The Boss and the Other

There is an interesting post over on Our Delhi Struggle in that puts words to something I have felt since I got here. In India it seems, there are lots of people whose job it is to run errands and just plain do your chores for you.

I’ve wondered what it really is that bothers me so much about this.

Western countries are not as egalitarian as the ideals that we are ingrained with, but this “peon” system seems to show a systematic lack of respect. One is the boss. He orders the other around. Often – usually in fact – the “boss” is not very respectful of the other’s dignity.

I’ve seen this a few times where upper-class Indians have been less than respectful towards our driver. A neighbor of mine talked about him in the third person as if he were a pet while he was standing right there. Wrenzo is a good man and deserves better. Sure, he is a working class, self confessed “rowdy chap” and not a refined whatever. That does not mean that he deserves to be treated disrespectfully.

Simply treating them as equals in the western sense does not go over so well though and it caused more than one cultural faux paus on my part.

The worst was when we were at Bandipur. While there, we stayed in a safari lodge. There is a beautiful gazebo where meals are served. It also has the water filter. Wrenzo wanted to refill his water bottle and had walked up to the gazebo to refill it at the filter. We were in the gazebo with other guests at the time, watching a film on leopards. Wrenzo loitered in the nearby shadows, probably waiting for everything to be over so that he could refill his bottle. We saw him and waved him over since it would be awkward not to.

Then came time for dinner.

We asked him if he wanted to have dinner with us. It would be impolite not to ask. He accepted. In retrospect, this was probably more out of politeness than anything else. The servers challenged his presence. I asked for his dinner to be added to our tab. The headwaiter accepted, but I noticed something…

I noticed that it was an awkward situation. Now if I, a foreigner from a low context culture, notice that the situation is awkward, it must have been extremely awkward for all the Indians involved. You just don’t have dinner with your driver in a restaurant it seems. There is even a sign in the clubhouse here in Palm Meadows that drivers are not allowed in.

I wonder what story prompted that sign.


5 responses to “The Boss and the Other

  1. Actually Dave, while I completely buy your point about respect and dignity, the Wrenzo instance in some ways is not that far removed from the West – would it be considered normal, for instance, for families in the US to invite their household help – maids/butlers/chauffeurs, depending on the family – to sit at the table during a formal sit-down dinner at home? Or to take them along to a meal at a restaurant with the rest of the family? Wouldn’t a chauffeur in uniform, or a maid in an apron, for instance, be told to use the service entrance if either walked up to a fine-dining kind of place?
    The point being – in their own ways, other countries, too, have the same issues.

    Quirky Indian

  2. You might be right about this among the super rich. The thing is that the average westerner simply has no experience having household help. Until the end of the 19th century, it was typical for middle class western families to have a butler/maid/etc. This died out as industrialization and development drove up the cost of labor to the point where there was no longer a class of poor people who could be paid for these jobs. There is an interesting article from last December’s Economist about how the kitchen has changed in western household, originally being a not so nice place where only servants ventured, to a focal point for the family as it is now.

    Because for the past century or more, only the super rich have had household help, most people – even the well to do – have no experience with “help”. The plumber, cable man, heating/AC tech, etc. who come to the house to do work are fellow members of the middle class; peers. The plumber who visits the doctor’s house to visit a leaky faucet; his children go to school with the doctor’s kids and they are fellow members of the parent teacher association.

    The only thing resembling maids in the west any more are au pars and that is considerably different than a maid. They do service work, babysitting, cleaning, cooking, etc., but they are a cultural exchange – a girl experiencing the world and living in a foreign country for a year – and it would be strange if they did not eat with the family.

    A couple more decades of 9% growth will also likely eliminate the maid as an institution in India as it follows the same track as the west.

  3. But that also depends on how many people are there on lunch or dinner. Once only my nephew and I were on a trip to Nainital and stopped for dinner. We invited the driver of the hotel provided car for breakfast with us and there were no issues as there were just three of us.

    But I agree with what you say in general and had it been a mixed group the situation could have been awkward.

  4. I see it as Britian in the 18th C and earlier..when class and status reinged and people were respected for “old money” and try to build their status with “new money” etc…a society where arranged marriaged prevailed and finding the right match depended on your ‘family background’ ‘connections’ ‘profession’ and ‘wealth’…so classism prevailed. Then came capitalism and democracy etc and turned things around….
    India though has only been a democracy for little over 50 years so a couple of generations…hence the way people treat each other is still ingrained largely in the old ways. Which are similar to where largely the western society used to be.
    Anyway, I’ve experienced the same thing as u mention (when we were humanitarian workers post tsunami for a year in Sri lanka)with taking our driver with us to eat at hotels and the waiters and hotel manages would treat them suspiciously and rudely. I even had a hotel manger yell at my driver as he sat at our table saying it was rude of him to do so when i had asked him to anyway. It didn;t matter what I said…I’m brown…while my husband is a white man.
    In some ways Indians/SL treat white people with such racism and dis-respect…generalising that they are largely immoral and lack values and “there is no way my child would ever marry a white person” kinda sentiments….but then at other times white people are respected like Gods… for the money? the status? …it’s hard to understand this completely.

  5. > Which are similar to where largely the western society used to be

    Very True

    Capitalism for all of its ills, drove a stake through the heart of feudalism in the west. The process began in the 14th century with the Black Death and took about six centuries to complete in the last corners of the west. It will likely be much faster (and more disorienting?) in India. I’m reminded of a passage from Barbara Tuchman’s ‘A Distant Mirror’. Rich, commoner (low caste) merchants – who were often wealthier than the nobles who lorded over them – were admonished by the church (which was always in league with the nobility) against what we in modern times would would call consumerism. They understood the threat to their position.

    Being a mixed brown/white family probably allows you to make observations that are veiled to us.

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