Editorial/ Heart of darkness
Servant problem
The Telegraph/ diary
Letters to the editor

 
 
EDITORIAL/ HEART OF DARKNESS 
 
 
 
 
Calcutta must decide about its heritage. Politicians with tenuous claims to speak up for the city have decreed that the city should be called Kolkata because, according to them, Calcutta smacks of colonialism. Yet there is a strong body of opinion which clamours for the protection of Calcutta’s heritage. There is an obvious contradiction here. Calcutta has no pre-colonial heritage. Kolkata, one of the trinity of villages that originally made up Calcutta, was a mosquito-ridden hamlet. Calcutta, no matter what self-styled anti-imperialists and Bengali chauvinists like to think, is a parvenu city. It has no ancient or medieval history akin to Athens, Venice London or Delhi. Calcutta is a product of the Indo-British encounter and therefore of colonialism. To protect Calcutta’s heritage is to protect what the colonial period left behind. One official has proudly declared that just the area around Dalhousie Square has more history to preserve than the whole of Mexico City. The significant point about the statement is that every single building in the environs of Dalhousie Square, which is in need of protection and renovation, is a building of the colonial period. But this cannot be done by denying Calcutta’s colonial heritage. Heritage preservation and historical consciousness are inseparable.

The responsibility of preserving heritage cannot be surrendered to the state. In fact, in the case of Calcutta, the state administration has been the principal destroyer of heritage. It is at the behest of the state that magnificent statues of British administrators and soldiers were removed and replaced by pieces of junk. It is the state which, in a perverse attempt to rewrite history, has renamed streets. The left has been the main culprit in this regard, but other political formations have been no better. There are signs that other cities in India are thinking along different lines. A business house, the National Cultural Fund and the Archaeological Survey of India have come together for the preservation of the Jantar Mantar in Delhi. Similar nongovernmental initiatives are afoot for the preservation of Khajuraho and Orcha. In Calcutta, such initiatives have been stymied because of political oneupmanship and state obstructionism. Yet the renovation of the Town Hall has shown the rich fruits that can be had from the coming together of private and state initiative.

At the very heart of heritage preservation lies the notion of culture. The heritage of a city is not just its buildings, but also its culture. And it is here that the question mark over Calcutta grows bigger and bigger. Calcutta and its denizens pride themselves on the culture of the city which they claim is something special. Recent history seems to suggest otherwise. Many districts in West Bengal, from the second half of September, have been devastated by floods. Places a mere 30 miles from Calcutta remain under water with hardly any relief reaching them. But this did not stop Calcutta from celebrating Durga Puja with fanfare and a vulgar display of conspicuous consumption. Very few consciences were pricked by such extravaganza when millions were without shelter, food and water. Anybody descending on Calcutta in the first week of October and unaware of what was happening in the rest of West Bengal would have thought that 2000 was like any other ordinary year. Calcutta’s sensibilities have become anaesthesized. A city devoid of sensibilities is culturally barren and therefore without a heritage worth preserving. Buildings can be preserved and renovated, streets can be cleaned and made free of hawkers, hoardings can be dismantled and graffiti whitewashed. But will all this give back to Calcutta its soul, its graciousness and its catholicity? The answer for the nonce is no, for there is nothing that can minister to minds diseased. Calcuttans can continue to be smug and believe that their city is above the crassness of Delhi and the violence of Mumbai. But murders, robberies and the escalating mass insensitivity point to a profound malady which has made Calcutta incapable of even recognizing its own heritage. Leave alone preserving it.    


 
 
SERVANT PROBLEM 
 
 
BY AVEEK SEN
 
 
A middle class home in the heart of Calcutta had recently turned into a three day long nightmare for Mou Mondal. Mou is nine, and works for the Banerjee-Chowdhuries, who locked her up in their flat and left — possibly for a week or so — for their puja holidays. They did remember to leave food for her in the fridge: some boiled rice, a few eggs and half a pound of bread. After a few days, neighbours heard her crying and alerted the police, who broke in and took her into custody. Mou’s employers have been arrested for illegal detention immediately after they got back.

There was a rather dramatic moment in this episode. The Banerjee-Chowdhuries were granted bail by the judicial magistrate. But the clerks at the Alipur police court had initially refused to process the bail bonds, and the magistrate had to send the family back into custody. However, the clerks have relented since then, and the bail has come through.

