Of Work and Freedom

Whenever the movie The Help surfaces while I’m surfing across TV channels, searching for something to settle on, I find myself watching at least a couple of its scenes before moving on. My first viewing, several years ago, had been against the backdrop of all the noise and hype that usually accompanies awards ceremonies, where it had featured brightly, bagging a few trophies. But my scepticism had been blown away, it was all it had been touted to be, a well-crafted film with a solid subject and story.

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(Image Source : Vanity Fair) 

The random re-viewings remind me of its narrative and appeal and, unfortunately, of the relevance of its subject even today. Employing people of colour for the drudgery of ones’ domestic chores may be frowned upon and perhaps politically unthinkable today, but there clearly was a time when it was an accepted practice, accepted by both whites as well as blacks. By whites because they were blinded by privilege, an entitled belief in their natural superiority over other races, their legitimising backbone of exploitation. By blacks because they had been oppressed and hence conditioned for centuries through slavery and systematic segregation, because any expression of their dissent had been stifled, even ruthlessly snuffed out over generations, and because otherwise they would have had no bread on their tables. They also accepted not being allowed to sit with the whites, pray in their churches, eat at their tables, relieve themselves in their toilets. And while The Help portrays the animus between the two communities while largely following the eyes and voice of its rebellious white protagonist, it does give sizeable footage to the disgruntled yet helplessly acquiescent black voices, exposing the symptoms of the divide if not its deep-rooted causes and reminding us of the flagrant injustice of it all.

The discrimination and implicit segregation insidiously endures. Even at home. No, we don’t really have blacks as such, we are all different shades of brown. But we do have our own caste hierarchies, and Gandhian philosophy, and Ambedkar’s, Phule’s and many other notable social reformers’ persistent painstaking efforts notwithstanding, we still have obnoxious relics of caste-job correlations. The Annihilation of Caste seems to be but a distant pipe dream.

Yes, we have a kind of ‘upward’ migration, where people of the so-called inferior castes can dream of and realistically aspire to occupying places originally reserved for the upper echelons. Doors, spaces, jobs and homes are now thankfully increasingly open for all, a slow but perceptible dismantling of caste barriers. And, of course, it would be politically incorrect to not do so. In fact, as the original ‘upper’ castes are quick to point out, there is a reverse reservation in place today, a system that is edging them out of dominions that had traditionally and exclusively been theirs.

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(Image Source : The Hindu) 

But, frankly, I have yet to see Brahmin men and women cleaning toilets in non-Brahmin homes. Every day. For a living. Or toiling without any decent protection in the stiflingly dark and dangerous sewage drains that run under the bellies of towns and cities. Or carrying the euphemistically termed night soil on their heads towards the designated waste disposal dumps. Manual scavenging has, since decades, been declared unacceptable because of its caste quotient and thence illegal, but has nonetheless survived in regions and communities that obdurately and inhumanly look the other way. Watching their videos on the internet fills me with repugnance and shame. And anger.

I remember watching Fandry, a Marathi film made by the director of the hugely popular and successful Sairat. I had been bowled over by its sheer beauty, showing it as it is, sans embellishments, sans melodrama. A simple story simply told. But again in that apparent simplicity were embedded layers and layers of social complexities, those that we have inherited from over centuries ago, and that seem to doggedly and successfully resist change. Here again there were jobs that only Dalits in the village could do. Like snaring pigs that were proving to be a menace. That was their birthright. Theirs alone. So an adolescent Dalit boy who has a crush on his upper-caste schoolmate must go through the angst of being watched by her along with a mocking, jeering village crowd, when he and his family are chasing and entrapping the disgusting but elusive pigs. Heart breaking.

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(Image Source : IMDb) 

There also comes to mind a documentary, The Children of the Pyre, made a few years ago, that raises similar questions. Simply brilliant with scant playing-up of the inherently and obviously gruesome subject. Getting the stark horror of burning body parts done with and out of the way in the first few frames, we are allowed into the private worlds of the underprivileged children who work to ensure that the fires are well stoked until the bodies burn through. We see their natural innocence jostling with their grotesque reality, a reality that they have inherited by birth. So while a Brahmin chants the mantras and officiates over the funeral ceremony, it is the Dalits who stick around long after the mourners and priests have left, to ensure that the cremation is properly complete, else as one of them warns, the scavenging dogs that prowl the Benaras Ghaats will feast on the remnants of the corpse. One of the many lines that stayed with me as I walked out of the auditorium was, if we are untouchable and can’t share your space, then how are we allowed to burn your bodies in your funerals? So, does the ‘choot-achoot’ distinction melt away on funeral pyres? According to convenience and expedience or because our souls that supposedly outlive our burnt bodies had never been stamped with caste in the first place?

Yes, 12 Years a Slave, The Help, Hidden Figures and many more such well-made films show us the dark side of what society once used to be like in the west. Yes, racism is still an inescapable fact of life there even today. But its face isn’t as absolute as it was a century ago. These films don’t deal with the subjects of today. But the horror that befell the people of colour then, still torments the underprivileged in India today. If The Help were to be adapted and made in India it could be a film about today. Fandry and The Children of the Pyre are about today. I dare not imagine how ghastly it all must have been a hundred years ago. Our inheritance of our caste related socio-cultural history clings on tenaciously and still surrounds the accident of our birth. So while we may mark Labour Day on our holiday calendars with officious fanfare, the underlying idea of the dignity of labour has been reduced to a mere lip serving platitude.

So, going back to the movie The Help, the question poses itself: what about the help we have at home? Where does it come from? Which social strata? Do we treat them on par with us? Do they sit at our tables, on our sofas, use our toilets? Mostly, the answer is a circumspect no. If I ask this question directly there is some squirming, a wish to deflect the issue, or a nervous half-baked response which says “they themselves won’t be comfortable with that”. Or there is a blunt dismissal of their ‘worthiness’ to do so, to be treated on par. And the question is then redirected towards me, “Do you do that? Treat them as complete equals? Sit with them on your sofa to watch TV? Eat your meals with them at your dining table?” Regrettably, the answer is still sometimes an embarrassed no.

I remember stepping out of the Dachau concentration camp when touring around Munich, physically numbed by what I had seen, then revolted and enraged by it all. Beginning with the promise emblazoned along the arch at the gates: Work will set you free. Forced labour from an incarcerated race but sanctimoniously dressed up with a mirage of freedom. I remember thinking that the cruel monstrosity was not the creation of a solitary mad man, but that it involved the active participation of plenty of other mad men and women, and also the tacit complicity of a people who were willing or complacent enough to cover their noses to escape the foul stench from the burning of the socio-politically despised, no longer fruitful and hence redundant dispensable flesh. And I remember feeling guilty of belonging to a human race that revels in inflicting suffering on its own. I felt ashamed that I belonged to a human race which despite its astounding mental and social evolution, just doesn’t do enough, doesn’t step up to protect its own, doesn’t fight for its neighbour’s rights. The right to exist with dignity.

And today I feel the same shame. For I am often but a passive, even blind observer of human indignities and travails in my own backyard, for I am so wrapped up in my social apathy, that it takes films like these to jolt me out of my comfortable stupor, my entrenched unseeability of their apparently ineffaceable untouchability. And I hold myself guilty of not doing enough.