India's peasants revolt

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 September, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 September, 2008, 12:00am

A driver consumed with hatred for his stingy master who treats him like a cockroach, makes fun of how he speaks, dresses and smells and forces him to double as cook and cleaner on quiet days, is not a character usually found in Indian films or novels.

Millions of maids, drivers and servants slave for rich Indians every day without anyone knowing what they think about their dehumanised lives or their bosses.

But now a new film and prize-winning novel have brutally laid bare what the poor feel about the rich but never dare say out loud.

Raja Menon's film Barah Aana (Short-Changed) and Aravind Adiga's novel The White Tiger are searing indictments of how affluent Indians behave towards their domestic staff.

They offer a provocative insight into how the 'have-nots' perceive the new India - a fast-changing and rich society where wealth is flaunted and where there is no place for them.

Adiga shows a wealthy couple setting up Balram, their illiterate driver from an impoverished village, to take the rap for a crime the wife commits. Drunk after a night out, she grabs the wheel from the driver and insists on driving.

When she kills a beggar child who runs across the road, the family compel Balram to sign a confession saying that he was behind the wheel.

At other times, he drives his master around Delhi with bags stuffed with millions of rupees to give as bribes to ministers but lashes out at Balram when he loses a five rupee coin in the car.

A wide-eyed Balram sees the immense wealth and opportunity in the city - the malls, restaurants and hotels - and knows that he can never have access to any of it. Even walking into a mall requires courage.

'What is astonishing, given the mad disparities of wealth, is the phenomenally low level of crime by servants. They have intimate access to their employers' wealth and yet usually remain honest and loyal,' said Adiga, whose novel is on the long list for this year's Man Booker prize.

'But we are seeing the beginning of a change. They are no longer prepared to accept their fate. They can see other options.'

Servants usually endure cruelty and indignities. Having cooked, cleaned, mopped, polished, washed, baked, dusted and ironed all day, seven days a week for a monthly salary of 2,500 rupees (HK$432), if a maid asks for a day off, the reaction is usually outrage.

Daily gestures by employers reveal the belief that servants are subhuman. At meal times, the memsahib doles out the food on to their plates lest they eat too much. Cupboards containing 'expensive' items such as cardamoms or almonds are kept locked lest cooks help themselves.

If they are lucky enough to be given a room, domestic servants will often find it is a windowless cell that is so small that they have to curl up in a foetal position to lie down.

But millions are not even given this 'luxury' by their employers who may have five bedrooms in their home but make the servant sleep in a corner on the floor.

Menon and Adiga are exploring the underbelly of India's soaring new prosperity.

Until now, novels in English have generally portrayed the well off or focused on exotica - all swishing silk saris and aromatic spices, and the same can be said for television shows and Bollywood movies.

'You haven't really had films depicting the world from a servant's point of view. Even if you have a driver as a main character, he turns out later to be a prince,' said film critic Parsa Venkateshwar Rao.

Departing from tradition, Menon's film takes a brutal look at how the poor in Mumbai, a teeming metropolis full of extremes, cope with their everyday problems.

When Yadav tries to borrow money - the equivalent of what a family would spend on a pizza - from the tenants in the building where he works, they brush him off without a thought for the fact that he needs it for his son's medical treatment.

'Why is it that people can only feel their own pain?' he laments to his friends.

Menon, who plans to release his film abroad, fears that foreigners will not believe the callousness he portrays in Barah Aana.

'Some employers don't even call drivers by their name. They'll just summon him with 'Driver!'' But I'm seeing small reactions to these indignities. People want to be treated as human,' said Menon.

Little boys who work in homes or in shops, a long way away from their impoverished families in rural India, are usually called by the generic name chothu (little one) or munna (boy). Their employers cannot even be bothered to ask for, and then remember, their actual names.

A similar indifference to the poor displayed on the pages of the Indian edition of Vogue caused some angry comments recently.

A photo shoot in Rajasthan showed a poor old couple outside a mud hut with the elderly turbaned man holding a Burberry umbrella and his smiling wife sporting an Etro handbag.

In a country where over 500 million people (around half the population) live on US$1.25 a day, this juxtaposition of poverty and wealth aroused horror in liberal circles for being in bad taste.

'Putting expensive necklaces around the poor women is like spitting in the face of the poor. Some Indians now live in bubbles, celebrating their wealth and totally de-sensitised to the poor,' said Kanika Gahlaut, a Mail on Sunday columnist.

Even more offensive to Gahlaut was the fact that the villagers were not even named although the goods were identified by name and price.

'India has always had extremes of poverty and wealth but there wasn't this insensitivity earlier. The gap has widened so much that the new rich don't have the slightest sympathy or empathy for the poor,' said Gahlaut.

The poor always knew the rich were rich but now they can see it at every street corner.

Earlier, the maharajas kept their wealth inside their palaces and rich businessmen used to go abroad to shop for their baubles and toys.

Moreover, there was a residual sense of responsibility towards the domestic staff in an affluent family.

'There used to be a bond of loyalty to servants. You would pay for their treatment if they fell ill, educate their children and pay the wedding costs too when they grew up. Now, they're thrown out for the slightest misdemeanour,' said Bombay painter Aditi Ghosh.

Not every well off Indian family throws out a servant if they are diagnosed with tuberculosis and tells them to pay for their own treatment.

Some are gentle and kind employers. In an unusual case of a maid writing a book about her life, A Life Less Ordinary, Baby Halder, 32, recently described the cruelty she suffered in various homes before she arrived at the house of a sweet, mild, big-hearted retired professor of anthropology in Gurgaon outside Delhi.

Professor Prabodh Kumar noticed Halder dusting the bookshelves with excessive care one day and saw her leafing through the books.

He encouraged her to read and then one day suggested that Halder write a book about her own life.

'He treated me like his family. One day when he was reading the newspapers and I poured his tea, he asked me to sit down and read the papers too. It knocked me sideways. No one does this with a maid,' said Halder, who continues to work for him.

Menon said: 'They're doing a job, just as we do our jobs.

'All we have to do is treat the people who work for us with respect and dignity. If we do that, there is no ugliness.'