Be Modern, Be 'Civil' to domestic servants
By M J Akbar
A hundred years ago, according to a recent book, domestic servants constituted Britain’s largest source of employment. That simple statistic reveals, better than anything else, the inequality of a class-driven society, and the partnership between wealth and power in Victorian and post-Victorian Britain. The Industrial Age was well under way, but had not achieved the critical mass that would broaden the working class and spawn the Labour Party. The British upper classes were not cruel to servants, although there were strict distinctions: in a grand house, servants were permitted to eat and drink as much as they wished, but could only live downstairs.
The meltdown of the ancient regime was evolutionary in Britain, rather than revolutionary, as in Russia, even though British democracy was a stained and evolving process, full of rotten boroughs and inbuilt inequity. Democracy needed a lot of latitude if as famous a prime minister as William Pitt – the Elder could be considered elected, when the total electorate in his constituency consisted of five voters. Women got the vote even later than the “lower classes”. It took two world wars, and the death of millions of poor in the service of an empire designed to fatten the rich, before the privileged system withered.
Nineteenth century America did not have servants, it had slaves; and slavery reinvented itself in many forms after its official abolition before it withered. The British attitude towards colour was far more sophisticated, and many nuances of racism could survive under a veneer of wit. Samuel Johnson, famously, had a devoted Jamaican servant, Francis Barber, as well as a pet cat. Barber was not allowed to carry the cat as it would be demeaning to both.
More to the point, today the word “servant” has disappeared from the popular lexicon of both America and Europe. If it survives it is only within the construct of a “civil servant” — who is definitely not a servant, and very often not particularly civil either. Of course, there is still a population that earns from service at homes in the West: the huge demand for “illegal” immigrants confirms this. But the terms of reference have changed in favour of the servants. Only a thin elite can afford full-time house servants, since their cost is high, and beyond the reach of the professional middle class.
There are, at least to my knowledge, no statistics available, but it would be a safe bet to claim that the largest source of employment in contemporary India is domestic servants. In that sense, we are where Britain was a century ago. There is a world of difference between the service economy and a servants’ economy; India claims the first and lives in the second. The domestic servant is the first rung of aspiration for more than half of India.
The tensions are palpable, particularly in urban India, which has neither the sense of neighbourhood nor a culture of sympathy. The servant is both the provider as well as the potential assailant, particularly if male, for he belongs to a world that is distant both geographically and psychologically. The young man cleans utensils only because he is a prisoner of necessity. The rewards are pitiful; the treatment pitiable. The threat of servant violence is the regular diet of the media; but cruelty towards servants is largely ignored, perhaps because journalists are part of the middle class and complicit.
Developed societies in the West created robotic machines, like the dishwasher, to fill the gap, even as they lifted the poor into an expanding middle class, loosely defined as a group with enough for food, clothing, shelter and basic education. The Indian attitude to washing machines is unique: we hire servants to use them. Those who cannot afford washing machines can still afford servants to wash clothes the older way. Some overlap is understandable in the transition phase, but the incremental rise in upward mobility is a flickering fact, not a sustained reality.
The tension of denial is evident on the visage of those servants who haven’t reconciled to their dull fate. It’s true that the majority of servants have no dispute with their economic destiny, since this maximum-effort, minimal-reward employment prevents starvation. But that, surely, is not a pleasant reality.
The good news about India is that plumbers and electricians are becoming more expensive. The rising cost of skills is proof of some transfer of wealth. A tongue-in-cheek view suggests that India will not become a modern economy as long as there are civil servants. Let me assert, tongue firmly in right place, that India will become a modern economy only when domestic service is treated as civil, and a service that deserves the salary available to the starting circle of government jobs.
Appeared in Times of India - March 07, 2010