Monday, 28 November, 2022
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Even in an empty Delhi metro coach, middle-class Indians make their maids sit on the floor

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With rising prosperity, more double-income couples and nuclear families, the need for domestic workers is increasing – and so is the class divide.

Our reporter Sanya Dhingra tweeted this brilliant, eye-opening picture on Saturday that tells us more than a thousand words on our class differences and the way we treat our domestic workers. Even in a fairly empty metro coach, a maid sits on the floor and not with her employer and her child. The tweet took no time going viral. It obviously struck a chord.

In no other urban Indian situation does class inequality show up as starkly as in employer-domestic worker. Sometimes it reflects in just “normal” settings like the one Sanya captured or residential buildings in big cities (including Gurgaon) have separate elevators earmarked for workers. I was moved to reflect on this the first time when a well-to-do Gurgaon couple was in October 2015 accused of repeatedly beating up their 14-year-old maid, a tribal from Jharkhand. She was, in fact, rescued from behind a cupboard where she was hiding, or was forcibly confined. She had bruises, cut-and-slash marks. She told TV channels she was beaten routinely, thrown against a wall and even cut with a knife. Perhaps the most chilling part: she said her employers beat her, and all they said was they “didn’t like” her.

This was a most extreme case of domestic worker abuse. But the business of the employer-domestic worker, or malik-naukar, relationship is problematic in India. With rising prosperity and more double-income couples and nuclear families, the need for domestic workers is increasing – and so is the class divide.

We Indians are among the most “servant”-dependent people in the world. From getting our dishes washed to our toilets cleaned, our children minded to our dogs walked, from being driven to work to having our lunch boxes opened and our clothes ironed, our need for domestic workers is total, at least 16×7, leaving out the sleeping hours. The term for these workers, even in the mainstream English press, is, simply, “domestics”.

As more and more people become prosperous and busy – or lazy –enough to employ domestic workers, more men and women from the poorest end of society walk into their lives and households. Cooks, drivers, security guards (who are essentially doormen), cleaners, house-keepers, valet and baby-sitters are still within the conventional parameters of our typical upper/upper-middle class existence. You want to know how one-sided this buyers’ market in semi-skilled employment is? Manish Sabharwal, who runs Teamlease, India’s largest third-party employer and arranger of low- and mid-skilled labour, makes a sobering point: “For the past five years our company has employed a new person every five minutes. And it has only employed about 5 per cent of all the people who apply to us.”

In a 2008 article (‘Exploring India’s prosperity through the eyes of the invisible men’) in The New York Times that stays in my mind, reporter-writer Anand Giridharadas had explored the same rising divide using a five-star hotel toilet as a telling metaphor. In these toilets, he said, people are divided into two categories. Those who have to use soap from the dispenser, and those who squeeze the dispenser for you, open and close the tap, hand you a towel, take it back in their gloved hands to bin it, wipe the tap and mutter thank-you as you walk out, tip or no tip.

Our vast reservoir of cheap manpower leads to other creative uses. On the corporate floors of some of our richest old companies, a peon follows you, either turning polished brass door-handles for you with gloved hands, or, if you turn them instead, wiping them clean again with a lint. Many upscale hotels now have personal butlers and valets, which can be flattering, but many Western travellers find the “privilege” intrusive.

The growing economy has only worsened attitudes. A couple with three small kids now employs three maids, one for each. These are dragged along to restaurants, kitty parties and flights when families travel on holidays. This dependence is serious but is made affordable by the creation, and wide acceptance, of a large, uncomplaining “below-stairs” class, a concept from Victorian Britain where your servants slept in the confined spaces under the staircases of your homes. Check out the coffin-sized sleeping slots that pass for “servant quarters” in our new apartment buildings.

This sense of entitlement was brought to us most strikingly by the Devyani Khobragade episode, which essentially implied that besides diplomatic immunity, every entitled Indian had a fundamental right to a cheap housemaid. Even an avowedly pro-poor and Left-of-centre UPA government ruined its relations with its most important ally; and the media rallied behind the diplomat, dismissing the maid as a foreign collaborator to bring India into disrepute and ungrateful that she had this job, never mind the minimum wages. When I raised these points then in a ‘National Interest’ (‘Our Indian Feudal Service’, 21 December 2013), it drew instant opprobrium from the foreign service. That story, as we know, has fully unravelled now.

