‘You Don’t Want The Staff To Be Sticking To You’: How We Try To Justify Classist Behaviour

Posted by Abhishek Shah in Society
January 11, 2018

“The colonist’s sector is a sector built to last, all stone and steel. It’s a sector of lights and paved roads, where the trash cans constantly overflow with strange and wonderful garbage, undreamed-of leftovers… The colonized’s sector, or at least the “native” quarters, the shanty town … is a disreputable place inhabited by disreputable people. You are born anywhere, anyhow. You die anywhere, from anything. It’s a world with no space, people are piled one on top of the other …” — Frantz Fanon, “The Wretched of the Earth” (1963)

While Fanon was describing French ruled Algeria, his descriptions remain useful in understanding the spaces different kinds of people occupy in and around Rajul, my apartment complex in Malabar Hill, Mumbai. In my attempt to understand our practice of (not so) subtly segregating people into two lifts (largely based on wealth), I found wider naturalised cultural, economic, gendered and sexual layers that I would like to share.

“Jab car main bhi rahte hain driver ke saath … jo cook hai unke haath se banaye hua khanna bhi khate ho, fark kya hai? (When you’re with a driver in the car…you eat what your cook has made for you, so how does it matter?)” says Manoj Bhandari, a driver at Rajul. “Woh aapse baat bhi nahi kar sakte, ki aap humare baare mein aise kyu sochte ho? (They cannot even talk to you about what makes you feel like that?)” he adds, referring to the vast disparity in the wealth and culture that often prevents real communication between an employer and employee.

In my experience, conversations between the two are mostly limited to tasks assigned by employers, and questions like when the employee is going to take leave next and when they need to be paid. Power hierarchies are entrenched in India from the colonial Manichaen division of the civilised and cultured white Great British rulers and their barbaric and backward brown subjects to our caste-based essentialisms that have long determined property ownership and access to other basic rights, where today, a majority of Dalit citizens are pushed to work as rag-pickers and garbage workers.

Power hierarchies create and maintain our ability to make invisible and Other some kinds of humans. “It’s about Others who you don’t want to socialise with, whom you don’t want anybody else to socialise with, whom you want to keep distance from, who in a way will pollute you. And there is a fear around that. So you don’t want to be around them, ‘they are not like us’ that’s why you keep that distance,” says Dr. Nandita Shah, co-director of NGO Akshara.

“To be honest, I think it’s a pretty minor issue,” says flat-owner Sanket Shah. “The fact that they’re sleeping on the stairs, that’s much more insulting than using that lift or any other thing like that. Some people are sleeping in the open, down in the building.”

The two drivers I interviewed share this view; living spaces as well as fair wages, leave and compensation for overtime work are more important considerations in comparison to non-discriminatory access to the building. Yet Dinesh mentions, “When ‘lower-grade’ people use the same lift, when our poorness shows, we realise that this is what we are worth.”

Dinesh says that barriers prevent drivers from starting a union; drivers come from lower-class backgrounds and sustaining a livelihood is vital. The informal labor market also largely functions based on word-of-mouth referrals  — workers demanding rights might not be viewed as most desirable for employers, given a sizeable labor pool and minimal barriers to hire and fire. Moreover, flat-owners have maintained a collective governing body since the building was created, solidifying their already strong command over determining employment rules.

“Especially the ladies when you’re dressed a certain way, you don’t want the staff to be there in the same elevator… You don’t want the staff to be sticking to you,” says flat-owner Bhakti Shah. Three other flat-owners echo her justification for segregation, tacitly saying that (wealthy) women felt uncomfortable around working class men and that (wealthy) young girls were at risk of sexual harassment by working class men.

Domestic workers (except for nannies with children) on the other hand, are told to use the ‘working-class’ lift, rendering them acceptable victims of discomfort and potential sexual harassment by supposedly hyper-masculine men. “There is a notion that lower class men’s sexuality as though they are all out to get you, that is the perception and fear around it. Which is not necessarily the case, I mean sexual harassment can happen by anybody, but there is this fear around these men, that they are more likely to do it,” said Dr. Shah.

Historically and across different societies there’s a pattern of falsely labelling certain Others’ sexuality (Indian muslim menAfrican-Americans, and Arab men) as essentially excessive and aggressive to artfully justify imperial attitudes and actions. “Younger girls are at much bigger risk of sexual assault at the parties they go to, than in an elevator with an employee who’s far more afraid of any kind of, almost unparalleled unequal punishment for anything he may every do,” says Shimul Javeri Kadri, principal architect at SJK Architects.

Javeri Kadri adds that there is a need for lifts to be safe spaces for women and girls across all, while maintaining that an uncle and a male employee of the building are both equally likely to sexually harass. She and Dr. Shah suggest a need to educate men and boys across income about not harassing and assaulting women and girls.

Rajul’s lift segregation serves as a microcosm for Mumbai, where segregation along economic, religious and caste-based lines determines the spaces we occupy — who we interact with and those we can render invisible or Other; while keeping in mind that men work hard to dictate women and transgender citizens’ right to bodily integrity and dignity in all spaces and times.

We’re located in communal Nepeansea Road, an area that overtly discriminates — denying Muslim citizens in search for housing, and where flat-owners must pass as vegetarian Jain or Hindu. Non-slum property prices are some of the highest in the country, further filtering those who are able to own property in the area. We must find ways to proactively be critical of measures like discriminatory lifts and unjust living/working conditions that are visible and felt by us only if they negatively affect our existence in our attempt to treat all humans with dignity and respect.

Public spaces like Marine Drive and private spaces like Ramashray (a highly regarded accessibly priced south Indian restaurant), are glimpses where religious, economic and caste based markers fail to severely spatially stratify people and push us to come face-to-face with and, hopefully, question and understand difference.