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Affluent India’s Bittersweet Love-Hate Relationship With Its Servants

Affluent India’s Bittersweet Love-Hate Relationship With Its Servants

We have gone from class to crass in a very short time.

At seventeen, returning home hungry as a horse after three hours of tennis, the only person who mattered was Sami behen (sister), our transvestite cook who had been with the family even before I was born. Two slices of hot, gooey French toast waited in the kitchen and it didn’t matter how short-tempered Sami was. We loved the food, his long shapeless skirts, orange hair and wild, cross-dressing friends who sang and danced at family weddings. He was like an exotic uncle or aunt and my parents cared for him as they did for any of us. As they did for short and comedic Salimullah, who brought up my mother and later me, who washed my ass, dressed me and polished my shoes and slapped me hard one day for using the Hindi “F” word. Salimullah, who my mother gave ten rupees bonus every Friday so he dressed in crisp white trousers and striped shirt to see the same Bollywood film for five years. And who, as he lay dying in our nursing home, asked for one more glass of tea before he let go of his innocent life. Or sweet old Jabbar, my grandfather’s valet who died in my mother’s arms. Or Prem Nath, the cross-eyed gardener my father reluctantly promoted to mason after making us promise he wouldn’t be allowed to lay a single crooked brick on his grave. Father died and Prem Nath made the grave; we couldn’t stop him. He is still in our charge, now seventy-five years old, drunk and mumbling in our garden every night, blind as a bat, terrorized by his wife in retirement. We couldn’t get rid of him even if we wanted to - our lives are bound together.

Prem Nath, the gardener, a family memberPrem Nath, the gardener, a family member

They were all part of the kingdom of childhood, the family and its servants, in an asymmetrical but symbiotic relationship that mostly functioned peaceably. I loved Sami so much I cried in Dubai when I heard he died in his village, too proud even in sickness to ask for more than the pension my mother sent every month. Whether it be flying kites or conspiring with us against our parents in mischievous escapades, our servants gave us some of the best memories of growing up. They were indispensable and we loved and feared them. Their children were our playmates, and even now when we meet, several lifetimes and planets later, we still laugh and hug.

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But like many other aspects of the new India, the unequal but sacred relationship families traditionally had with their help has taken on an unhealthy and toxic dimension. The massive economic disparity and contrast in the lives of the rich and poor cause humiliation for millions every day. Soul-numbing poverty lives side by side with unimaginable wealth, often in the same house, in a tight claustrophobic embrace. Every time the driver fills a tank of petrol in the gleaming new Honda City he is reminded it is worth more than his monthly salary. The cleaning lady swallows her pride to take home your daughter’s cast-off dresses for her own little girl who may never go to school and will soon start cleaning the toilets of some leering, corrupt politician. Our man Friday sweats all day brushing our handmade velvet sofas, folding our silk pajamas and massaging our feet as we watch a cricket match on TV, sipping whisky and belching like a walrus. He then bicycled an hour in the dark to the outskirts of town to his own hovel, where the corrugated tin roof has been leaking throughout monsoon.

'The Help'. Image source:'The Help'. Image source:

In India, and any other country where the odds are stacked impossibly against the poor, the relationship between the wealthy and the oppressed simmers with resentment every day - a million loaded guns with loose triggers. It’s not just the disparity, it’s also the cruel ways in which the poor are exploited and manipulated with daily reminders on TV and films of the joke that is being played on them. Throbbing inside every maid, driver, sweeper or ayah, is the constant sorrow of inequality, the desperate yearning to bridge that scathing difference between us and them. With every sweep of the broom, every toilet cleaned and abuse taken, they are trying to chip away at that burden of unfairness. The new India may be richer, more “modern” and “Western” but its secular values, humanity and traditions are corroding, and its treatment of women, minorities, the “lower castes”, and specially the poor, has plummeted from bad to horrendous. In the recent demonetization disaster it was the poor who suffered most. We have gone from class to crass in a very short time.

There are no codes of conduct any more, no sacred pacts and little trust. Few lovable Sami’s exist, or matriarchs like my mother to treat them compassionately. Yet, ironically, most of the wealthy are impotent without the help. Without someone to clean our shit and polish our cars, nurse our newborn as we attend kitty parties; cook our steaming hot chapattis and serve paneer kebabs to the guests, we are a little bit of nothing at all. Our status and sense of wellbeing is directly dependent on the help.

But the tide is slowly turning as the servant class realise this. And sometimes, the unfathomable loneliness and unspeakable indignities of being a servant in this new India are sweetly avenged when the sweeper takes a wild and extravagant shit in your high-tech Japanese commode, and your man Friday spits into your Blue Label on-the-rocks and the maid feeds your mother-in-law the wrong medication to hasten her journey to heaven (because the rich in India always go to heaven).
Small stones thrown at the unfeeling wall of injustice that one day will crumble.



Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are independent views solely of the author(s) expressed in their private capacity and do not in any way represent or reflect the views of

By Nusrat Durrani
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