In his 2008 article, Giridharadas drew on a Bollywood film on the lives of employers and their drivers (Barah Aana) to make his point. The more recent Talvar, directed by Meghna Gulzar and written by my friend Vishal Bhardwaj, is my exhibit. I have no view on the Aarushi-Hemraj case. I am only portraying the two sets, or classes, of human beings in that story. One, soft, genteel, loving, hard-working, with victim written all over them. The other, boisterous, drinking, ogling, sniggering, even Mogambo-khush-hua laughs, with “usual suspect” written all over them.

Most people, People Like Us, came back from the film shaken at the “injustice”, and appreciated it when the next day’s edition of The Times of India – whose owner produced the film – advised us to take our servants to watch this film, so you’d presume they can all feel guilty, and chastened. Even though the Talwars were acquitted, nobody cares to ask if that investigation, and the judicial process through 16 orders, including at the Supreme Court, was vitiated and manipulated, then how would three poor Nepali domestic workers have the power to do so rather than well-connected dentists?

Nobody noted that in the narco test, as shown in the film, the “doctor” is willing to pump more brain-frying chemical into the workers’ bodies than into the dentist couple. We sniggered joyously when a CBI officer asks a bumbling, lowly UP cop to unbuckle his trousers and have his haemorrhoids fixed with his “danda” (I’d like to see a CBI officer actually do that to a state cop, least of all in a UP run by Mayawati). The good CBI cop even thrashes a Nepali worker. We think it’s fine and the junior colleague who records this on his phone is a traitor, not a whistle-blower, as the case would surely have been if the dentists were beaten up.

Why blame breathless film critics for not noticing these when a film-maker as sensitive and aware as Vishal Bhardwaj has written the script? In this resurgent India, class is the new caste and inevitably one dovetails neatly into the other. We are shaken up only occasionally, and briefly, when a battered, tribal teenager from Jharkhand looks us in the eye from our closet. When a teenaged Nepali girl emerges with the story of an ISIS kind of enslavement and torture by a Saudi diplomat (also in Gurgaon). Or now, just this picture in the Delhi Metro.

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  1. I think it’s not true projection as it is probably few in thousand cases.
    this pic doesn’t prove that the lady who sit on the floor belongs to low caste or she’s a maid.
    the people who doesn’t get seats usually sit on the floor. I agree that castism’s still among Indians. but it’s not fair that you won’t let anyone sit beside you in the public transport or else.
    Maybe this lady feel more comfortable to sit on the floor.
    If anyone forced her to sit on the floor, than she have a ‘right to equality’ to claim it…

  2. Now that the family, who has been shamed by your publication, has put out its version of the event, it is incumbent upon you to write an apology, if you are half the journalist that you claim to be. Do you now wonder why today’s journalists are being called all sorts of unpleasant names? It is precisely because of this type of biased and cavalier journalism.

  3. Next article on TheHindu, “Delhi Metro: Full of stalkers and pedophiles, be careful!” with a detailed article on how this lady in Delhi Metro stares at traveling kids and tries to get private information from the kid’s nanny. She has an accomplice who helps her gossip, make stories and trap little kids for commercial purposes. Attached a photo of Ms Dhingra and her friend staring at the traveling family.

    Right of Free Speech vs Right to Privacy. You were requested to remove the photo by the person photographed, and you refused. I am surprised that Ms Dhingra and the paper has not been sued yet. I am sure that article had good intent but it could have easily been substantiated in a different way rather than using a photo without permission, rather continued use of the photo even after being clearly told not to use.

  4. This is very true when it comes to Indians…I remember till recently at my home maids prefer to enter our house through backdoor. I realized this is a great aspect of racism built into our culture. We personally had no problem in treating people better and we do that every day but somehow knowingly or unknowingly the ugly caste system prevailed in our culture still has its influence in our day to day activities…

  5. Would now please care to apologize to the lady for maligning her, for printing an article without facts and verification.

    As ever day goes by you are really leaving upto the Wheeler Dealer name which is coined for you

  6. Shame on your reporter Sanya Dhingra. Who even after knowing the context of the picture, used it to earn some brownie points for her own selfish reasons. If you don’t take action against this crass journalist and apologise to the AIIMS Doctor shown in this pic, then I will loose respect for you Mr. Shekhar gupta.

