3 years

Life & Letters

Of Scrubs and Girls

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Still new to the West, Atreyee Majumder wonders what it is that so affects her when a maid bends under her chair at home in India to scrub out a speck of dust, while a janitor in uniform evokes no feeling at all

It was a minor epiphany that I had after a thorough scrub of the bathroom floor in my post-industrial American university graduate studio. The Thorough Scrub was increasingly becoming a part of my neurotic deadline ritual. This was an East Coast city, with its bricklay, gunshots, sadness and sunshine. And I was in it, complete with a cleaning kit. There was something remarkably therapeutic about getting down on one’s knees and scrubbing. And then, one day, true to the nature of the overanalysing humanities woman, I got thinking about it. This was probably a longing to inhabit the bodily world of a woman domestic help back home in India. This was not the euphoric cosmopolitan embrace of the shovel in the digging of moist garden soil. There was nothing fresh, organic or soul-liberating about it. Between disinfectants and fresheners, I was performing the bravado of the make-believe domestic help. A kaleidoscope of domestic help ladies were dancing in my head—all painted in various shades of drunkard-husband-surviving heroism or shiny-celeb-assaulted victimhood.

The image of the talkative, stealing, idiosyncratic, tantalising, vulnerable woman necessarily occupies the Indian middle-class’ notion of hired domestic labour. Perhaps, that is the reason why uniformed personnel conducting similar jobs, with a more sophisticated technical toolkit, on the glossy floors of shopping malls or corridors of shiny offices, do not evoke the sentiments that the domestic help girl does. Something about uniforms takes away the feminine sexual turgidity of the image of the domestic help who ranges between mother and slut. She must not, therefore, get masculinised by a uniform.

She must bend over with her primitive jharoo and pochha (can you imagine a sari-clad, sweating domestic help girl manoeuvering a vacuum cleaner?) baring a hint of a sweaty, muscular midriff. She must carry around some marker of a feminine victim-narrative, preferably something that suggests a bit of scandal. 

I have had the privilege of being cast as the domestic help girl in several stage productions in my adolescent and young adult years. The typical scene would progress with the lascivious man of the family contemplating the fragile and frightened servant-girl with evil, steely eyes. The audience obviously admonishes this man for his dirty thoughts. A class guilt is, thus, expressed with a shaky dignity and poetic elan. But, why was the hardcoreness of floor scrubbing so attractive to me? I once told an American friend that it is true that the middle-class in India is used to pretty much all household labour being done by hired help, but then, it was a complex employment relationship—that it often involved support for the hired help at times of stress, illness, death, marriage, and the grant of many household privileges, including food and clothes that supplement the money wage. This was my way of explaining to the Westerner that s(he) wouldn’t quite understand the complex social fabric in which Indian exploitation is woven, as s(he) was imprisoned in the flat Western categories of wage-labour and profit-making-employer. And broken bits of matronly conversation looped in my head—helps are becoming chaloo (cunning) these days, some are too sexy and go to the parlour regularly, how they apply lipstick of brands stocked almost near the upper-middle-class aisle  of lipstick, their increasing comfort with the glitzy world of global capital that was not meant for them, and their ever-increasing audacity.

The bai has been fashioned in Bollywood between the giggly, teasing 18-year-old (Alice of Monsoon Wedding) to the homophobic motherly figure (Kantaben of Kal Ho Na Ho). The tension between the daughter of the king and the daughter of the royal servant is mythical. The Mira Nair film Kama Sutra comes to mind. The slave-girl, Maya, is predictably more sexually potent, with a maddening mischief in her eyes. And the rightful princess/queen, Tara, remains entrapped in the shackles of conjugal duty and marital neglect, the figure of sacred grief. Post training in the martial arts of Kama Sutra at the Rekha academy, the erstwhile servant-girl emerges a diva and falls in love with the bare-chested, free-spirited sculptor. The threat of the potency of the servant-girl getting out of her containers—that looms large in the upper-class household—is seen through in KS to its fairytale horizons.

The other film that comes to mind, albeit separated by a few worlds from KS in genre, is Yeh Dillagi. This had Akshay of a restrained, bespectacled masculinity, armed with a shy smile. The servant-girl equivalent here was Kajol (daughter of the chauffeur), with an infectiously adorable laugh, and ice-cream on her nose on a hill road. She wipes clean the shame-laden slate of her dad who was insulted by Saif’s dad—the class-conscious, autocratic, industrialist father—when she comes back with Bombay makeover confidence, and vengeance up her sleeve. But at heart, she is the warm, earthy girl, somewhat reminiscent of the simple, earthy, village-girl who inhabits metropolitan Indian households.

Across a few oceans, a strong-hipped Jennifer Lopez finds her knight while working as the housekeeping staff of a high-end hotel, in a tailored uniform in Maid in Manhattan. A brusque version of the same character, one of my favourites in this genre, is Helen Hunt in As Good As It Gets. Hunt is a waitress, though. Angry, struggling, screwed over by fate and the world, fighting to pay  the medical bills of a sick son, she'd have looked much prettier if she had time and money and less cares. Yet, regardless of these misfortunes, she is unquestionably attractive. These are quite different figures in the register of the working-class-victim-warrior-woman than those of Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, or Kareena Kapoor in Chameli, as also from Roberts (again) in Erin Brokovich.

The middle-class in India has invested a fair bit of faith in the moral fabric of the servant-girl. So  Bollywood constantly imagines her as earthy, simple, reminiscent of a lost time and place of simplicity—hence, endearing in her exuberant sexuality, and not threatening, like a prostitute (even one with a heart of gold). I wonder if one can see a clear continuum of these characters with those of the Hollywood single-mother, waitress woman. But then again, the serial-killing lesbian in Monster (Charlize Theron) emerged from the same genre of the working-class struggling American woman. So, I guess, things are complex. 

And in the utter modernity of my graduate studio, I continue to enact a mythical earthy womanhood when deadlines draw near.