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: