Feudalism with its many different forms is like the MSRA bacteria. Maybe in 200 years it will be winkled out of all the crevices, nooks and corners in India; another 300 years to disinfect and fumigate the soil which nourishes every cockroach manifestation. Demanding bribes as well as giving them is the elemental result of deference- to hierarchy, to fear to helplessness- when faced with its painstakingly calibrated balance.
People work for you (“So, they’re paid aren’t they?”) are shadow players in your drama- they flit in and out of your consciousness and the more evanescent they seem the more comfortable you feel exercising your own rights to privilege. But sometimes they become invisible, so commenting on the price of a new sari which cost twice your maid’s salary is fine.
Because the worker ants are there to serve you (“Come on, they’re paid aren’t they?“) they can just get on with the job. If they have to clean a floor (“swab” is the word commonly used which carries sanitized connotations, but the floorcloth is usually black with dirt and age in the pail of water brewed in Hades), then they’d better manage somehow- even if their tools are antedeluvian or not fit for purpose. Hence you get municipal street cleaners (permanent job this one!) sweeping with brooms that let fly atomic clouds of filth and dust, maids squatting on their haunches, cars being hosed with precious water and the peculiar smell of unwholesome damp inside houses.
Many of the priviliged cling to their blinkers for dear life, but some have consciences nurtured in the zeitgeist of “subaltern studies”, which are historical/sociological/anthropological academic studies of the lives of ordinary people that first emerged around the 1970s. This new genre of History writing resulted in interest and engagement in the other India- the 600m who do not have enough of anything and are mere statistics and pie-charts. The bottom up approach. Katherine Boo’s study of the lives of Bombay slum-dwellers has commanded enormous and respectful attention.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers exemplifies the identification with subject approach coupled with rigorous on the spot research and documentation. If you saw “Slumdog” and were appalled-confused-enthralled then follow that by reading this admirable book. Katherine Boo, not herself in the best of health, is married to Indian academic, Sunil Khilnani and spent three years more or less living with the people she writes about.
“I just believe that better arguments, maybe even better policies, get formulated when we know about ordinary lives….the effect of corruption…is a contraction not of economic possibility, but of our moral universe. In my reporting, I am continually struck by the ethical imaginations of young people, even in circumstances so desperate that selfishness would be an asset…Children have little power to act on these imaginations, and by the time they grow up, they may have become the adults who keep walking as a bleeding waste-picker slowly dies on the roadside, who turn away as a burned woman writhes, whose first reaction when a vibrant teenager drinks rat poison is a shrug. To my mind, what appears as indifference to other people’s suffering has little to do with reincarnation, nothing to do with being born brutish, and a great deal to do with conditions that can sabotage innate capacities for moral action.”
But back to the relatively better off, the workers who earn regular wages.
Stories about abused domestic help aren’t confined to Saudis in London. On February 24 there was a news item about the Cultural and Education Attache at the Indian mission in New York who was being prosecuted for beating and enslaving her young maidservant. The Attache kept her job.