Academic journal article Pakistan Journal of Women's Studies: Alam-e-Niswan

South Asian Mistresses and Servants: The Fault Lines between Class Chasms and Individual Intimacies

Academic journal article Pakistan Journal of Women's Studies: Alam-e-Niswan

South Asian Mistresses and Servants: The Fault Lines between Class Chasms and Individual Intimacies

Article excerpt


This paper examines the complex and telling relationship between mistress and servant. It is the intention of this paper to focus on the class chasm between these two parties, and thus, to hold as many other social factors as constant as possible; hence the paper will focus only on South Asian mistresses and South Asian servants; it will not be addressing the well-studied cases of immigrant servants in the attempt to single out discussion on the class issue and how this affects the domestic balance of power. This paper will argue that this class chasm although intangible and invisible, is uncompromising and unforgiving, not tempered to any significant depth even by sincere affection, mutual interdependence, and long-standing trust.

The paper begins with a literature review of some key studies of domestic servants and the power imbalances in households, and goes on to argue that because of the gulf between classes, the very positionality of the South Asian servant is one inherently vulnerable to exploitation. Given the intertwining of politics and poetics in the novel form, which Edward Said refers to as "an incorporating quasi-encyclopaedic cultural form," (Said, 1993, p.84), and indeed in fiction writing more broadly, the paper draws on five pieces of fiction by South Asian women writers to illustrate various cases where the relationship between mistress and servant had come to a point where it was put to the ultimate test. These pieces were selected precisely because they represented the domestic situation at 'crunch point', where allegiances had to be declared, and sides taken.

I have selected these the terms 'mistress' and 'servant' to best represent and highlight the textures of these relationships, which are seldom as detached and purely professional as that between mere 'employer' and 'employee' could be. The term 'mistress', as archaic as it may have become, still holds currency in the particularised type of relationship this paper explores, with its connotations of command and authority over a household, and over members of that household. Equally, the term 'servant' seems the most accurate here, rather than 'domestic worker', 'employee', or even 'maid', because 'servant' draws attention to the issue of personal services rendered, and importantly, emphasises the connotations of subservience.

This paper discusses some of the elements of the mistress-servant relationship; a relationship complex to the point of being tortuously so. In addition, it is a shifting, multi-layered relationship, often as not muddied with furtiveness and guilt, and equally likely to be touched with deep intimacy and extraordinary affection. These relationships are incessantly see-sawing in terms of the power balance, negotiated and renegotiated from day to day, sometimes from interaction to interaction, challenged or acknowledged through each look, gesture, even silence. This paper restricts itself to focusing on female employer and female employee relationships within the domestic setting because the context, expectations, interactions, and boundaries are significantly different for male servants and male employers.

Much research has been done in the study of domestic workers, particularly on diasporic migrant workers; of Sri Lankan maids in the Middle East, Filipinos maids in Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, of Indonesians maids in Malaysia (Gamburd, 2000, Constable, 1997, etc.). There has also been work done on non-immigrant domestic workers, where employer and employee are of the same nationality, but much of this research case-studies the situation where employer and employee are of different ethnicities, or races, or religions; "these relations of inequality include gender, age, ethnicity, race, class, and migration status, and most often compound two or more of these axes of differentiation" (Sanjek, 1990, p. 5). Examples of such studies include the research on black South Africans providing domestic service to white South Africans (Cock, 2001), and Christine Chin's (1998) study of Malaysian domestic workers from different races within the country, and the perceptions of each party. …

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