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Wealth brings servants, and much nervousness

Wealth brings servants, and much nervousness
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First Published: Sat, Feb 02 2008. 12 22 AM IST
Updated: Sat, Feb 02 2008. 12 22 AM IST
Aruna Kapoor had been having servant trouble for some time. She fired one for drunkenness and lost a second when he decided to start up a roadside tea stall. So she was thrilled when Shankar, a young man from Nepal, knocked on her door in early January and offered his services as a cook. She hired him on the spot.
Five days later, he prepared a dinner of two kinds of vegetable curry, dal and a rice pudding, kheer. The food was laced with sleeping tablets, doctors said later, and shortly after the meal, Aruna, 65, lay down on the sofa and passed out. Her husband, Harish, a retired advertising executive, 72, collapsed over his plate at the table. The dog, Striker, and their daughter, Sumita, were also drugged. All four were found, still unconscious, the following morning.
Money, jewellery and mobile phones had been stolen, and the cook was nowhere to be seen.
For days the case was chewed over with relish on the news networks. This kind of crime sends a chill into hearts of middle-class India, where every family depends on the help of at least one servant, housed in cramped quarters at the back of the home, to make life run smoothly, from dawn until late, six or seven days a week.
“The whole of Delhi shivers when they think about what happened to us,” Kapoor said at her home in a prosperous residential enclave in south Delhi, over tea carried in by new servant, his head bent and eyes downcast. “My friends say they have started hiding their jewellery. People are scared of what might happen to them in their own homes. It's everyone's worst fear.”
The mood of alarm was stoked by news a week later that a Delhi woman, Meera Mittal, had been murdered by her driver. The accused confessed and told the police that he had killed her because he was fed up with her repeated scolding. Three days later, on 17 January, newspapers reported the murder of a 20-year-old girl by the household odd-job man, who had worked for the family for 12 years.
Police records suggest no rise in such violence (there were four murders of employers by their domestic staff in 2007 in Delhi, six in 2006), but maid crime is an increasingly talked-about phenomenon, debated in appalled whispers at cocktail parties and analyzed in the papers, where advice is published on preventive measures (“install grills, double-doors and peepholes”).
As India's middle class grows larger, and more women work outside the home, the number of families employing servants is rising. The rural poverty that still grips much of India means it is far cheaper to hire migrants from the country's worst-off states to clean and wash than to purchase vacuum cleaners and dishwashers.
Kapoor, a documentary filmmaker who lives in an unostentatious ground floor apartment, has five servants: a cook, a maid who comes to sweep the house, another who cleans the toilets, a driver, and a man who comes every morning to wash the car. “To maintain big houses and to look after guests, we need servants,” she said, adding she had no intention of trying to cope alone.
Victims receive much sympathy. Last Friday, Meher Legha, 14, rode on the back of an elephant through central Delhi as part of the Republic Day parade, her prize as the recipient of a national child bravery award, which she won for biting the hand of the family's servant when he tried to strangle her with a piece of electric wire. She fought him off, and survived, but the police later discovered the family's valuables packed in a sack and the corpses of her grandmother and brother hidden in trunks.
There is another, less discussed, side to these crimes. “While the occasional case of murder by a staff member of their employers is front page news, the everyday abuse and oppression of the staff members is ignored or not considered newsworthy," said Ashok Agarwal, a lawyer with Social Jurist, a charity that supports the rights of domestic workers.
As a rule, he said, servants are ill-paid and ill-treated, given no fixed days off, no overtime and receive on average as little as Rs500 a month, or $12.70. “Their wages are often withheld by the employers. They are put to work 15 to 16 hours a day and are turned away from the job in their old age,” he said.
Although some families develop close bonds with their staff and take care of them, paying marriage and medical costs, workers are not protected by government legislation and have no union networks.
Without passing judgement on the Kapoors’ case, some believe these outbreaks of servant violence represent the tentative beginnings of a class war. Raja Menon, a Mumbai-based director who is making a film on India's growing social inequalities, described these crimes as “personal revolts”. “The biggest change in India in the past 15 years has been the growth of visible wealth, and this wealth does not percolate down fast,” he said. “The maid will watch as her employers spend more on ordering their children a takeaway pizza for supper than her entire month's salary. These little things start hurting her. You put all this together and you have a tinderbox.” Dipankar Gupta, a sociologist at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, believes that as the economy grows, as the gulf between rich and poor widens and as consumption becomes more visible, India is beginning to see a surge in crime motivated by envy.
“India was always a poor country, but crime was low and people used to wonder about it,” he said, adding he believed this historically was largely the product of strong family units, which are now disintegrating with urbanization and the spread of nuclear family. “Inhibitions are disappearing. There's no longer a sense that you are going to bring shame on your aunts, your grannies. This means crime rises.”
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First Published: Sat, Feb 02 2008. 12 22 AM IST