And we do not yet know whether cultural life can survive the disappearance
of domestic servants.1
Alain Besançon, quoted in Bourdieu, Distinction
WE HAVE SEEN how the institution of domestic servitude has undergone transformations associated with processes of urbanization and the move from the big house to the flat since the 1960s, but especially since the beginning of the 1990s, and concomitantly how the rhetoric of love, family, and loyalty has coexisted uneasily with an emerging, market discourse that seeks to identify the servant as a “contractual” worker rather than—or in addition to—as “part of the family.”2 In Kolkata, the practices and ideologies of “modernization” and “modernity” have not by any means led to the obsolescence of the servant, as the narrations of postwar optimism in the United States presaged.3 Indeed, middle- and upper-class life at the beginning of the twenty-first century continues to seem inconceivable without servants. As we have seen, keeping servants not only confirms the attainment of middle-class status but also confers attributes of prestige, cultural capital, and civilization on employers of all classes.4 Bourdieu's insertion of the above epigraph at the beginning of Distinction is telling: Class domination is sustained by distinction.
Domestic servitude has been equally if differently sustained in the past and the present by the operations of distinction. For what expressions of familial ideologies and loyalties cannot conceal, nor the wage contract disguise, is exploitation; above all, domestic servitude is a class relation rooted in extreme inequality and expressed through class distinctions that have been carefully nurtured and maintained over time. As we have noted, a culture of servitude is one in which domination/subordination, dependency, and inequality are normalized and permeate both the domestic and public spheres.