Would You Like Some Bread With That Book, published by Yoda Press in 2012. She is a contributing writer for Quartz and Mint.)

Previously by Veena Venugopal in Kafila:

20 thoughts on “We are all Hari Sadu: Veena Venugopal”

  1. Great post. During the demolitions of quarters for economically weaker sections in Ejipura, Bangalore, thousands of women lost their jobs. Many were involved in domestic work in the neighbouring localities of Koramangala and Indiranagar, and while there were some employers who supported them, a majority were replaced, as they were unable to leave the site and their belongings in the fear that they might be tossed out on to the road. Over 6000 people were rendered homeless in under a week, with the women’s toilets being the first structures to be demolished. Yet here is the story that Bangalore Mirror chose to run, when it did cover the demolitions: http://www.bangaloremirror.com/index.aspx?page=article&sectid=10&contentid=2013013120130131063251126b844a73d spoofed in a post here: http://drsylviakarpagam.wordpress.com/2013/02/01/the-relativity-of-gratitude-and-ingratitude/ Even the idea that they are legally entitled to housing brings on a look of incredulity in many people, who first assume they are encroachers, because obviously, how can the poor afford to live near up-market Koramangala, without questioning the legality of their own gated structures. How many of us know where our ‘servants’ live, what conditions they face, how much rent they pay, where do their children study? Do they have to accept rehabilitation 23 km from their jobs, schools and lives, one year down the line as all they can get? Considering that they’re from minority communities, doesn’t it classify as class and caste violence? It was disturbing to come to terms with the fact that it was only now that we cared to look that way, but volunteering has given us the opportunity to examine a lot of our own prejudices and preconceptions. Again, thank you, Veena for writing this.

  2. Dear Veena,

    I’m glad you wrote about this ad featuring Amitabh Bachchan because I too found it offensive and a poor attempt at humour. However, could I ask why the media is filled with articles such as yours but no one ever writes about the bitter experiences of decent middle-class folk in this country who are humane employers yet get exploited by their household staff and agencies? Let me guess … you consider me politically incorrect and insensitive for even raising this subject, am I right?

    I consider myself a fair employer. I pay my household staff and my husband’s attendant the salary prescribed by the agencies from which I employ them. I do not address them with “Arrey suno” but by their names. I include them in family celebrations. The children are extremely polite and friendly with them – we are not on back-slapping terms, if that’s what you are demanding, but then I don’t remember being on back-slapping terms with any of my bosses at my office either but I don’t recall bleeding hearts like you crying for me. Despite the cordial relationship we share I find the attendant routinely being rude with my husband when he thinks I’m not within hearing distance and getting high-handed with my husband when he thinks we are not around. I haven’t yet got rid of him, because he’s the best I’ve ever had of the lot I’ve employed for the past 10 years since my husband fell ill and began to require the services of an attendant. Previous attendants have included men who have hit my husband when they thought I was not around, one even told me that he doesn’t like working with me because I’m too vigilant and don’t allow him to “discipline the patient” the way “aise logon ko discipline kiya jaana chahiye”. Others have stolen from me. Yet others have tried to invade our privacy. The rest of the household staff are no better.

    This is not my story alone. Every single Indian who has ever employed an attendant for an unwell relative has gone through similar experiences. If you come across an Indian who is kind and considerate and employs “servants” (as you call them) then chances are they have similar nightmarish experiences to share. Any complaints to their agencies are met with the same response across the board: sirf aapke ghar mein aisa problem hota hai, baaki sab gharon mein to hamaare ladkon ke baare mein koi complaints nahin aate. The response is parroted to all employers (unless you are a super-rich person in which case you are dealing with agencies that charge in the Rs 30,000-plus category that I’m afraid I can’t afford). No journalists write about the rights of employers like me. Why don’t you? It’s as though NOT being poor is my crime!

