Reflections on the accident of birth

My mother pointed me to a recent article in The Hindu about a study done on the nature of domestic help. And it got me thinking about some things that had lain buried for a while. 

I have had an extremely privileged upbringing. I was the eldest born of my generation, a boy with all his digits intact. Like most Bengali’s, I grew up on a diet of ancestral pride and achievement, where I was to be next in a long line of male achievers, and their strong-minded but house-bound wives. All amplified by green-liveried, shotgun toting, pot-bellied bodygaurds who opened doors for me, drivers who would take me everywhere, and a constant coterie of people fussing around me about everything. 

As I grew older, and my father’s way of life overtook those of my grand-parents, things evened out more. I still had many of the things kids from big cities would kill for, but the ‘household’ became more sane. Just one cook, one young child to run around the house doing errands.

I was having dinner with someone who also watched Downton Abbey the other night. And he spoke of how the English looked on the days when life was simpler, when everyone knew their place and role in the world with nostalgia. And I didn’t say much then, mainly because I did not know where to begin, but I have been unable to forget that. 

It is true of course. They do look back at it with nostalgia. As do the makers and watchers of Mad Men. Anyone who tells you that these are reflective brooding works which aim to sensitise us to the times is deluded. All those diffuse glows, those perfect clothes, those beautiful people, the way they wrench and tug and linger at every emotion, every moment. If this is not nostalgia, what is?

I do not look back with nostalgia. Not because I am alone or holier than thou. I am a part of a small minority with a majority opinion, which carries the guilt of its domination and hegemony, and hopes someday to find a better way to deal with it that he or she does currently. Inside, I wear a starched dhoti, a white kurta with crinkled sleeves and gold rimmed glasses, and I hate it when people touch my feet, or open doors for me or take away my plates when I am done eating. While I sit at the table and burp. As Shiv Visvanathan says, I am my own case-study. A bahralok who loathes and loves being himself, both at the same time. Hoping to teach and instill in his child values different from his own. While he himself cannot be progressive enough to tell the help to go, to let him find his own shoes, to polish them on his own. Because would he not be serving them a greater cruelty? 

I know the textbooks and the statisticians do not account for it, but the wages of domestic help is grossly underrepresented in our country. In every city and small town I have been to, domestic help eats most if not all their meals while at work. And this is by for the best set of meals they could have hoped for. Apart from the fact that most large establishments also provide what is the old Raj concept of the outhouse to the badi. Not to mention help during times of medical emergency or death. And the taking care of the next generation through job recommendations, or just taking in the son or daughter when the old retainer is too old to work. There is an entire economy at work and it not unique to India, or England for that matter. 

But there is a dark side and not just the sociological one. There are few people in the world who know wear power lightly or well. And we are in a brave new world where few are tethered to the old values of gallantry, chivalry and humility. So while we learn to be agressive, entrepreneurial and individualistic from the West, we refuse to change how things work at home. 

Thus the bai jokes. A poor woman, who is the bread winner of her family, working in the intimate setting of our home, while we wait for our Dominique Strauss Kahn moments, ever the agile predator – even if most of us stop at feasting our eyes on captive meat, clad in the stuff of the sweaty, stained pulp magazines of youth, that we stuffed into our school bags or in the school bathroom. While enough of us are bold enough to step across that social threshold and relive the lives of our ancestors, who could stop a low caste woman on the road and ask her to reveal herself.

Class. It is the most ancient, most fetid quicksand civilisation invented. We cannot live without it. I couldn’t. Even if I took all my trappings away, I would find ways in which to justify to myself why another is superior or inferior to me. We inhale it and exhale it all the time. Sometimes the wretched inherit the Earth. But when they do inherit it, it is only the power which changes hands. Nothing happens to the Earth. 

But what worries me is not us Indians. We know what we are. We are not hypocritical about it. We quote Manu, and the sense in letting traditions take charge. We understand how things work and we use caste and quotas and the accident of birth to the maximum advantage. My generation has decided to take on the sanctity of religion and its silos, but one thing at a time we say. 

It is the West that surprises me. Why would you look back on 1912 or 1950 with nostalgia, unless you were not a woman who had benefitted from change, unless you felt perfectly manicured lawns justified keeping the gardener in his place. Or gilded cages. Or that child labour to be OK. Or that there is something romantic about using women as office furniture, to be lounged in or replaced as and when we please. 

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