Cultures of Servitude: Modernity, Domesticity, and Class in India

Cultures of Servitude: Modernity, Domesticity, and Class in India

Cultures of Servitude: Modernity, Domesticity, and Class in India

Cultures of Servitude: Modernity, Domesticity, and Class in India


Domestic servitude blurs the divide between family and work, affection and duty, the home and the world. In Cultures of Servitude, Raka Ray and Seemin Qayum offer an ethnographic account of domestic life and servitude in contemporary Kolkata, India, with a concluding comparison with New York City. Focused on employers as well as servants, men as well as women, across multiple generations, they examine the practices and meaning of servitude around the home and in the public sphere.

This book shifts the conversations surrounding domestic service away from an emphasis on the crisis of transnational care work to one about the constitution of class. It reveals how employers position themselves as middle and upper classes through evolving methods of servant and home management, even as servants grapple with the challenges of class and cultural distinction embedded in relations of domination and inequality.


Types of work that are consumed as services and not in products separable
from the worker, and not capable of existing as commodities independently
of him…are of microscopic significance when compared with the mass of
capitalist production

They may be entirely neglected, therefore.

Karl Marx, Capital

IN AN ICONIC SCENE in Aparajito, the second film of Satyajit Ray's Apu Trilogy, the destitute Brahmin widow Sarbajaya watches her son being led into servitude. She has recently obtained work as a cook in the household of a rich Brahmin, where her employers are both considerate and inconsiderate in the manner of feudal lords. In a previous scene, for example, the mistress of the house casually assumes that Sarbajaya should be willing to move to a different town with the household. In this scene, Sarbajaya is shown observing from the top of the stairs as the master of the house sends for her son, Apu, to light his pipe and tells Apu to pluck gray hairs from his head, for which Apu receives a tip. The screenplay notes that “[s]he frowns as she slowly comes down the stairs again.” In the next scene, we see Sarbajaya and her son on a train, having left the job behind.

Sarbajaya's expression as she observes the master with Apu conveys that nothing could be more heart wrenching and sobering than watching one's son become a servant. We mention “son” here deliberately because it is not clear that Sarbajaya's reaction would have been quite as strong in the case of a daughter. Indeed, in the first film of the trilogy, Pather Panchali, the daughter, Durga (who dies at the end of the film), is shown at the service of her little brother, Apu, looking after him, feeding him, and ultimately being responsible for his well-being. Durga was born to serve in one way or another, unlike Apu, the Brahmin son, whose caste and gender combine to hold the promise of higher things. Notwithstanding the conventional correspondence between servants' work and women's work that Sarbajaya represents, in the eyes of the masters an Apu would be just as suitable as a Durga to become a servant.

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