Review – Lesser lives- Stories of Domestic Servants in India

If you have lived in a relatively upscale apartment in any big city in India in the last 2 years, chances are that you were privy to heated debates on whatsapp groups, on the entry of house-help during Covid times. The whole episode and the continuing discussions provided a window into how the domestic workers community is viewed.

At such a time, comes Nitin Sinha and Prabhat Kumar’s Lesser Lives- Stories of domestic servants in India-which is a translated anthology of short stories by celebrated Hindi and Urdu authors such as Premchand, Mahadevi Varma and Manto among others. These 11 stories set in the Hindi heartland brings to the fore the many paradoxes of domestic servants and the Indian household, chief of them being – the ubiquity yet invisibility of domestic servants. You could read them as innocuous short stories that give a slice of life of tier 2 India, but scratch the surface and what you will see a whole range of relationships but mostly the relationship between the employer and employee that can best be described as “complicated”. While the stories themselves are great works exploring a range of emotions what makes the book particularly interesting is the introduction to the topic of Domestic Workers that the authors provide. The powerful preface that introduces the body of work from the field of sociology with workers rights, definition of work place and its challenges in law sets the tone for the rest of the book.

While academic work can bring the much needed rigour to any issue, fictionalised accounts provide a frame for a layperson to understand the issue at hand in a more accessible manner. The book is a delightful compendium of stories that present various facets of this complicated relationship – ranging from dignity and care to doubt and derision, in layperson’s terms. The rough edges on account of translation and the Hindi adages interspersed across the stories helps the book retain its rustic and original flavour adding to the reading experience . Sample this – Aaj Na van Devi nahi, na van kadaah raha. or Ab pachtaye hot kya jab chidiya chug gayi khet !

The book begins with stories from Hindi literature’s stalwart storywriter Premchand’s “Maidservant’ and lays out the societal norm- that the job of the domestic servant exists because, among other things, domestic work is out of bounds for men in our society. The story delves into the minds of the employers where the. narrator of the story is the man of the house and the decision to hire help is solely the man’s thereby setting the pecking order in the household .The author uses a show-don’t tell approach to tell you about the society and the position of the woman. The constant strife between the woman and the many servants employed creates a turf war leading to much discord in the family.

In the story titled Whip of fortune, the author brings to fore the conflict in the minds of the servant when he sees so much comfort but is unable to partake of it. The servant. transgresses the personal boundary and sits on the bed of the employer. The physical abuse he is meted out and his subsequent running away and the change in his fortunes from there forms the crux of the story. While the storyline by itself felt a bit far fetched, a closer reading will make the reader question pre conceived notions.

While most white collared jobs are founded on the basis of trust, it is mostly the opposite for a domestic servant’s which begins from a place of doubt and suspicion. This fact is highlighted in Ramkrishna Benipuri’s – He was a thief – a sad tale where although the employer seems to trust his servant, he eventually succumbs to societal norms . Similarly the tale of Bahadur is one which throws light on the delicate boundary they are expected to tread and the abuse, and suspicion they are subjected to.

Ratnaprabha is a story that one needs to read a second time to get the message. On the surface it appeared to be an incoherent tale with an absurd story line. But peeling the layers, one can see themes of defiance on the part of the domestic servant and the need for control over morality, expectation of surrender of agency, subservience, validation of virtue from the servant on part of the employer. The story also drives home the point that benevolence cannot be basis of policy.

Mahadevi Varma’s Rama,changes the mood of the book from a despondent one to a warm and fuzzy one. The author brings to fore the care giving responsibilities that domestic helps take over. The narrator on a trip down memory lane recalls with fondness the love and care she was showered on by Rama. The many tales she narrates from her childhood, of her being lost in the village fair or him extricating her from the drudgery of childhood lessons in Urdu or him nursing her back to health when she was sick makes it a very heartwarming story. It also takes the reader back on the preface note on the bond of kinship ties with words like “kaka” and “kaki’ and the resultant manipulative possibilities that make the relationship structurally unequal.

The stories of Sabia, Mangar, Blouse and On the Boil give a peek into the inner personas of these fighters. The first two talk about the grit, self esteem, ability to negotiate and resolve to live, while the later two that delve into the desires and repercussions of expression. make for interesting reading. The author summarises for Sabia -“despite receiving embers for herself, her canopy of affection was still capable of bestowing a tranquil shadow upon others”.

The book ends with Dajyu by Shekhar Joshi – a story set away from the domestic setting that tells a tale of kinship destroyed by class pride

Abuse, doubt, paternalism and control with some doses of kinship are dominant strands that define the relationship of domestic servants with their employers in all these stories that were set in1960s India. It is 2021 and little seems to have changed. As the authors say “Literature is a cultural document that reflects social realities”. While the vocabulary has moved from domestic servant to domestic help- the work they do is much more than just “help” and the movement to accord them status of workers has only just begun. This book plays an important role towards holding a mirror to us and is a must read to move the needle on that conversation

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