I bought my copy of The Help by Kathryn Stockett at a large book fest last year. The stall offered any 3 books for Rs. 200 which was cheap by any standards. While scrambling for good ones from piles of mostly trash, I found this one. The cover page looked interesting and the title seemed oddly familiar. It was three days ago that I noticed the untouched book tucked into the shelf and decided to give it a go.
It was a revelation.
For one, the setting – the 1960s; only 3 decades before I was born. Whenever I watch a Hollywood movie that features ‘coloured help’, be it Django Unchained or The Notebook, I’d somehow always imagine the story unfolding in the far distant past, the 1800s perhaps. Even when I was nearly halfway through the book I was under the impression it was happening some time yonder. That such racist laws existed so close to the present was definitely a little unnerving.
But a greater shock, one I never ever anticipated, was how much I could relate to this story from another continent. The only dissimilarity would be the fact that, in our case, we were all coloured.
Growing up in a quasi-aristocratic family in rural Kerala, we had our share of servants and labourers working for us both at home and on the fields, some of them migrants from the neighbouring state. We were all shades of brown, but they were different – I know they were never abused, but there was definitely a divide, a line of separation that I painfully realize still exists. But I suppose I was never fully aware of it till now. When I read the conversation about coloured bathrooms in the first chapter, I was warily aware of some recent memories that had started playing in my mind…
“Unbelievable!”, exclaimed a relative, pointing out the flaws in someone’s new house, “An awful lot of money they spent on this place, with all these useless rooms inside, and they didn’t even have the common sense to build a servant bathroom…!”
“Do you know what their new maid does? After cooking, she takes her share and eats it before the family does… technically that means they are eating her leftovers. If it were me, I’d fire her right away! Such audacity!!”
I didn’t think much about these comments then, although I remember finding the first one somewhat logical and the second mildly disconcerting, but now I am left wondering more than ever.
My family per se, constituting Father, Mother and I, was not exactly rich, but most of our relatives were. So while they had multiple cooks and maids at home, Mother just had one, and only after I was born. This was the early 90s and most of the mechanized household equipment had not made its way to our rural hamlet. Laundry is anything but a piece of cake with a perpetually pooping creature at home (diapers were unheard of). So, it came to be that Mrs AA was welcomed with open arms into our home. She figures in all my childhood memories and was an integral part until she moved in with her daughter in another town when I was in high school.
I don’t think we ever explicitly discriminated against her, and indeed Father and Mother aided her a lot financially and emotionally, but there was an invisible line drawn somewhere. I believe she was even more aware of this than we were. I vividly remember how she absolutely refused to sit on chairs… not even the plastic chairs that the servants usually used (wooden furniture was always reserved for family alone), and sat on the floor of the hall while we sat at the table. It was quite a normal phenomenon to pass on old clothes to her and her kin; and these were of course gratefully accepted. The class divide was such. And the bathroom. Our house did not have even a guest bathroom, just the two attached to the two bedrooms. I asked Mother yesterday which one Mrs AA used during her time with us.
“Well..”, Mother paused thinking, visibly bewildered by this question out of the blue, “she was only here during the daytime..”
It was obvious this was something she had never really given a thought to.
“Yes, but what if she needed to use the bathroom in the daytime?”, I persisted.
“I suppose she must have done it in the backyard somewhere”
At a time when even women’s rights were a novel entity, it is not surprising that no one might have given a thought about the needs of a maid.
But when I look at this phenomenon after blurring out the distinctions in class, colour and race, I realize out it all boils down to is convenience and egoistic altercations. If I were to raise the issue with anyone, it’d be less of a debate and more of a discussion culminating in but-this-is-how-it-has-always-been and is-it-not-better-this-way… and maybe even a glimpse of the other spectrum of thought where rigid pseudo-realists call for the line of division to cater to a vague sense of discipline. And this extends across all fields, this phobia of chaos, this rapacious need to submit to order; be it a new army recruit, a new intern at work or a college freshman, the first thing you do is teach them their place. Somewhere in the maze, the components of respect and inherent integrity are forgotten and servility takes an upper hand.
It would seem that the apparently invisible line is quite vivid still.