If they hadn’t, there would have been a Dickensian pathos, pleasing in its own way, in the sequence of events. The little girl’s terror, her gambolling in police custody while policekaku buys her a gas balloon, her employers huddling in their clothes to hide their faces as they are being driven to jail, and finally, the court clerks risking contempt of court in a spontaneously emotional stand against “injustice”.

Such extreme episodes of cruelty, when occasionally brought to public notice, are conveniently stirring. They allow the rest of us the comfort of morally superior spectatorship, of a seamless return to our own, kinder, lives. But the “servant problem” strikes at the root of our existence as social, economic, legal, domestic and sexual beings. Mou, with her minor and adult colleagues, stands at the intersection of custom and contingency in which much of modern Indian life remains brutally and conveniently frozen.

Mou is a domestic worker and a child labourer. And this gives to her social existence a twofold invisibility. India has the largest number of child labourers in the world. Among them, it is the domestic workers, concentrated mostly in the urban areas, who remain entirely unprotected by the existing child labour laws. The Indian Child Labour (Regulation and Prevention) Act, 1986, prohibits the employment of children below 14 in certain hazardous industries, occupations and processes.

This attempts to realize the Olympian abstractions of some of the fundamental rights and directive principles in parts III and IV — supposedly the “conscience” — of the Constitution. The Child Labour Act and its constitutional foundations allow domestic work to slip through, making it an entirely unlegislated form of labour. And in this limbo between law and principle, Mou’s predicament takes on one kind of invisibility.

In 1996, Ashraf, then a seven year old domestic help with a senior government official,was brutally beaten and branded with a hot iron by his employer because he drank a bit of milk left by the children in the family. This was brought to the notice of the national human rights commission and the South Asian Coalition on Child Servitude, whose persistent efforts led to a recent amendment in the Central Civil Services (Conduct) Rules, prohibiting government employees to take in children below 14 as domestic workers.

But the enforcement of the original Child Labour Act and of this later government regulation remains abysmally poor. Most government employees are unaware of the new rule, or it has not made the slightest difference to what they have been accustomed to for generations. The act has widely, and quite visibly, failed to ensure the wellbeing of children even within the occupations specified in it, apart from being inapplicable to the various other forms of child labour that still remain an unquestioned part of social normalcy.

In India, rights, principles, acts and amendments often operate in a realm of ideals which remains almost ludicrously remote from the everyday lives of the people. This is not simply due to the failure of enforcement, but more pervasively because of the gap between law and custom. The set of attitudes and practices that constitutes a particular form of consciousness, or the lack of it, determines what must be accepted as utterly natural. Extreme poverty, endemic illiteracy and ancient traditions of social inequality inflected through caste, class and gender keep in place the symbiosis between the world of the employer and that of the employee in domestic work.

But these worlds are not that separate. And this symbiosis is often experienced by us as a complex, even intimate, human relationship on which the professional language of employment or the legal language of rights sits uneasily, sometimes absurdly. Men, women and children are let into our homes every day as full- or part-time domestic workers. They share with us our private spaces, conversations, relationships and crises.

They bring into our homes their individual personalities and histories. Some of them have lived for generations with us and have become, as we often like to say, “part of the family”. Our experiences and memories of childhood, kinship and domesticity would lose much of their human substance, worth, humour and interestingness without these presences.

The mutuality of material needs and the sharing of the mundane and the private can create complex, enduring emotional bonds, peculiar and particular intimacies. Yet, in the case of domestic workers — already, in this human context, the phrase begins to sound disconcertingly impersonal — this day to day proximity and intimacy coexist with an absolute and brutal separateness. They live in or visit our homes every day as intimate aliens, kept in place by what can only be described as selective and consensual untouchability.

To take an extreme instance, how else is one to explain the sense of hideous unnaturalness in a middle class man having a sexual relationship with and then deciding to marry his maidservant? Respectability sustains itself through the transformation of inequality into taboo. An open sexual affair or marriage is, therefore, more of a violation than sexual abuse, because the latter keeps in place the relations of power at the heart of this eternal scheme of things.

The double bind of human intimacy and “natural” inequality gives to domestic work its oppressive informality. The whole idea of looking at it as “work”, in the economic sense, seems dehumanizing. This also makes it problematic to establish domestic workers as an important part of what economists call the “unorganized sector”. The entitlements taken for granted in the organized sector — income security, paid leave, various forms of social security like healthcare, insurance, provident fund and pension — remain beyond the ken of the women and children who form the majority of domestic workers. The very concept of organizing themselves as a body of workers for the sake of professional and financial security and self-reliance is yet to make a significant impact on the self-image of domestic workers.

