Monu came to work for us after completing class 5 at his village school. My extended family had just transitioned into multiple nuclear units, Brooklyn to Bongaigaon. Someone had to care for my grandfather.
Ata, as we called him, was left paralysed after a stroke in 1971. In 1988, he left his fading village, seeing little future in the family businesses of contracting (trucks to elephants) and farming (mustard to rice paddy).
And so Monu also left his village to help a man seven decades his senior do the things Monu’s mother had a few years earlier done for him: eat, bathe, dress. He abandoned his studies to send money home to a family with roots as rural as ours, but with no bankers or engineers among them for support.
After my grandfather died in 1990, my aunt and uncle encouraged Monu to resume studies, enrolling him in class six. In between household chores, he eventually obtained his bachelor’s degree in commerce, a desk job at a company and a licence as an insurance agent.
I think of Monu often when I ponder some of the labour and development questions facing India today. I also think of him when I wonder just what the obligation of the growing middle class is to those who make our comfort, our livelihoods, our juggling acts, possible.
I struggle with rendering his story because hard work, dirty work, servitude, should not be romanticized. I asked Monu’s permission before writing and ever the entrepreneur and opportunist, he said, “Sure you can. Maybe I’ll get a better job out of it.”
Certainly, his success is mainly due to will and determination. Certainly, he endured endless pleas for more water, more rice, more rotis, and suffered the wrath of my grandmother’s infamously vicious tongue along the way. Certainly, it is not a welcome existence for any child—but it is an economic reality, one he has left behind.
As my friend and development economist Atanu Dey says, “Poor people do not love their children any less than rich people do. It is dire necessity that forces them to take that drastic step. …it is a rational response to an unbearable condition.”
He said this in a discussion about child labour and efforts to eradicate the practice in India. Of course, that should be the case but a lot of things here should be—and can’t. Instead, I look to Monu’s success and wonder: Can India better promote its universal education initiative among child workers and their employers, thus not depriving poor families of a livelihood and perhaps ensuring children are exposed to other options?
Such has been the dynamic between many families and their domestic help, but a shift towards part-time and contractual domestic work has brought indifference, experts say.
“Despite the massive spurt in fortunes during the past two decades... acts of benevolence and charity… are not the norms,” said labour historian Rana Behal.
In her study of domestic workers in Kolkata, University of California at Berkeley, sociologist Raka Ray found it rare to escape such work or attend school, although her interviews showed nearly all had the desire. A survey of 500 households yielded an average 1.5 servants per household.
“I have found that upward mobility is very, very rare,” said Ray, co-author of an upcoming book on servants in India. “In India, we inhabit what I call a culture of servitude. We grow up in families being served. It is very easy for us to continue that relationship.”
Isn’t education the best way to escape poverty? Doesn’t the future of this country rest on a larger pool of educated talent?
“You cannot be middle class without having a servant. …it is inconvenient to have a servant in your home aware of his rights. I think the middle class is really ambivalent,” Ray answered. “The growth of the economy is not affecting them. It’s affecting us.”
Today, Monu’s elder brother works in another uncle’s small tea garden. His younger brother works in my cousin’s construction firm. Like Monu, each started out as domestic help.
When I described this to Ray, she said the situation seemed more common among older generations, where family relationships were more feudal, where loyalties ran fierce and deep.
Indeed, earlier this week, as Monu married a young and similarly educated woman from a village near his own, about 40 of us journeyed three hours in a line of vans and jeeps from Guwahati, past paddy and hundreds of grazing cows, bumping over patches of earth called road, to wish them well.
“I only gave birth to him,” his mother, a slight woman with a tight bun and sunken cheeks, said as she tearfully greeted us city dwellers fanning ourselves in the heat. “My three sons, you made them what they are.”
I shook my head: “no.”
In Africa, an old proverb says: It takes a village to raise a child. In India, it takes cities, too.
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