  7. An attempt at dividing the society further by the writer under instructions from his political masters. Such sensationalism based on possibly a rare occasion or possibly paid drama to generate this debate So that opposition today can come to power I’m 2019 who can only rule through divide & rule policy

  8. Mr. Shekhar Gupta you are a well known face to journalism. You will definately have evidence or proofs supporting your say while using the picture from the Delhi Metro in your esteemed article. When I heard the bytes of your honest and devoted reporter Sanya Dhingra with BBC Radio she told it is a very normal thing in Delhi Metro to sit on the floor but what caught her attention was that the kid was given a seat(which probably she didn’t like) and the maid was made to sit on the floor. Upon asking she was told that when they(the group i.e. the lady, her kid and the maid) boarded the metro it was very crowded and she likes sitting on the floor.
    So did she just assumed that the maid was debarred from sitting on the seat? Does she have any statement from the maid supporting this? How did your reporter come to know about the caste of both the ladies?
    A common Indian who can be the next target of any media person with their assumptions.

  9. Your reporter, Sanya Dhingra tweeted this “eye-opening” picture without even knowing or paying heed to reality and you (who many like me look upon as one of few journalists to listen to) put his picture with a bombarding statement that the whorl world is a big pool of dirt where class and discrimination is the only thing left. Hungry journos, did you even think once you’re citing a real world lady- the mother in question, a doctor at AIIMS. Her story is much more believable then yours.

  10. I had 2 maids over 10 years and they were my best friends as they minded my children with so much care when i go to work. I treated them as
    human beings with great respect. Im not so sure what kind of absurd society you’re writing about.

  11. The bigger problem is our jumping to conclusions!! How do we know the lady sitting on floor is a maid and is connected to the seated family in any way? Rural ladies prefer to sit in floor than a chair for their comfort

  12. Mr. Shekhar Gupta you are a well known face to journalism. You will definately have evidence or proofs supporting your say while using the picture from the Delhi Metro in your esteemed article. When I heard the bytes of your honest and devoted reporter Sanya Dhingra with BBC Radio she told it is a very normal thing in Delhi Metro to sit on the floor but what caught her attention was that the kid was given a seat(which probably she didn’t like) and the maid was made to sit on the floor. Upon asking she was told that when they(the group i.e. the lady, her kid and the maid) boarded the metro it was very crowded and she likes sitting on the floor.
    So did she just assumed that the maid was debarred from sitting on the seat? Does she have any statement from the maid supporting this? How did your reporter come to know about the caste of both the ladies?
    A common Indian who can be the next target of any media person with their assumptions.

    • I had been living in Delhi for the past 6 years. In my experience I can say that this is a very common view in Delhi metro where people easily sits on the metro floor, particularly when the metro is not much crowded and having no vacant seat. And here comes no notion of being middle-class or lower-class. It is a very common thing here and doesn’t make hot news. There might be some rare cases as the author has mentioned, but this can’t be a general notion. And yep, the world has changed a lot and nowadays the servants are even treated as family members.

  13. This is one in thousand case. There are hundreds of people who behave nicely with their help, but you would not write about that? There is no masala in that. I am not denying this is not an issue but there are 1000 case where you will not see this happening.

  14. Mr. Gupta, at least on this aspect, dignity of labour, you would find Kerala a vastly different place than the north. That is a story worth exploring.

  15. Gurgaon is full of third party teen age girls employed as maid, they even employed the bangladeshi to have their work done, bcz they are rich enough to afford someone’s childhood and hanger to feed their kids.

  16. I sit on the earth when where ever I get a chance to sit if earth or surface is smooth and clean because it gives me lot of satisfaction and rest. I think, poor and villagers only know this special satisfaction.

    I disagree to author’s views.

    I disagree to Mr Zack, his comments are so stupid, perhaps author was describing people like Mr zack.

  17. This is so sad. I come from Jharkhand. Many girls are forced to migrate to metros for work, where they are routinely ill-treated by their employers or placement agencies. There are instances of school girls being trafficked. The concept of minimum wages or fixed hours of work or mandatory holidays for domestic workers just does not exist in our country. Sad and shameful. Please highlight the work done by Jeanne Devos in organising domestic workers and starting a movement for their dignity.

  18. It seems that there was empty seat just opposite as can be seen from reflection in glass. It seems no one took initiative to tell her to occupy that.