In Calcutta, the relative autonomy and empowerment, leading to healthier and less vulnerable conditions of existence, achieved by the unionized sex workers of Sonagachi form a revealing contrast to the entirely unorganized nature of domestic workers in the city. To this could be added the Bombay Houseworker’s Solidarity, established in 1986; or the work of Ela Bhatt and Renana Jhabvala, among others, through SEWA, a trade union of 220,000 poor self-employed women; and ADITHI, formed in Bihar in 1988 for the empowerment of resourceless women and girls, now with a membership exceeding 20,000. These have all organized social security schemes founded on principles that Bhatt describes as “participatory, autonomous and decentralized”.

In a state naturally wary of the excesses of trade unionism, the home is perhaps perceived as sacrosanct with regard to the political organization of labour. Once the worker is domesticated, his work is rendered invisible, part of a set of nebulous and endlessly flexible arrangements that disguises exploitation as informality. Servants are too close to home in the way that prostitutes aren’t, although both provide essential services that had better remain invisible. Perhaps this is why the latter have managed to organize themselves more easily, and “sex worker” doesn’t sound as stiltedly PC as “domestic worker” in everyday Indian English. But, in our more candid moments — particularly in conversation with European visitors who cannot decide whether to be shocked or charmed — we prefer to call it “benevolent feudalism”.    


 
 
THE TELEGRAPH/ DIARY 
 
 
 
 

Keep it in the family

Sibling rivalry is not too bad a thing if it stays within the family. Troubles start when those outside get wind of it. For the saffron family, busy with the anniversary celebrations of the government, this is one fact that must have hit home with a thud. The subterranean tension between Arun Jaitley, the young and ambitious minister for law and justice, and Sushma Swaraj, the equally ambitious and somewhat dangerous newly appointed minister for information and broadcasting, has quite obviously spilled out of homely confines. When the government recovered from the railway minister’s gunfire recently, it suddenly realized it had spent one whole year before the firing squad and that called for some jubilation. Swaraj, the new incumbent in Shastri Bhavan, was given the charge of holding and conducting the fanfare and the lady immediately set to work summoning BJP ministers to her office to discuss plans. Jaitley was called up on the telephone by Swaraj, but he expressed his inability to attend, saying he had to rush for an urgent medical check-up. Lo and behold! The next day, this snippet of information had made it to the newspapers and Jaitley’s alleged unhappiness about the transfer of his portfolio to Swaraj under duress was given as the reason for his absence. But it was a personal conversation between the two. Who could have added the twist to the tale?

Say yes minister?

A shocking tale for the Congress, which still hasn’t got over its defeat in the byelections in Sunam, Punjab. But it is not so much the defeat as the future that is worrying the leadership more. Sonia Gandhi is examining a report submitted by one Captain Amrinder Singh, who claims that Akalis have developed a novel way of rigging polls. It is done simply by doctoring the electronic voting machine. According to Singh, an “expert” had even been brought in from the UK and he charged Rs 50 lakh for helping in this handiwork. There was more. Amrinder has asked the Congress to oppose the use of voting machines all over the country. His question is: why should the British and the French stop using the machines and go back to manual voting had the system been effective? The Congress hopes to take up the matter with the Election Commission. But there is a catch. MS Gill, the chief election commissioner, was once private secretary to Parkash Singh Badal. What if Gill still hasn’t gotten out of the habit of saying “Yes, boss”?

Group behaviour

They are a quartet and have perfect synchronization. That is one reason they can pull strings in a mammoth organization like the sangh parivar quite efficiently. Two of them have already made it as BJP members of the Rajya Sabha. The other two wait in quiet anticipation for the next biennial polls to the upper house in early 2002. Of this quaint foursome, the two scribes who are already MPs were keen to be nominated by the party president, Bangaru Laxman, to the BJP’s national council. So the slow movement began. One of the two went to the party chief and highly recommended the other for a place in the council. The latter’s superior writing skills were praised, so were his negotiating skills and his closeness to RSS bigwigs. Point noted, said Laxman. When the time came for the nominations to be announced, the name recommended found its place, but the name of the man who took all the trouble of recommending it was not there. A sick joke wasn’t it? The recommender can’t stop bobbing his head in agreement, nor pitying his own fate.

