When I read “The White Tiger” by Arvind Adiga, I found it to be a gripping read. After all, it painted the story of a young boy and his struggles from the rural countryside to the national capital of Delhi in a very dispassionate yet sincere manner. It used powerful tools to make its point regarding discrimination and marginalization that people face because of their identities. A certain subplot dealing with the usage of separate lifts for flat-owners and their domestic workers caught my attention.
It triggered my thoughts regarding the ‘otherization’ of domestic workers on an institutional level. Domestic workers form an integral part of the ecosystem of any upper-middle-class, domestic household.
Be it cooking, cleaning or babysitting, they play a crucial role in upholding the structural base on which the careers of better off, privileged individuals are built.
That the empowerment of some comes at the cost of others is largely ignored in mainstream scholarly discussions on feminism, a trend that is popularly known in the west as white feminism. A basic idea of social privilege would indicate how some groups and communities are relatively better placed than others, because of various factors.
Owing to the fact that women as a gender have been historically disadvantaged, several movements arose under the umbrella term of feminism, to demand equality in social, economic and political spheres. As a result, after decades of bargaining and negotiating, protests and debates, women were granted certain rights, that on paper, made them equal with their male counterparts.
That such legislations did not make much headway on the ground and didn’t trickle down to the lowest rungs wasn’t paid enough attention.
Concepts of higher education and corporate workplaces were romanticized and in turn, a significant chunk of feminist activism turned towards advocating higher education and negotiating conditions for white-collar jobs.
Whether it was important or not, is a matter best left to be discussed another day but for sure, it did take the much-needed attention off the empowerment of women belonging to marginalized communities. Coming from a culture of excellence, the women belonging to “upper castes” found it easier to occupy spaces in academia, governments and businesses.
Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique talks about the empowerment of housewives, about putting their creative energies to work instead of doing household tasks all day. However, she fails to address the vacuum that would be created in such a situation.
The most important question that would arise is who would be responsible for household tasks in that scenario.
Surely, the men would not do it because their privilege and dominance of power structures would help them get away. The onus would fall on women again; only this time, they would be the ones belonging to marginalised communities, people of colour and the so-called “lower castes” in India. Bell Hooks explores this angle in an articulate fashion in her book Feminist Theory: From Margin to the Centre. Women belonging to marginalized communities face the brunt doubly – on account of both their gender and caste/colour.
Domestic workers in India are not only underpaid but also made to work in inhumane conditions for long hours, without a break. There are no holidays on the weekends, salaries agreed on after hours of bargaining and the ever-looming threat of violence. Even after all of the collective tools of institutional oppression, popular media becomes galore with jokes about how domestic workers always try to evade work.
One popular argument forwarded, in an attempt to appropriate the labour of these workers, is that all professions are respectful and that it is not about the job itself as much as about the sincerity with which it is carried out. The fallacy in such a proposition is that these workers didn’t choose these jobs for themselves. They were forced to, out of the economic and social malaise and in some extreme cases, trafficking.
I remember that in a popular daily soap opera, a certain “humorous” episode dealt with the demands of the domestic workers that also included watching television for half an hour. The satire and ridicule with which the demand was met made me wonder if people thought domestic workers have no right to a source of entertainment or other forms of excursion that privileged individuals seem to take for granted.
Left with the powerful imagery of The White Tiger, I started glancing around for any such subtle signs in my vicinity that were marked with casteism and segregation.
Although I wasn’t able to mark out segregated lifts, I did notice something else. It is a common practice in households where domestic workers are employed to offer them refreshments at times and even clothes and goods, during certain festivals. That such goods, clothes and refreshments are second-hand and of inferior quality is almost always excluded from the discussion.
In fact, employers pride themselves on their supposed acts of philanthropy even when all they do is rid themselves of redundant materials or offer a basic courtesy. In the event of offering refreshments, the practice of using separate crockery is prevalent with explanations being offered about maintaining hygiene and cleanliness.
However, the same practice is never extended to guests who come from a similar or better off economic and social stratum. If anything, costlier and better crockery is used. That notions of hygiene only serve to mask the older and politically incorrect terminologies of purity and pollution is a conclusion any aware individual would draw.
The ongoing pandemic and the renewed emphasis on social distancing and hygiene has led many vested interests to amplify and justify their casteist practices. It is not that men belonging to marginalized communities do not bear the brunt of these practices but women have to fight a two-front battle of surviving sexism and casteism.
Living and working conditions of domestic workers need to be inquired into for a start. A robust framework guaranteeing economic and social security must be put in place and followed religiously to ensure that basic human rights of workers are protected and allegations of violence should be probed into and disposed of as quickly as possible.
Last but not least, sensitization at the grassroot level, especially among the households that employ domestic workers must be carried out, to instil in them, etiquettes regarding behavioural practices. Only then, we can claim to have started a march towards a meritocratic society.