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

By Raka Ray; Seemin Qayum | Go to book overview

4 Disquieting Transitions

Every upper­class household had a large fleet of faithful retainers whose
efficiency was unquestionable. It may sound incredible but in those days the
servants were proud of their work and their masters' social position. Some
of them were excellent advertisements for the affluence and stylishness of a
particular household. Our jamadar, Munshi, hailing from Aligarh, came
to work with my family in 1930, a year before I was born. He worked with
us with rare devotion for 60 years and died in harness in the mid Nineties.
There was no part of the house which was not touched by his vigorous broom
and there were no family secrets that Munshi wasn't aware of…. Today,
so many servants turn out to be marauders, grasping and bestial, ready to
become characters in horror stories
.

Samir Mukerjee, “Vignettes of a Vintage Town”

EMPLOYER NARRA TIVES of the past are deeply emotional. More than one employer wept when remembering the servants of childhood. Others declared with certainty that servants loved their young charges as they would have their own children. Many punctuated their reminiscences in Bengali with the explicit phrase “like one of the family,” in English.1 Even if the famously difficult interpretation of tears is put to one side, it would be analytically risky to take such declarations at face value. If a culture of servitude normalizes domination and inequality, employer insistence on affective and familial ties with servants could be considered a maneuver to make the unacceptable acceptable.2 Quite possibly these are nostalgic representations of a world that is past, representations in which servants are not simply the object of memory but the grounds for evoking through the magic of hindsight a different set of memories—of idealized home and family, and an ordered and understood existence. An idealized past is the inevitable backdrop and foil for employer claims about relationships with servants and servant attributes in the present.3

We argue in this chapter that employers of servants deploy the “rhetoric of love”—an ideological strategy that allows structural inequalities and domination to be perceived on an entirely different register such that relationships

-92-

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

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Illustrations ix
  • Acknowledgments xi
  • 1: Approaching Servitude in Kolkata 1
  • 2: Colonial Legacies and Spatial Transformations 32
  • 3: Between Family Retainer and Freelancer 65
  • 4: Disquieting Transitions 92
  • 5: The Failure of Patriarchy 119
  • 6: The Cultivation and Cleavage of Distinction 145
  • 7: Traveling Cultures of Servitude 167
  • 8: Conclusion 188
  • Notes 201
  • Glossary 229
  • Bibliography 233
  • Index 249
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