Ordinary people are the people who serve us. Our cooks, gardeners, handymen, cleaners, chauffeurs, plumbers, home aides, nannies who turn up at dawn to do our chores and disappear at dusk to rest in a princely hovel in a royal slum. Sometimes they are served a repast in their place of work, which they consume solely, silently huddled in some corner or they slink to a street vendor to buy the cheapest meal available. We call them when we need them; otherwise they are practically invisible, nearly indistinguishable from the pantry wall or garage corner.
At last comes a monstrous, unreasonable pandemic, if not to make these hapless creatures fully visible, at least to make us sense their absence by the lack of their service. Our commodes are not sparkling clean; ours cars don’t take us, at the merest bidding, to the consoling whisky at our dearest club; warm chapatis don’t greet us at any hour of the day or night at our peremptory wish-as-command. It is nothing if not annoying to find that chores that we have long shunted to lower beings have to be undertaken by us, if only to protect us from their dirty, potentially infectious fingers. We have to pour gasoline in our cars and drive them ourselves and we have to cook daybreak to dusk, though less opulent meals.
I understand this well, for I grew up in India and cannot recall a day without encountering one from a long procession of domestic employees, who were brazenly called servants. There was Keshab the soft-spoken gardener from Odissa (working ironically in our house on a street named after Keshab Sen), Aziz the tall cook with a salt-and-pepper goatee, Bijan the tall gofer who dubbed anyone who did not speak his language a ‘foreigner,’ Molina who came to help mother when she took a job and cooked bizarre and horrid meals, Abdul the maintenance man who became very fond of my younger brother and turned into a male nanny, but two endure most in my memory.
Banamali worked for me when I was a young executive and lived in a large airy split-level bungalow. I had little interest in household affairs and Banamali took full charge. He was a slim, clean-shaven, articulate, good-looking man and promptly became the hero of all the maidservants of the neighboring houses. Their employers complained to me and were irritated when I responded that Banamali never advised me about my life and it would be invidious of me to advise him about his. His charm was unquestionable. My girlfriends were invariably enamored of him and one, a pretty, long-haired actress, when asked by a colleague whether she had any serious intent about me, went to the length of saying that she would rather consider Banamali as a groom. Banamali proved his worth in managerial skills; he later took a good job as a kitchen supervisor with a large company. Of his amatory skills, I failed to gather further details.
I did not feel comfortable the way most employers treated their domestic employees. I do not feel comfortable now. For less well-heeled middle-class people, it may not be easy provide many comforts to their employees. But human dignity, which any person would be entitled to expect of another, should not be that difficult to extend. The current code of conduct seems unfortunately to be a holdover from an earlier medieval era, which is a dispensable relic in our time. When a society declares a lock-down at a few hours’ notice, without a moment’s thought about thousands of day laborers who live hand-to-mouth, it reflects a brutal thoughtlessness impermissible in a caring land. It reflects a broad mindset of taking ordinary people for granted, as beasts of burden who will silently hew wood and draw water as necessary, but who can be sacrificed at a moment’s notice without compunction.
But the current long-lasting crisis has brought home the lesson that such inhumanity exacts a price too. The relationship of trust between the server and the served has eroded in many homes and quite severed in others. It is a loss unlikely to be quickly recovered.