"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, November 12, 2020

The Cleaning Lady–The Days Of The British Raj Have Never Left

People are often surprised that Americans living in India not long after Independence had a houseful of servants – a cook,  bearer, sweeper,  laundryman,  gardener,  watchman, nanny, and chauffeur.  That was for the families of the British Raj, not the children of farmers, factory workers, and tradesmen; and yet as much as new arrivals to India demurred and insisted that they could to without help, they were quickly persuaded otherwise.  Hiring a household staff, they were told, was only right and fair given the poverty of India, its high unemployment, and the demographics of large families.  Regardless of disposition, upbringing, preference, and background, every foreigner in India had servants.  At first they felt uncomfortable, a bit ill at ease and unsure how to deal with them.  Were they employees, members of the family, incidental workers?  It didn’t take long for expatriates to not only get used to servants and to rely on them, but to treat them as their British forbears had – with discipline, authority, and dismissiveness.

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Of course the servants themselves, young when they were in service to British civil servants, had been trained in the tradition of Empire.  The sahibs of the Raj were more than just employers.  They were masters.  There was too little time between the Old Guard and the New for the ideal of dutiful, respectful service, pukka uniforms with silver buttons, and a proper demeanor to adjust to the new class of improper, disheveled, casual, and socially clueless American boys.  And so it was that these young, romantic Americans quickly got used to a servants’ household.  Never having to cook, clean, or take out the trash. Servants to run to the post office, the train station, and the bazaar.  Servants to tidy up, polish, and arrange. 

John Holden had joined Children, Inc.(CI)  as a way of seeing the world just as his missionary parents had done a generation before.  The elder Holdens had gone to China in its pre-revolutionary days not to preach the gospel nor to care for the poor – although that was in their job description, but to experience the most foreign place on earth.  And so it was for their son who also who had no particular commitment to social justice or economic progress, but for romance, adventure, and risk.   CI and other private, voluntary organizations were the modern equivalents of the Presbyterian Church, organized by statute to do good, but in fact great, fabulous, exotic playgrounds.

From the perspective of his rooftop apartment on Peddar Road, John could see the entire city of Bombay. To the east, the shoreline of the Arabian Sea curved around from Breach Candy, along Chowpatty Beach to Nariman Point where the first new, modern buildings were being built. To the west was Bombay Harbor where both Arabian dhows and commercial freighters were anchored and where power launches left to take visitors to the offshore islands and the Elephanta caves. The Towers of Silence, the burial grounds where Parsi dead were taken to be consumed by vultures, were in a green, lush enclave in the Malabar Hills nearby, and to the north I could see the endless suburbs of Bandra and Deonagar, and finally the outline of the ghats that rose to the Deccan Plateau.

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From the perspective of the street, Bombay, despite its sweep of beaches, palm trees, and skyscrapers, was a city of dung and horse-sweat, diesel fumes, goats, curry, rotting garbage, and human shit; rickshaw bells, scooters, street peddlers and hawkers, banging pots; cheap sari cloth, and garish movie posters. it was more than John expected, and more than he had ever hoped for.

He  smoked dope with Goan travelers and wandered through the Cages, the red-light district where prostitutes, painted like marionettes and dressed like Degas dancers, solicited traffic behind the wooden bars of  electric-blue and -green salons. Standing by the Gateway of India on the day of his arrival in India, looking out over the Qatari dhows anchored in the harbor and the setting sun on the Arabian Sea beyond, surrounded by holy men, hawkers, and silk-saried women, smelling sweet incense and jasmine, and eating rose-flavored sweets and bhel-puri, he knew he  had made the right decision. Within a few months, he was convinced: he had a penthouse apartment overlooking the city, a spacious office which opened out onto the sea, and a Gujarati girlfriend.

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A car and driver were at his disposal; membership to the Breach Candy Club, an elegant seaside enclave was easy to arrange; air travel to the Himalayas and the valleys of Kashmir, to Khajuraho, and the beaches of Goa and Kerala was cheap and uncrowded. Every night there were concerts of classical Indian music, and recitals by the masters of the sitar, sarod, veena, and tabla were commonplace. The bazaars, markets, temples, ashrams, rikshas, Victorian rail stations, cricket fields, and elegant Parsi mansions of Bombay were right outside his door.

‘LOCAL BOY DOES GOOD’ said the caption under his picture in his local paper about his imminent departure for India and the important work he was to undertake. As he looked out across the Arabian Sea from the Gateway of India  amidst the paan-sellers, jasmine-wallahs, beggars, and holy men, he  considered his good fortune and said to himself: ‘If this is doing good, I’ll take it.’

His work soon took him to Delhi, a furnished house in one of the capital’s oldest, most traditional, and quiet neighborhoods; a spacious office overlooking the Lodhi gardens, a staff of ten, and a car.  Shortly after he moved in, prospective servants showed up at his door, each with damp, withered letters of recommendation.  He hired the best of the lot, and soon his household was as it should be for any foreigner – neat, clean, orderly, trimmed, and impressively landscaped.  

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It never took long for servants to understand that pilfering and totin’ privileges in the households of these arrivistes would be of a different order than those of the British.  Americans could easily be persuaded that their trusted, obedient, and dutiful staff might miss a dirty corner or cobweb or overcook the meat, but would never steal.  Since servants for Americans would always be part employee but greater part ad hoc family members, they could not be accusatory or overbearing.  As a result employment in an American household was the most desired and competition among servants was great.

Europeans were far more British in attitude and approach than Americans.  Europeans had grown up in rigidly-structured class-organized societies where everyone knew one’s place.  While lording over those a step below was not the rule, it was certainly not the exception; so when Europeans came to India, they put up with far less than the naively democratic Americans.

Living with servants soon became a necessary and unobtrusive part of life for all foreigners.  It wasn’t long before the household staff became unnoticed, important but incidental, hired and fired at will, criticized and dunned.  Having servants was no longer something for the British upper classes, Downton Abbey, and Upstairs, Downstairs.  It was a most natural part of life.  Anyone who could be waited on should be waited on.  There was no shame in it, and in fact it was simply a part of the natural order of things.  Household staff were part and parcel of every wealthy home in ancient Greece and Rome.

The upper middle class families in Upper Northwest Washington DC have finally discarded the progressive notions of the Sixties.  Communes, communal living, and the simple life shed of things are things of the past. The law, medicine, Wall Street, and corporate America have replaced them.  While these DC families have no permanent staff of servants, they have people to do the cleaning and laundry, the gardening, and the care of children.  They have learned easily and well that if one has the money to have other people do the menial chores of life, by all means, hire them.  John Holden had a sweeper to clean the bathrooms, a bearer to dust, clean, make the beds, and tidy up; a gardener to tend to his roses and gladiolas, and someone to wash, iron, and fold his clothes.  Now he has the same complement of domestic help, the only difference being that he doesn’t call them servants.

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He and his wife had a live-in nanny when their children were little, and she was a real servant.  She took care of the children, cooked dinner, and picked up after everyone.  She was not just an employee, not really a servant, but loved enough by his children to be a Mammy. 

What had changed since the days of the British Raj or Victorian upper class England? Appearances only, it seems.  A democratic overlay over class distinctions.  A fairer wage, consequential treatment, and reasonableness.  Still the bottom serves the top, both know their place; and if there is a greater civility in the relationship, it has nothing to do with a new classlessness or democratic populism.  It is thanks to labor laws.

So, until one falls to  the lowest tiersof American society, one is entitled to at least one servant.

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