Last week, I woke up to another one of those advertisements with a socially conscious heart. This was from a website whose beautiful clothes and jewellery I love, all the more for their quality of carrying traditional weaves and styles forward into contemporary life.
The video asked you to take a Selfie with Didi after buying her something nice from the website. No, not your sister. Didi is the word more popularly used for domestic staff, as once bai was. The middle-class woman who employed this 'didi' was presented as single, independent, broad-minded. Her boyfriend stayed over one night a week and left his shirt behind to be laundered and Didi discussed it casually, without moral judgments. Implicit was a sisterhood of working women who understood each other despite their very different backgrounds.
The video wanted to convey that the forward thinking new woman did not treat her domestic staff with the same condescension and caste-inflected separation of utensils and food. Rather, she bought her something from the same portal that she might shop for herself in. It acknowledged the important place that this relationship with domestic staff holds in the life of the working woman, especially the single one — where mutual comfort, a pleasant relationship of some warmth and reliability become part of the equation. There is some truth in all these things, these changes.
But, the deeper truth is that a disingenuous story of sameness carries forward another tradition — of saying family domestic staff and retainers are "like family." This family matter has so many unspoken limits we never discuss. The phraseology of familial relationships obscures the fact that this is supposed to be a professional relationship but is carried forward on feudal equations. Tradition and modernity mix rather unevenly to create perhaps better, more respectful, even collegial and warm, social relations but not really dispassionately fair economic and professional arrangements. Rather than accept this anomaly, we pretend we are 'good' people in behaviour, or in giving gifts, without strongly carrying forward this goodness to structural changes in salary and benefits, we ourselves would demand as working people.
This structural, feudal truth was thrown into painful visibility this past week in a Noida housing complex called Mahagun Moderne — a name that confirms how irony takes permanent residence in development's sudden suburbs. A young woman disappeared for two days, after a dispute over money with her employers, which caused her husband to file a complaint. It is alleged that they locked her up without food or water. On being rescued, she vomited all the way to the hospital. The incident led to a protest at the gates by domestic workers in the area.
What do you think happened next? These workers were branded illegal immigrants — Bangladeshis. Police picked up a whole lot of them without explanation.
No action has been taken against the accused employers, however. When you are part of the larger family of class and caste relationships, to be cruel and unjust with impunity, may still get you treated with care. Perhaps, instead of taking Selfies with 'Didis' one should take a Selfie with one's hidden self, and consider what sort of makeover is needed. This genuine goodness, this hard work of social change, cannot be ordered online.
Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at www.parodevipictures.com
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