In the dark the marble of each tomb grows skin.
I tear it off. I make a holocaust. I underline.
God is the only, the only assassin.
– Agha Shahid Ali in “God”
|Photo: Bilash Rai|
Omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent, round-the-clock television is the closet thing that postmodern society has to a god. But unlike the supreme being of the pre-modern epoch, media is neither merciful nor just. Modernity had its saving grace in rationality, but the contemporary media flourishes by focusing on the incredulities and irrationalities of everyday life. Falsehoods and injustices sometimes cling to its coverage like mud sticks to the soles of gumboots.
Distortions of truth and justice by the media, however, are not always intentional. The 24/7 electronic media has to report as events unfold. Instantaneousness creates urgency, and leaves little time for investigations into a story’s background, or reflections over its ramifications. Breathless reporters have to gush into the microphone to feed the insatiable demands of channels driven by cutthroat competition. The recent double-murder tragedy in Noida, outside New Delhi, has exposed the lethality and limitations of television reports like never before.
‘Saturation’ of coverage seems inadequate to explain the attention that has been given to the gruesome murders of Aarushi Talwar and Yam Prasad Banjade, also known as Hemraj, the household help who was initially considered as the prime suspect in the murder of Aarushi. Records of the New Delhi-based Centre for Media Studies show that six television channels beamed news and special reports on the double murder for 39.3 hours out of a total 92 hours of prime time (from seven to eleven at night) between 16 May and 7 June. Considering the preponderance of ‘commercial breaks’ such sensational programmes attract – indeed, at times the coverage appears to be little more than a diversion inserted to break up the monotony of endless advertisements – it is hardly surprising that the six major ‘news’ channels monitored by the study found little time to notice the historic declaration of a republic in next-door Nepal, incidentally home of the murdered Hemraj.
The performance of the print media was hardly better. In the morning, Delhi papers provided grist for the rumour mill, which churned endlessly until primetime television finally conferred the credibility of the camera upon it, by thrusting microphones into the faces of bemused bystanders. The news, however, was that there was no news. Reporters were hiding their perplexity and ignorance by playing up the trivial and mundane. The backup support to the news desks seemed to be limited to manufacturing stories to legitimise the bazaar gossip. Even though the suspicion was introduced without evidence that Hemraj killed Aarushi (until his body was located the next day), the issue of the relationship between domestic help and employer is a subject that is largely ignored. But for fear-mongering and overuse of stereotypes – get the antecedents of your domestics checked and be wary of Bahadurs – the media hides some important issues, which Southasia’s deeply unequal society will have to face in the days to come.
Experiences in the ASEAN countries have shown that economically dominant minorities benefit the most from liberalisation policies. Perhaps the most extreme example of this is the Chinese community of Indonesia. Comparable communities that come immediately to mind are the Marwari, Gujarati and Punjabi Vaishyas of Southasia. But their relationships with politically powerful majorities may turn problematic if the government and media fail to moderate tensions inherent to their affiliation. It is difficult to balance economic efficiency and political appeasement, even during a boom. Pressures of populism during a downturn can tear apart the inherently unstable states and societies of Southasia.
The explosive insider-outsider confrontation leads to hate-mongering and race riots, consuming people of all classes. But the poor always suffer the most when, for instance, the goons of Raj Thackeray go on a rampage against North Indians in Bombay, or when anti-Bihari madness erupts with frightening regularity in Assam. The impotent rage of the politically powerful majorities will probably intensify if employers continue to prefer hard-pressed immigrants over assertive locals in the name of efficiency. Formal enterprises can hide behind norms and procedures; it is the informal sector that has to bear the brunt of agitations against outsiders. In all of this, it is the lot of the domestic help that is inevitably the most fraught.