  19. I have something to say here, I used to have a maid a few years back and I told her to sit on the table to have dinner she didn’t, I told her to sit on the sofa when we were at a guests house and she didn’t, and this happened many times afterwards. Also in many instances I found her sitting on the floor and watching TV even when no one is home. I can not necessarily force someone to sit on the sofa if they don’t want to. Though this is a really sick concept in our society that maids usually sit on the floor and it went to that extent that became a norm for maids and they are no longer comfortable sitting on the furniture but rather chosses to sit down on the floor. So I am guessing it necessarily wouldn’t be fair to blame the middle class here if the maids volunteerily chooses to sit on the floor…

  20. These people choose to sit on the floor out of habit. My domestic helps do that all the time inspite of me scolding them to be seated on chair. Please do not make a story out of anything you see, unless if you spoke to them and reached this conclusion.

  21. Interesting comments from so many middle-class educated Indians so offended by the photo and Carry on your good work Mr., Gupta!

  22. I would like to disagree. A lot of them prefer to sit on floor even when requested to use the Sofas. Stop sensationalizing everything, especially this ridiculous.

    • I completely agree with you. There are indeed many servants who would like to prefer sitting on the floor and we cannot force them against their opinion. There might be a few ill-minded people as mentioned by the author, but that couldn’t stand as in a general context.

  23. It is always easy to generalize things without understanding the root cause behind it. You pointed out in the beginning, that as number of working couples is increasing, this servant trend is increasing as well. People are becoming lazy. But what we do not understand, is that among a working couple, the MAN in our society is not bound to do household chores equally and willingly as a woman does, even after having a hectic day at work. She needs help in one way or the other. If both the partners agree on taking care of the chores equally, without making it a gender roles issue, then none of us would need servants, like what happens in developed countries.
    I personally agree that we should treat a human being as one, no matter if he is a servant or someone else, but this whole practice of hiring maids for every other work at home atleast, can be avoided completely if we want.

  24. All people sit on the floors when they don’t get the seats on the long routes. They usually keep sitting on the floors even after seats become vacant, it’s because seats get vacant only when metro is about to reach its final destination so they think it’s futile to stand up and sit on a seat when their station is about to arrive.
    I agree that there’s still castism among us but its not like that you won’t let anyone sit beside you in any public transport. And this photo isn’t proving a bit that she’s a maid/lowcast or being forced to sit down by anyone.
    Here this girl is clicking a photo while breaching others privacy and blinding her own eyes and mind that there’re 4 empty seats on her side too, download the photo and zoom in the glass to look the reflection.
    Don’t get presumptuous people, stay calm and first try to understand the situation. You can’t stop the lie by countering it with a lie.

  25. Did the reporter speak to the maid to confirm if the employer has actually asked her to sit on the floor? The article does not suggest this. A picture in itself can be interpreted in various ways. It can even reflect bias against the employer on part of the reporter, if the reporter did not check with the maid in the first place.
    I do not argue against most other information in the article. There are instances of bias and abuse in India. No doubt about it. I do expect the article headline to be unbiased in its view however. Else it only reeks of sensationalism… something that Indian media is infamous for worldwide now.

  26. I have three major problems with the article, first was the subjects permission taken before clicking the picture? (Not a crime to be made to sit or willingly sit on floors)

    Secondly, Was the maid questioned, for all you know she chose to sit on the floor.

    Thirdly, why not take this up with family publicly instead of shaming other families who do not indulge in such acts.
    By no means am I saying a class divide doesn’t exist but let’s not try to sell it, let’s rather work towards improvements.

  27. It’s not the true projection as it is probably one in a thousand case. I am from the middle class and I have a big circle of friends who are from the middle class too. Neither I nor any one I know treats our helps in this way. It’s not right to say that it is a mirror of the middle class.

  28. Somehow having lived in various parts of India, the divide always increase when you go from North to South with it being maximum in Delhi.

  29. Indians have the worst attitude of all. They are rude and majority are obviously stupid. India will never become a power untill there is dignity of labour.

    • Dear Zack,

      I completely agree that there must be dignity of labour for a society or country to progress.

      However, I’m curious about your blanket statement that “Indians have the worst attitude of all. They are rude and majority are obviously stupid”
      How many people of other nationalities have you personally known & interacted with before concluding that “Indians have the worst attitude of all”
      What percentage of India’s 1.3 billion-strong population have you actually personally known & interacted with before arriving at the conclusion that everyone is rude & most are “obviously stupid”.
      Unless you’ve travelled to all 190+ countries & interacted with at least 90% of the planet’s population, your gross generalization only proves how “obviously stupid” YOU are!

