A couple of years ago, I reviewed the movie Lakshmi and Me that played in the San Francisco International Film Festival. It is a beautiful documentary that details the filmmaker’s relationship with the young woman who works in her apartment and building. Though I appreciated it, I remember also being critical. How bourgeois to make a film about one’s hired help in order to ease one’s guilt for paying someone a pittance to sweep the floors.
I’m not sure how different I feel now, sitting here at my dining table, while Sobitha —my hired cook and cleaning person—sings to herself in the kitchen. As my husband and make our way into our first solid month in India, almost two straight weeks in Kolkata, I found myself struggling against the urge to write about my experiences with the domestic help. The criticisms still stand: Bourgeois? Check. Guilty? Check.
I am a highly privileged person, no matter if I am in the First World or the Third, but the concept seems less weighty and twisted here. I find that class privilege and difference in India isn’t so wrapped up in national identity and race discourse. Here, there are lots of people who are poor, then lots of people who are middle class who employ the poor people, and a few people who are very rich, who employ even more poor people.
I’m not sure I’ve ever met any rich people in India who pretend that they are poor, at least not the way you see this charade at expensive private liberal arts colleges in America.
The myth of class mobility that America is built on—that elusive dream—doesn’t seem to exist here. India runs on it’s service sector—with hired help in the fanciest elevators to the most-broken down ones, pushing the buttons for a few rupees an hour. Leaving the airport in Delhi, you’ll find someone employed to lift the parking garage gate manually as each car exited. Here, you can get your clothes ironed and your food delivered and, of course, your floors swept and washed.
My father’s family had a long line of retainers. In those days they were men. These men ran the household and made sure things got done. My father and grandmother had endless stories about Mathura, their retainer, who was described as the most loyal and giving man in the world. My grandmother employed many poor people from her village, but also schooled them and employed them and helped them turn their mud and straw huts into brick and mortar homes. It was a fine balance of treating them like a different species, but also humanizing them with education and opportunity.
Is it really so different in America? I was raised by a series of “housekeepers” while my parents were at work.
In my case, in Southwestern Ohio, they were older white ladies, quite poor, who worked for cash and took care of me from the time I came down for breakfast in the morning to when my mother came home from work at 5:30 p.m.
Here in India, we’ve hired Sobitha, who cooked and cleaned for my grandmother in the last year of her life.
Sobitha lives in the country, or as she calls it, the “desh,” outside Kolkata. I asked her yesterday and we figured out she was about my age, maybe a year or two older. She calculated her age by saying that she was married at age 15, and that she has been married some 18 years. Her husband can’t work because a labor injury has left him with spondylitis in his neck. She also has been blessed with three daughters, whom she says will cost her one lakh rupees, or around $2,200, to get each married off. She travels by train to Kolkata, leaving her home at 3:45 a.m., to come to work in several homes and an office before coming to our flat around 12:30 p.m. each day.
She is funny and sharp-tongued and while I sit at the kitchen table and write, she sometimes squats on the floor at the boti (large stationary knife) and talks to me about her family and her village and her life. She has a younger sister who works in one of the buildings next door and sometimes she comes over to talk as well—the two of them sweet and funny. The second day they came, the sister peeked her head around the corner of the laundry room where I was soaking the clothes to say, “Didi, we like you very much,” and then ran off giggling like a little girl and not a 25-year-old mother of three. They think me strange and lonely, sitting here in front of this machine all day.
When Sobitha’s not cooking and gossiping with me, she tells me about home remedies like heated mustard oil on my temples and the bottom of my feet to get rid of a cold, or explains idioms like when a cat is chased, it climbs a tree—to refer to doing something you don’t want to do but you have to. Or another one about how a bird-eaten jackfruit will be bought by the poor people, as an analogy to why her father married her off to an uneducated man. She’s invited me to come and visit her home and I am going to buy her an alarm clock and a cloth bag—basic things she doesn’t have.
Meanwhile, our building also has a darwan, or security guard—an older man, maybe in his 50s. He lives in in a little nook on the ground floor of our building, a space that is also shared by a car repair shop. It’s just enough room for a bed and a television. Sometimes he cooks for himself on a little stove on the ground.
Mostly, though, he watches his television at alarming volumes or listens to the radio. Since his little alcove falls just two floors below our bedroom, it is very much as though the television and radio is being piped into our bedroom. In terms of security, he doesn’t make me or my husband feel very safe, in fact, it’s a bit of the opposite.
One of the first days I was here, he came up and rang the doorbell and asked me for 100 rupees. When I asked him for what, he said: “I just need it.” I wasn’t quite sure what I was supposed to do in this situation, but it felt wrong. I know in the same situation, my grandmother would have been furious. But I felt helpless because I didn’t know how much he gets paid and how we have contributed to that. I knew that we’d paid all our building fees, which must cover his salary, but I had no idea what kind of living wage that was. But I also didn’t want him to take advantage of me as an unsuspecting NRI.
At night, our dreams are infected with his hacking cough, which has worsened as the nights here get colder.
The kicker came last Friday night though, when my husband and I went out to Salt Lake—a Kolkata extension—where we met two of my cousins for a drink and some food. With traffic and all, the car ride alone took us over an hour, so after hanging out and drinking and eating, by the time we came home it was about 11:30 p.m. We found our gate locked and the lights off. We rang the doorbell and knocked, to no avail.
After knocking and calling out for some time, we aroused the security man from his slumber, but also aroused his great ire and he began a vitriolic tirade against us in slurred angry Bengali that I could barely understand. What I did get is that he thought it was ridiculously late, and that next time such a thing happened he wouldn’t open the gate for us and other angry words. The tirade continued and we could hear it going on as we went upstairs to our bedroom. What we learned, after the fact, was that we should have given him a lock and key and let him know if we were going to arrive after 10 pm, which is when he officially goes to sleep.
For me the doorman has really become to represent more and more the way we are dealing with the inconsistencies and maddening parts of India. If Sobitha is the warm and fuzzy part of the service sector—the way she clucks over us like a mother hen, taking special care to make sure she comes every day since we are new to India—the doorman is bitter. And rightly so, with his lot in life and his awful job.
More than anything, I want to have compassion for this man. He is obviously poor—he lives on a cot in the garage of my building, for goodness sake. The neighbor told me he only gets paid like 2,500 rupees a month ($55), for a 24-hour-a-day job. That comes to barely 4 rupees an hour. When he locked me out of my own building, my first impulse was to get him fired. I mean, he’s doing his job poorly and making my life inconvenient, yet, at the end of the day, he works for me.
Our neighbor told us that if we were to replace him, a new 24-hour security guard like him would be closer to 5,000 rupees ($100) a month and that the other condo owners don’t want to pay more. He is unhappy, but we don’t want to pay anyone else more to do a better job, so we’re stuck with a sort of bad situation all around. In the meantime, I have brought him down a thick blanket, aspirin for his fever, inquired after his needs.
At the end of the day, all I can do is set an intention to be kind to him and continue to try and process carefully, as always, the disparity and power dynamics around me.
Neelanjana Banerjee’s creative work has appeared in several magazines like The Literary Review, World Literature Today, Desilit and the anthology, Desilicious. She is a co-editor of Indivisible: An Anthology of Contemporary South Asian American Poetry (University of Arkansas Press, 2010). This piece was first published at New America Media.