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Business News/ Opinion / Columns/  The visual poverty of India’s rich has only gotten worse
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The visual poverty of India’s rich has only gotten worse

The anxiety that their support staff creates as they attempt to live posh lives has grown in recent times


Light does not pass through the Indian maid, even though many Indians may want that. Light strikes her and is reflected back, creating one of the most inconvenient apparitions for them. That was always a property of light, but somehow there was a time, not long ago, when household helps knew how to be invisible. They would stay in the kitchen, merge with the backdrop, walk without noise, and never speak unless answering a question. But now they take breaks, talk on their phones with friends, and walk in the parks of their masters. As a result, they feature in India’s ongoing servant-master conflicts.

A few days ago, a somewhat affluent residential society in Bangalore issued a statement: "Its difficult to see them (maids) hang out everywhere in the park, amphitheatre and gazebos. Residents can feel uncomfortable when being surrounded by maids everywhere we walk… Cooks, carpenters, plumbers sit on the sofa at the building reception. Most of us have probably stopped sitting on the sofas by now…" When this leaked, there was familiar outrage. India appears to be such a fair place on social media. Many pointed out that “the maids" were “human too". I find this taunt odd. The upper-class knows “servants" are humans. In fact, they have problems only with humans. If, say, deer walked around their parks, amphitheatre and gazebos, and sat on their sofas, people would find it very cute.

What the residential society was trying to hint at was that the poor bring down the aesthetics of a place. And because of mobile phones, they are not only seen but also heard —laughing, crying, fighting, loving. They also hog the meagre private resources of a community whose country has few urban spaces of beauty to offer. This is a country where the middle-class pays a premium not for the quality of things, but to ensure other Indians are not allowed entry.

The housing society’s notice reflects an effort to restrict the visibility of the poor in posh colonies. Not only is the effort doomed to fail, it creates a new class of aesthetic degradation—like notices and noticeboards that ask “servants and dogs" not to take the lift. Class is ugly everywhere, but unlike in the West, we in India have not figured out how to hide this ugliness.

Even as India’s affluent worry about the increasing visibility of support staff, they cannot survive without them.

I remember the first time I walked on Malabar Hill in Bombay, in the mid-90s. It was funny because I had heard for many years that this was the most expensive residential area in India, but the only people I saw on the streets were mostly poor men. Drivers and other kinds of attendants. This was still a time when an Anglicized elite lived on Malabar Hill, who discussed French cinema and stuff like that. Today, the gentry has left, priced out by richer people, and the human representation of its streets is even more impoverished.

In the Gurgaon colony where I live, this is how the morning breaks as I go for a run. A whole slum troops in. First, scores of security guards, almost all of them migrants from poor north Indian states. Then dozens of dog-walkers arrive, almost all male and chiefly Bengali speaking. Most of them seem to despise dogs. They often drag the animals, talking to other dog-walker friends, or in the trance of their phones, or flirting with rare female dog-walkers, usually from the North East. Then, part-time maids come on their cycles, to be harassed by the guards who flirt by making life difficult for them. Drivers come in next, a group that appears the most self-assured for some mysterious reason. Most have very little work, and they linger about playing cards with other drivers, or stand on roads and peer into homes. Meanwhile, the colony invests in watering parks and creating flower beds and other such things in a futile attempt to elevate the aesthetics of the place.

When I return from my run, I find a poor person squatting on the floor, mopping it. It resembles an exercise some people attempt in the park. To save myself from this sight, I have offered a “long-handle" mop. I used to offer it to every new maid, until I gave up because they prefer the old way. In the kitchen, another poor person is doing something, or on the phone. I go about muttering that the only thing that happens in this house is cleaning or cooking. I feel I am living with two poor cousins. One consolation is that we don’t have a permanent driver. Or that would be the third poor person whose life is filled with dying brothers and children, or debt, and other real or made-up tragedies.

A strange nature of India’s affluent is that even as they worry about their support staff bringing down the aesthetics of their habitats, they do not do much to help them look any better. So we often see in malls and airports the Indian family trailed by a melancholic maid in shabby clothes. It would not cost much to groom them, but somehow we do not do that.

The typical Indian house-help looks far more impoverished than, say, the Filipina maid who is a familiar sight in places like Dubai and Singapore. Recently, I came to know of a non-resident Indian couple who landed in Delhi with their Filipina maid. The whole extended family was abuzz with descriptions of the “very sexy" maid, who “looked" more affluent than the people she was serving. It appears that India’s support staff are chosen by a process of Darwinian selection to ensure they do not threaten their masters, who then worry about the egalitariamaiden property of light.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, novelist, and the creator of the Netflix series, ‘Decoupled’

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Published: 25 Jun 2023, 11:45 PM IST
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