As the coronavirus lockdown eases and many wealthy and middle class Indians return to work, they need their cooks and cleaners back in their homes too. But the two months of their absence from house work hasn’t wiped out old prejudices. The latest one in the list is the new Kent atta-maker ad.
Thie distasteful Instagram campaign by Kent RO systems wreaked havoc on social media over the last few days, capturing the attention of many. “Are you allowing your maid to knead atta dough by hand? Her hands may be infected,” reads the ad.
The ad goes on to say, “Don’t compromise on health and purity. Choose Kent atta and bread maker for hands-free kneading of dough”.
This kind of thinking may not come as a surprise to many. Many RWAs are not letting domestic workers even use the lift, instructing them instead to climb several flights of stairs. Some have even blocked the entry of domestic workers entirely. Spraying them with bleach, denying entry to workplaces, demanding a Covid-negative certificate while expecting them to take a Rs 4,000-test — we, the middle class, have continuously failed our working class during the coronavirus crisis.
‘The carriers of virus’
Despite having played no role in bringing the outbreak to the country, it is the poor and the working class who have been at the receiving end of the crisis. The ad reveals the privileged class’ mindless obsession with purity and hygiene, stigmatising those who run our homes and cities as ‘carriers of infection’.
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It is this dehumanisation that refuses to acknowledge that the domestic workers can be equally at the risk of getting the virus from the households and family they visit.
The Kent atta-maker ad reveals how deeply prejudices and class biases have permeated Indian society. The brand targets upper and middle-class societies who can afford to have a maid and a machine to knead flour. But in reality, it only ends up revealing the classist and casteist mentality that is prevalent among the rich and middle-class — the ad has merely shown a mirror to it.
Much of our domestic workers belong to lower castes. Not letting them use the toilets in our homes, not allowing them inside with their shoes on, or keeping separate vessels for them to eat or drink water from are all ways in which the middle-class continue to adopt a casteist approach towards the working class.
There was a famous 1967 film titled Upkar starring Manoj Kumar, which featured a song we all must have heard and performed at our school Independence day functions— ‘mere desh ki dharti sona ugle, ugle heere moti’. But schoolkids made another parody of the song, a very sexist rendition. It was ‘mere desh ki ladki atta goondhe, aur pakaye roti’. The Kent ad has turned a yesteryear sexist joke into today’s reality. The caste and class discrimnation seen in the ad also comes with a gender aspect. ‘Her hands’ may be infected — they are bold to assume that no male will ever knead the dough.
Kent is not a small brand. The company issued an apology, admitting that what it did was wrong. But, unfortunately, we know this didn’t come from self-realisation. It came only after the company was publicly called out by several people on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. Even veteran actress Hema Malini, a brand ambassador for the company, spoke out about the tone-deaf ad.
— Japleen Pasricha (@japna_p) May 26, 2020
I presume #Kent Atta maker doesn't want my business. Not only is it unfair to service demographics by assuming all are unhygienic, also assumes me or my husband do not knead atta. A great product bites the dust cos the Ad agency/Product Manager couldn't see beyond their biases. https://t.co/lVCmjNG5Qp
— Avtar Dr Saundarya Rajesh (@SaundaryaR) May 27, 2020
But before the social media storm was unleashed, someone created the ad that was probably approved by someone from Kent’s team. A big brand like this would not allow a public ad campaign to be pushed out into the world so easily, it must have crossed several checks and rounds of approval. The people who created the campaign are most likely management college-educated branding and marketing professionals who believe that the world needs to be saved from the ‘infected hands’ of the domestic workers.
This one advertisement has exposed the mentality that does not have a problem with manual scavenging, throws away the food prepared by a Dalit in quarantine facilities, and refuses to acknowledge its privilege and the role of many sections of the society in its growth. It has brought back the old debate on the need to teach social sciences to engineering and management graduates. Merely hiding behind the wall of CSR and philanthropy is not enough.
Years ago, I read the acclaimed Hindi writer Premchand’s famous story Thakur Ka Kuaan in which a Dalit woman was refused water on the assumption that the well water would become ‘impure’ because of her touch. In school and college, we discuss how untouchability is a thing of the past and is now practiced only in remote villages of the country. But the next time someone says untouchability is a thing of the bygone era, we should remind them about this Kent ad and the fact that it was made in the year 2020.
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