  30. This is the best article I have read in long time. The journalist shouldcover these basic social issues. Sadly nobody cares..happy that it showed in my feed..its articulated perfectly the abuse vulnerable ones have to go through. The sheep mentality of North Indian people who are driven by prestige, materialism is despicable. It’s ingrained in their DNA. How can it be changed? The opinion on devyani case is very true. The sad state of Indian mind.

  31. These people should be tried for violation of human rights,and additionally barred form public transport forcever.

  32. Mr.Shekhar Gupta, how you treat yoyr maidservant and office peon. Do you allow yoyr maidservant to seat with you in the sofa while talking to her. Do you shake hand with yoyr office peon when you reach office. Do you invite your maidservant and office peon to yoyr house during any social or religious function and eat with them sitting in the dinning table.Many of you talk of cast system in India. But now another cast system has come. That is social status.

    • However much Indians may cry foul ain response Shekhar Gupta’s piece because they consider themselves kind to their servants, the very idea of servitude, kind or unkind is antediluvian and abhorrent. How many of you, particularly the fellow who uses that disposable term “prestitute” (the press and other media are the foundations of a democracy and you betray you egalitarian undemocratic views right aways!) would ever allow a servant to sit with you at table and eat (I do and I even cook for them on occasion) or are sending their children to school in the sort s of schools you would send your children to? I am sure you also feel the person who cleans your bathroom cannot touch anything in your kitchen; these prejudices are engrained in our caste system and not many have shaken them off. In a modern city like GurgaonMr. gupt a cites two heinous examples of servant abuse that made headlines when they happened. Abusers do’t actually advertise their behaviour, yet sometimes, and alas too few of them are ever caught. And Sharad Seth, please be civil in your discourse; this ability to rell off verbal or written abuse is part of what’s ailing Indian society. You reveal far more about yourself in that short note than I would have ever wished to know about you, and it’s not pretty..
      On the other hand, Dr Mithal’s comment makes a very good point. The divide is narrowing–servants now wear better clothes and are better paid. Some have ambitions of buying a plot or apartment and living in their own homes. They migate to cities to do menial work so that their children can attend schools and get medical aid not available in their villages. They endure the squalor where they live in bastis, and the abuse at work just to give their children a better future. That is where the divide will narrow. My illiterate, widowed housekeeper’s son and daughter attend an English Medium school (albeit with a low standard of instruction)’ both plan on vocational training in computers. This will be the game changer. For the moment I must reiterate that servants have no rights. If they dared to talk back they can be dismissed without compunction. They have no recourse to refute accusations or ill treatment when it occurs. It’s a power game and only one side is armed.
      I recommend Tripti Lahiri’s book Made in India, published last year, for an in depth look at the servant-master problem in India.

  33. Till yesterday this middle-class behenji was a slave to the Britishers, and today she is royalty in her little mohalla. However, not entirely her fault as she is also treated like a non-entity in the class and power hierarchy of India when she is made to wait on a dirty bench outside some government clerk’s office for a regular but essential task that shouldn’t take a couple of minutes.

  34. What a catchy heading. One indian family does it so you generalize whole country. And funny thing is India has 130 billion population. As a data scientist you need good sampling to generalize.

  35. Agree in most part with this well written, sensitive piece. Except one glaring point- this divide has certainly not increased over the years. It was always there- probably much more stark than now- but it was considered pretty much acceptable so that few bothered to highlight it..

  36. This picture is a rebuttal for those who actually believe that our country is progressing and that too pretty fast. The fact is that the majority of us are still chained in those medieval thoughts where the rights and quality of existence of a person is determined by the caste he or she was born in. Pathetic……

  37. This chammach chor is definitely after something, instigating a class and caste divide. Lakhs and lakhs do take care of their maids very well, but this prestitute is just trying to divide people. Shameful.

  38. I don’t know what is more terrible the act or you pointing it out as if most Indian couples are doing this.. when you pass a statement like this at least have the decency to check if or not 30/40% of Indians behave like this ?? Otherwise you are sensationalising something which was a one off incident.. how irresponsible

  39. Our staff, maids and drivers, are like family, in the true sense of the term. As wife and I have aged, we grow more dependent on them. If each well off family could underwrite the education of their children, that would be a very worthwhile investment for the future.

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