    Yes my friend, my husband’s attendant (who lives with us) has a separate room and toilet to himself and I would strongly object if he were to use ours. But then I also have a separate room and toilet for guests and would strongly object if they were to use ours. So would you consider me a Hari Sadu in the former case, but find the latter acceptable? Are you saying being a good employer and a middle-class person means I must give up my concerns about privacy, hygiene and security? Please don’t cite nastiness where there is none. Please do condemn all employers who mistreat their household help, but don’t neglect employers like me (who form a vast section of the Indian middle class) simply because it’s not politically correct to write about us.

    I’m all for fair pay, fair work hours and the humane treatment of household staff, but it would be nice for a change to also read an article on the exploitation of the middle class by household help and the agencies that provide them.

    I still say I’m glad you’ve written about that horrid ad featuring Bachchan, but stop tarring all Indians with the same brush.

  3. Ms.Venugopal, very well written. I can relate to the gist of this article. There have been a lot of maid-servants in my house, each one lasting not more than six months, given my mother’s OCD about cleanliness. Always, i noticed, my mother gave them tea in separate cups, biscuits in separate plates…that cup and saucer were kept separately from the ones we ate in! The help and her kids, if they came over with her sometimes, were told to sit down. Once i started drinking coffee in the cup ‘reserved’ for the maid….and got an earful from my mother. You can figure out the content of her outburst. Very well written…on a tpic mostly ignored by sociologists, feminists and all other types of activists!

  4. Do you remember the time when you kept working for that horrific boss because you ABSOLUTELY needed the money? No (sorry to be presumptive, but that is what the answer will be)?
    If minimum wages are introduced and norms like watching TV on the same sofa and eating on the same table are introduced, millions of women who supplement their family’s income in our country of 1.25 billion will find themselves without a job. In India, we are just not equal yet. Why not put your kid through the same grimy government schools that your maid’s children studies in? Equality-yada-yada & minimum wage-blah-blah is easy on a blog, not in real life.

  5. I never paid attention to the add, or when I did the TV was on mute because I was busy doing something else while watching IPL, yet the expression on Mr Bachhan’s face(he is damn good at what he does:acting), was enough to tell me that there is something wrong, that a master from a different universe is talking to a servant for whom the lines “ours not to question why” would most perfectly fit. A very good article, not deliberately provocative, yet making us think.

  6. Shocking to read the piece that Bangalore Mirror chose to put out but you can’t expect better from a paper whose readership is the middle-class. It’s not much of a paper but it’s circulation is based on this readership and it has to constantly woo them! But, Veena’s piece made me feel very guilty, as I guess at some point or the other, I must have been insensitive to the needs of my domestic helpers. Yes, they do need to be protected by Minimum Wages and the other entitlements.

  7. Hope we are not taking this ad too seriously? Frankly I don’t think the film maker must have had all this in his mind while making this ad, but unknowingly he made a clip that is so adept with India’s master-servant mentality. I am fine if we are inspired with this ad and drew this blog to discuss all the above points. Nice read…

  8. Have you seen the Havells fan – “Hawa Badlegi!” ad…. there the people are inviting the domestic help who cooks for the household to share the dinner and also appreciates her efforts ! I would love to see this really happening in our homes !!

  9. Distrust a post when it says the universal blaming “we are all” How so easy is it to blame everyone. We have seen articles in the past like, Aren’t we all corrupt? Aren’t we all racist. No. You don’t know all. By blaming everyone it some how dilutes the issue. Since everyone is racist, I particularly have nothing to feel ashamed of, therefore I don’t have to take any measures to correct my behavior.

    In your case, does your definition of ‘all’ when you say ‘we are all’ include only the upper-middle to filthy rich class of people who have means/access to domestic helps.

    Please stop generalizing to increase the blame group.

  10. You hit the nail on the head, Veena! Even though I am among the elite, I am amazed and distrubed by the sheer arrogance and sense of entitlement among the “us”. We all need to change….good one!

  11. Is it possible for us to think of and name the people who work in our homes as domestic workers, not maids, servants or even, “domestic help”? Till employers think of them as workers, we will remain miserly about salary (minimum wage or otherwise), vacation time, rest-time, health and education benefits. Besides, there will always be employers who will make domestic workers do more than the (mostly unwritten but often verbalised) contract stated; more work, but of course, no commensurate increase in salary to go with it.

