Turn the invisible into the visible

Urban India’s political majority serves its economic minority. The two may seem to live together peaceably, but the relationship is anything but peaceful, or equal.

Published: 16th July 2017 04:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 16th July 2017 08:02 AM   |  A+A-

The officer at the police station handed her the domestic servant verification forms as soon as she asked for them. But he didn’t let her fill them there. “Do it when our beat constable comes home. Let him meet your servants. Let them realise that you’re under police protection. That’s the best way to keep them scared and away from trouble,” he told her, and sent her on her way.

Obediently, she went home, handed over the forms to the staff and told them to fill them. She said a constable would be coming to pick them up. Fine, they said, not particularly concerned at the prospect of meeting a policeman. But then, they didn’t know that the man who was coming already considered them potential perpetrators. And even if she didn’t realise it herself, so did their employer, somewhere deep down. Else, she wouldn’t have accepted the station officer’s advice quite so quickly.

Urban India’s political majority serves its economic minority. The two may seem to live together peaceably, but the relationship is anything but peaceful, or equal. The recent mayhem in Noida’s Mahagun Moderne, where an all-out war has broken out between employers and employees after a maid there was accused of stealing, indicates just how deep the class division goes.

Indeed, the relationship is so unequal, that domestic servants in India are invisible to their employers unless the latter need them for something. We like to say we think of our staff as family but, in reality, not only do we not give them the same sort of healthcare, accommodation or even food that we serve ourselves, we don’t even acknowledge their presence unless we’re made to.

It’s not a deliberate disregard; it’s worse. We just don’t notice them. Which explains why, unlike in the West, having a servant in the house round the clock is not an irritant in India. How can you be irritated by someone you don’t even see?

And yet, if anything goes missing in the home, the servants are the first to come under suspicion. The police understands this and invariably begins its investigations with an interrogation and, oftentimes, thrashing of the servants. We look away embarrassed but we don’t stop them. We just ask them to take the violence outside.

What’s truly distressing is that the servants expect no different. They come into our homes, with the clear understanding that they’re second-class citizens, living by the tenet of “theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die.” True, there are employers who are kind and generous with their staff and try and compensate for the fact that they often spend more on a trip to Khan Market than their driver earns in a month, but these individuals are few and far.

Online retailer Jaypore has started a campaign called #selfiewithdidi, which asks us to take note of the “invisible force” that keeps our life together. That’s something for sure but can we do more? Can we dare to rob our staff of their cloak of invisibility and acknowledge them, daily, as human beings who are engaged, much like us, in the business that we call life? 

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