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The slave’s dream

June 05, 2008

“WHEN domestic servants are treated as human beings it is not worthwhile to keep them,” said Fabian socialist George Bernard Shaw sarcastically. Indians seem to have missed the point and so they use it as a licence to mistreat servants.

Recently, a young schoolgirl was murdered in her upmarket home near Delhi. The first suspect was the domestic servant. True to form, the class-driven media went to town with the story of the absconding servant. But a day later they ‘accidentally’ found his body too, right above the room where the girl was killed. It is now suggested that the servant was in fact killed before the girl. My concern is with the servant. How easy it was to blame him.

This is par for the course. Practically everyday since last month a police team visits the posh Nizamuddin locality in my neighbourhood. The local residents’ club gives them a table and chairs. The policemen sit there with unusual enthusiasm with a register under a tree, scanning domestic servants, drivers, sweepers, etc. for criminal records. The same thing is happening in other localities. It is assumed of course that their well-heeled masters are not required to be probed. (That their masters too are required to give fingerprints, even if for a higher purpose of seeking an American visa, is kept secret from the servants.)

Why do we mistreat or instinctively suspect the people we hire to help us? By comparison, the feudal order from our past begins to look more agreeable. Try to rent a new flat in Delhi. The landlady would assure you it has a servant’s quarters. But that’s mostly a lie. The tiny room on the terrace is a suffocating sight. Sometimes it has a shower, which might seem like a generous idea. But look again. The tap is inevitably placed above the commode, which makes the so-called servant’s room acquire the ambiance of a police lockup from colonial days.

The idea of servants and its attendant problems is as old as history. The magnum opus ‘Mughal-i-Azam’ was about a medieval prince’s romance with a kaneez, literally a slave girl. The early sultans of Delhi belonged to a ‘slave dynasty’ bequeathed by their former masters. Delhi’s famous Qutub Minar was thus built by a slave ruler, which is a contradiction of sorts but reflects the ebb and flow of history. But you go to a local police station today. You would find the registers overflowing with petty complaints about servants real and concocted. Not infrequently you could hear the terrifying scream of one of them receiving the third degree.

The backstage of this vast nation is littered with widespread class-based ugliness. When I interviewed Rajiv Gandhi at a guesthouse in his rural constituency — it was his first interview as prime minister in December 1984 — I reached there past midnight, hungry and cold. The local police officer ushered my team to a teashop for a quick bite. He woke up a boy in his teens who refused to entertain us since the shop was closed for the day. The remedy was nigh. One tight slap from the officer followed by the choicest expletives and the howling boy was preparing tea and sandwiches. This is how it works in India and, I suspect, in Pakistan too.

When middle-class Victorians talked about ‘the servant problem’, they meant the difficulty of finding and retaining suitable staff. The servant problem in today’s India is one of class and caste prejudices fuelled by new money accompanied by little or no culture of harnessing the goodwill of the lower classes.

The feudal order was just as exploitative but it was also at least sophisticated in handling this relationship. The retinue of servants fawned on the masters. There was a powerful glue that held them together. Historian Radhika Singha in her book A Despotism of Law has studied the medieval exploitation of Indians by Indians closely and how the British rulers retained it to keep a convenient social equilibrium.

In 1772, Warren Hastings proposed that the penalty for dacoity or banditry could be enslavement, and he did not have to defend his stance. Slavery in India, he explained, was not the slavery of the American colonies, viewed as a horrible evil in England. “Here the slaves are treated as children of the families to which they belong…,” wrote Hastings’s Committee of Circuit to Council At Fort Williams.

American historian David Brion Davis, admired for his study of slavery, noted how the problem was made complex by the dual approach towards it. It was eventually resolved that except for the Oriental despotism of Rome, ancient slavery had existed “as a state of mild servitude, leavened by frequent manumissions, and was thus not comparable to modern chattel slavery”.

When they began to rule India, the British were in a quandary about how far they could go in interfering with local customs and decided to keep the issue, as far as it was possible, in the domestic domain. This produced its own set of problems, including moral ones.

Everybody above ‘mediocrity’ had household slaves, observed a chronicler from 1812. “And from this class chiefly are taken concubines of Mussulmans and Hindoos; in regard to whom it is to be remembered, that concubinage is not … an immoral state, but a relation which both law and custom recognise without reprehension, and its prevalence is liable to only the same objection as polygamy, with which it has a near and almost necessary connection.” Bereft of the sexual digression, the British too did help themselves to a luxurious colonial lifestyle that leaned heavily on a retinue of liveried servants. That tradition continued under the brown sahibs who succeeded them.

But today, every time someone’s grandmother is murdered we suspect the servants. The finger pointing has become so brazen that it has acquired the characteristics of apartheid in which the police are let loose on a section of our people hounding them, accusing them and generally questioning their bona fides.

Gone is the romance of the domestics and their witticisms that infused much of Indian literature. It was not just Shakespeare or Wodehouse who fleshed out unforgettable characters from mere butlers. Ismat Chughtai and Premchand created adorable people from ordinary servants. But in the end ‘the attendant lord’ described by T.S. Eliot, though evidently of a higher rank than a mere domestic, speaks lines that reflect the romance (and the dilemma) of a class of human beings we call servants. The words go thus:

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be; / Am an attendant lord, one that will do

To swell a progress, start a scene or two, / Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,

Deferential, glad to be of use, / Politic, cautious, and meticulous;

Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse; / At times, indeed, almost ridiculous —

Almost, at times, the Fool.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.