  12. Its a well written thought provoking article. Thanks Veena! I run a social enterprise called Maitri based in Guwahati which is about providing skilled, reliable and trustworthy caregivers to various households. We call the caregivers Sahayika (one whom helps). While the Sahayika programme assures fair wage, dignity and a sustainable livelihood to the caregivers, it also takes care of a pressing problem faced by millions of urban households today. We are attempting to create an “employee-employer” relationship through our programme where both parties follow a set of Ethical Code of Conduct. We train the Sahayikas before placement. There is a three party contract which is signed between the Sahayika, her Employer and Maitri. Though I was more ruled by the heart before, now I run my enterprise more by systems, processes, norms and by creating new rules of the game! Accountability has to be set at both ends else the system would not work. We are getting good results as of now by training and placing about 400 women and girls through our programme. I believe this is the only way to empower these special women!

  13. The post is interesting, but Amitabh Bachchan acted in it for a fee and not out of belief in the product or the script, I am sure. It is the ad agency and its creative team along with the biscuit company honchos who approved the story board who should get this flak. Unfortunately, celebrities have been promoting anything for a fee on ads – asbestos, cement, dubious real estate projects, shady banks or insurance schemes – all packaged in dubious social values. It can well be brands that they have never seen in real life other than while acting in the ad.
    But the responsibility for this lies more at the door of the ad agency and their client who can afford Amitabh Bachchan, because they know we pay more attention to such people.
    The agency that handled the account seems to be Everest Brand Solution.

  14. Had a deja vu feeling when reading this post. I absolutely disliked the ad when I saw it. ..it smacked of superiority.
    I do not think we as employers of domestic help or the domestic help themselves are ready for absolute equality. We must treat our domestic help well and give them all the benefits we expect and demand of our employers. But for now if that is too farfetched, why not start by giving them a day off every week.

  15. We are particular about our previleged/casual leaves. Deem them as our right (which it is). But our domestic support (can we ban the terminology ‘servants’ – afterall “banning” works always) takes one day off (reasons can be many- sick family member, wedding in the family etc) and we render the leave more like a ‘grant’ than a right. It’s time we stopped this subtle slavish attitude and brought at par the professional relationship.

  16. Well written! I also think this is one of the offshoots we have with our generic tendencies of mistrust, violence against the “other” which has been entrenched in us over centuries, and per generation from a young age. Our societal structures teach to us to discriminate and hate ritually against class, religion,gender, children, senior citizens, the disabled, women, caste etc.

    I also empathise with Ashwini Sugandha’s dismay that domestic help and attendants do take those who trust them for a ride. But from there, I disagree, because “controlling” others to “discipline them” and keep them from stealing or mistreating does not work. If a person has the intention of deceiving you, irrespective of class or background, they would go and do it anyway. How often do we get conned by our own “friends” of the same background? How’re they not disciplined or controlled, but simply detached from or had a conversation with?

    It is often a simple bully syndrome. If one is insecure that he/she might be taken advantage of, we begin distancing ourselves, and being harsh on others. In most other cases, it is a conditioned prejudice against those “not of your level”. It is the root of all kinds of biases, the idea that someone or something is “not of your standing” and cannot be trusted because your laws, do not apply to them, and ergo you cannot predict their patterns. We dam rivers to control their course and flow to our advantage and cannot predict when it might flood or change path. Subjugation is much more easier than taking time to understand what you’re dealing with and work out mutually beneficial options.

  17. WHY ARE ONLY COMMENTS AGREEING WITH THE AUTHOR, PUBLISHED AND ALL OTHERS DELETED. MY COMMENT DISAGREEING WITH THE AUTHOR IS NOT PUBLISHED.

    I FEEL SERVANTS NEED TO BE KEPT IN THEIR PLACES AND NOT ENCOURAGED TO BECOME TOO FAMILIAR WITH THE MASTERS. SHOES SHOULD ALWAYS BE ON THE FEET AND NOT ON THE HEAD.

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