30 June 2017 09:23:58 IST

Pop goes the class bubble

Our do-nothing-yourself culture hinges on services of those we do not treat as humans

Last Friday, in Kolkata, a woman opened her front door to find the man who had delivered her Swiggy order the previous evening, standing outside. He said he needed a copy of the bill and, shortly after, asked for a glass of water. When the woman turned around after filling a glass in her kitchen, the man was standing behind her, knife in hand. He asked her to hand over her jewellery and other valuables. This account, which quickly went to all parts of the world through social media, challenged Swiggy and asked what kind of people the food home delivery service employed. Swiggy had, the woman says, a government-issued identification card for the delivery boy, but little else.

As I write this on Sunday morning, the local papers carried a story about a young professional who lived in a Noida highrise, within a gated community, who turned around in her bedroom and found the building watchman standing there, waiting to sexually assault her. The guard had been vetted by the building society, and nothing had turned up.

These are but two stories that found their way to me; there are, I’m certain, scores of such incidents taking place across the country every day. In all of this, the first, and the most standard reaction is of shock. With every rise on the development curve, middle-class Indians hope to leave a little bit of India behind. And here we are, encountering India in our kitchens and bedrooms, bearing knives and rods. That seven-figure salary was supposed to buy us an air-conditioned bubble, but that’s not working out well. The more we use our money to rid ourselves of the tiresome tasks of everyday living, the more we have to deal with sweaty, poorly-vetted strangers at the door.

Class and caste difference are, of course, endemic to India. Yet, never before in our history have so many people managed to employ so many others in their service. Predictably, we are unsure about the exact terms of that engagement. An Indian upbringing instinctively teaches us to negotiate for everything. And so we do, browbeating the maid to take ₹1,000 less in her salary, offering the driver an overtime and then arguing about the calculation of it. And then we go shopping, and hey! everything’s on sale, and we don’t even realise when the bill gets to ₹15,000. The maid sees this. She knows enough mathematics to calculate how many months’ salary that is. But we carry on — consumption is our entitlement, social parity is not our problem. Until, one day, we turn around and find two decades of resentment standing in our kitchen, bearing a knife that is not intended to be used for dicing potatoes. “Shocking”, we’ll all say when we hear that account.

For a while, a couple of years ago, with the intention of writing a book, I researched stories of housemaids in India. The accounts of employers — people like us — that I heard were horrific. No holidays, no food, no increments, no healthcare and, more often than you’d think, no pay even. In an ad that was running on television those days, Amitabh Bachchan scolded his help for buying the wrong brand of bulb, and said, “Please stop this habit of thinking”. Several helps I spoke to referred to this ad. “It’s bad for you when we think,” one said, “because in your hearts you know that you haven’t done anything to deserve happy thoughts from us.”

In this uneasy, mutually suspicious cohabitation lies the real future of the country’s social fabric. There is a whole economy that has sprung up to quell the fears of the ‘other’. Coincidentally, the cover page of the local city supplement in the paper today was a full-page ad for a security service. Ten words took up the entire space — ‘You entrust your home to your household staff. Should you?’ it asked. It was hard to count in how many ways it insulted the wisdom of its potential customers and their employees.

Smart, online storefronts offer fully vetted staff for all kinds of households needs — plumbers, electricians, massage therapists, organic yoghurt deliverers. As in the case of Swiggy mentioned at the beginning, what real vetting is possible? Who can endorse that despite being treated like a non-person, not fed, not tipped, not paid, this staff member will hold no grudge against his employer or customer? In a mostly do-it-yourself culture like the West, the chances of jostling together of the classes within the intimate space of home is minimal. Ours is a do-nothing-ourselves culture, and, yet, we don’t even trouble ourselves to make our staff feel human. Torn between building higher walls to keep the “other” outside and then opening the gates so that they can come and scrub the filth we generate is an exercise steeped in both denial and pointlessness. Middle- and upper-class Indians have only one choice — take the effort at minimising income inequality or lock themselves up and do the dishes.

(The article first appeared in The Hindu BusinessLine's BLInk.)