In feudal societies, household retainers came from families beholden to their traditional patrons. In the traditions of the landed gentry, employer-employee tensions were resolved by the lord of the haveli – the mai-baap sarkar of the clan – and his decishions were irrevocable and final. When progenies of patriarchy began to move into cities to partake of the benefits of modernity, elderly retainers were often sent along to take care of their needs. The trusted Ramu Kaka of the 1960s – who cleaned, washed, cooked, gardened, shopped for groceries and took babalog to school, while the master pursued a profitable career and the mistress of the house took immense pleasure in finding fault with whatever he did – ended with the OPEC-induced construction boom in West Asia of the mid-1970s. The Jamalbhais, Ainuldadas, Buddhimandais and Gopalbhaiyas of Southasia became migrant labourers, and began sending money orders back home, requesting the Ashraf Chachas and Dinu Kakas to supervise the building of pucca houses in their ancestral villages. By the early 1980s, the age of the family retainer was almost over; they had all gone back home.
But back in the Subcontinent, there was still the household labour to be done. All menial work is anathema to the male elite of the region, but domestic chores are something that has particularly always been done either by servants or by women, in every family. When women of the middle class also began to enter the formal sector in droves by the mid-1980s, demand for domestics grew at a rate that could not be met by the poor of the neighbouring countryside alone. Meanwhile, multiple push factors were active in various regions. Drought in Orissa and Telangana, floods in Bihar and rural stagnancy in eastern Uttar Pradesh, de-industrialisation of the small towns of West Bengal, environmental degradation in the Kumaon-Garhwal hills, conflicts in North West Frontier, and population pressure in northern Bangladesh – all of these were creating conditions for a mass exodus of the poor to distant cities.
But in all of this, worst of all was the situation of the rural areas of Nepal. Here, living conditions had hardly changed since the time the Company Bahadurs had given preferential treatment to the Gorkhalis, regarding the recruitment of not just their watch-and-ward staff, but also in hiring hands for support services. Lacking resources, connections, education and skills, most of these migrants to metropolitan cities ended up being the mere helping hands of upwardly mobile merchants and professionals.
There are various dimensions of master-servant tensions in existence in upper-middle-class and lower-upper-class families. Urban space is at a premium; hence, the lean-to asbestos roofs attached to the compound walls, which long served as servants’ quarters, have begun to disappear. Nowadays, domestics often live with the families they serve, and are privy to everything that goes in the house. Unlike the maid of an earlier era, a live-in help cannot be shunted out when the husband and wife quarrel, or when unsavoury deals are made within the privacy of the house. Lace curtains do not insulate wayward owners from their watchful servants. The servant sees, hears and seethes. Household employees obey their masters but seldom respect them. The new rich of the cities of Southasia have so much to hide that, pretty soon, they begin to fear even their own domestics.
The frustrations of the domestics themselves are no less compelling. The job is pure drudgery, with very little diversion and no chances of promotion. In the categories of activities suggested by Hannah Arnett, a domestic does not ‘labour’, because his life is not in rhythm with nature – even though he slogs to sustain himself. It is not ‘work’, because a migrant helps to create very little of visible or lasting beauty. Action – meaning, groups of people acting together to change the world – is the farthest from the mind of the solitary servant, engaged in service to an indifferent master.
In Marxist terms, a domestic servant is the most alienated of all beings; there is almost no relationship between him, his work and the fruits of his labour. Religious beliefs that prioritise loyalty to employer, guru, parents and god (in that order of virtue) have kept domestics silent for ages. But the more they watch television, the less they will be inclined to meekly accept their dreadful working conditions. Employers that treat their domestics like servants are feeding frustrations of the very people they cannot do without. The rage resulting from constant humiliation and powerlessness can, and will, erupt in unpredictable ways.
The media will have to learn to cope with the consequences of those aspirations they themselves have helped to establish in Southasian societies. And the yuppies of the region will have to re-learn the values of treating live-in servants like family members. Or else, like god, everyone is a possible assassin.
~ CK Lal is a columnist fort his magazine and for the Nepali Times.