Close to next door

Congressmen have always been known to be good fighters, be it for freedom, or posts or rooms. A big fight is in the offing between Arjun Singh and Salman Khurshid about occupying a big room in 24, Akbar Road. Arjun is now lording over it as head of the AICC’s minorities department. Salman considers the department to be defunct and feels the room should be handed over to him for more important work. After all, he is heading the party’s policy, planning and coordination department. What could be better than planning in a room beside the 10, Janpath? How would that be for quick reference work?

The more the merrier

The staff at the Indian mission in Bangkok is five times more than that of Pakistan which handles eight times more work. But you can’t blame them. The embassy staff has to accompany the thousands of Indian VIPs, who land there with alarming regularity, on sightseeing and shopping trips. Pleasing them is a tough job no doubt.

Footnote/ Running for the future

Didi is back in the Rail Bhavan with a whimper. There have been no promises on Article 356, and very little to go by on the rollback drama. Little wonder Mamata Banerjee is keen on showing her mettle as railways minister again. She has just hit upon an idea that could earn her a pat on the back from the sports loving people of her state and elsewhere. Banerjee has set her mind on creating a sports cadre in the ministry of railways. This is keeping in mind the stagnation that eminent sportspersons, who have entered the railways through the sports quota, face. Take people like PT Usha, who have been languishing for years in the post they joined. The cadre is being planned on the lines of the civil services. Didi has held several meetings with the department of personnel and training and the Union public service commission and is confident the plans will take concrete shape in about a month’s time. Sportsmen in the cadre will then be able to go up to the post of additional member secretary. Banerjee’s personal staff believe this will increase the minister’s popularity in leaps. That is if she doesn’t decide to resign again.    

 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

Dress maketh the Indian

Sir — India’s foreign minister, Jaswant Singh, was seen putting on a traditional Rajasthani turban when the president of the United States, Bill Clinton, visited India. He donned the same headgear while accompanying the prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, to the US. But, at the moment, he appears to have got rid of it. One wonders why. Besides, nowadays, Pramod Mahajan, the Union minister for information technology and a close aide to the prime minister, is occasionally seen in three-piece suits with shining neckties. This is a marked change from his erstwhile swadeshi attire. What could possibly be the reason that impels the two to keep changing their looks in diametrically opposed ways?
Yours faithfully,
Shariq Alavi, Lucknow

Sporting chance

Sir — Congratulations to Sreyashi Dastidar for her well written article, “Last days of the white sporting world” (Sept 28). Ralph Metcalfe and Eddie Tolan, the two top ranking black sprinters of the Thirties, and whom Dastidar mentioned, were jocularly known as “the long and the short of it” owing to the former’s robust build and the latter’s rather diminutive one. The only white sprinter to give them any competition was Frank Wykoff, the world record holder for the 100 yards sprint.

Dastidar has rightly pointed out that genetics have a lot to do with black supremacy in athletics. The unusual configuration of the black athlete’s heel helps in extracting a high amount of physical “kickback” from the track with every stride, which boosts momentum.

Interestingly, German athletes appear to be able to give the black athletes a run for their money. Armin Hary set the trend in Rome in 1960. The experience at Sydney has also amply vindicated this. Another noticeable feature is the rise of the Asian athletes. The Japanese, Chinese, Arabians and Sri Lankans have also done remarkably well. With proper training, this part of the globe should be able to produce numerous good athletes in the coming years.

Yours faithfully,
J.K. Dutt, Calcutta

Sir — With a population of one billion, it is quite disgraceful that the Indian contingent to the Olympics comprised 72 sportspersons.

Of these people, a substantial portion comprised members of the hockey team. It is a shame we have not been able to produce sportspersons for all the categories in the Olympics. Moreover, the medals tally in the Olympics creates such a deplorable image of the Indian sporting scene that one begins to wonder if we should send an Indian contingent to the games at all.

Yours faithfully,
Avishek Agarwal, Burnpur

Lost tongues

Sir — The Asiatic Society, Calcutta, has a very rich collection of Arabic, Persian and Urdu literature. This is available both in the printed form and as manuscripts. Unfortunately, the present council of the society is treating the texts with neglect. There are only two or three people among the staff who are conversant with Arabic or Persian and they used to be of immense assistance to the research scholars attending the Asiatic Society.

In a recent development, these staff members have been transferred to somewhere else leaving the researchers feeling a trifle helpless. Murli Manohar Joshi would be well advised to look into the matter. Or is the matter not important enough for him to devote any time to?

Yours faithfully,
Aquil Ahmed Aquil, Calcutta

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