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INDRAJIT HAZRA
POX INDI KA

Indrajit Hazra is a writer and journalist. His latest book is 'Grand Delusions: A Short Biography of Kolkata' (Aleph)

“I’ll top up your glass. Just don’t call me a servant.”

Robi Ghosh as the ‘ideal servant’ in Tapan Sinha’s 1966 Bengali film, Golpo Holeyo Shotti.

o you have a servant to top up your glass?" As you read that sentence, you must have realised fairly quickly that it's pre-loaded with something more than just a query about refilling an empty glass. When I read the sentence, in English, written as a jestful comment to make a point about the other person's general state of sloth, it was easy for me to take it out of its context and plonk it on a plate drained of any mirth.

The fact is that while we are all familiar with the concept of someone "topping up our glass" (or someone else's glass), when confronting that someone "in English", we usually conjure up the figure of a waiter in a restaurant. "Do you have anyone to top up your glass?" is a perfectly comfortable sentence to deal with. Even in Hindi, "Koi apka glass bharne kay liye hain?" or in Bengali, "Aapnar glass bhorar jonney keu achhe?", the query sounds thoughtful, as if directed at an elderly gentleman living on his own.

But the word "servant" botches things up. The equivalent words, "naukar" and "kaajer lok" (working person), in Hindi and Bengali respectively, also sting, but with less force. (The more literal term "chakor" in Bengali bristles to our ears with class scorn; its meaning is closer to "slave".) It's as if by using the English word "servant", one has let out an uncomfortable communal-civilisational secret that will embarrass us in front of outsiders who don't share the same social framework and values.

When we talk about a "servant" being there to fill up our glass, we aren't talking about a figure such as Nestor, Captain Haddock's butler in the Tintin books. One is talking about our kind of servant. For us, the word "servant" is doubly Occidentalised. "Servant", as we come across it in English, is a figure that most Westerners, white or black or brown, associate with the past where class (like colour) divisions were codified in their societies. On top of that, Westerners consider 'servants' and the world that word contains to be an Indian social oddity, at par with arranged marriage but acceptable for their own purposes "so as to not offend local norms".

Our "servants" are not the ones we encounter in the British TV period drama Downton Abbey or in the period movie set in apartheid America, The Help. When we watch Jennifer Lopez in Maid in Manhattan, her character has little in common with your maid, let alone the housekeeping lady in the last Indian hotel you stayed in — if they had any house-keeping ladies at all.

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While hiring someone to fill our glass points to silliness about how we divide labour, it isn’t the shame that the English word “servant” conjures up.

ld Hindi movies depict the forever-tragic family help who gets mistreated and is accused of stealing from time to time only to break into tears that he wipes away with the cloth that's perennially hanging from his shoulder. This human pet of sorts continues to very much exist.

But in terms of archetypes, with Hindi movies always being sharp to capture social trends and stereotypes, that old figure has been replaced with a more comic, bumbling quasi-sidekick to the household youngster who is either the hero or heroine. The maid as the "chambermaid" with additional duties and the servant as a kind of civilian batman or valet with duties for the rest of the household are the more familiar "naukar" figures these days.

The "servant" as khansama or bearer ("bearah") who once fanned the saheb or pressed his legs and served meals in livery and pagdi has been claimed by museum showplaces such as the clubs modelled on the British Raj invention. But by "servant", we obviously and instinctively mean the maid or the help who lives nearby, probably in a colony populated by maids, servants, drivers and other members of the original jugaad economy, who find themselves, at least in the metropolises, being — and increasingly being treated as — an important and not-to-be-tossed-around part of urban family life.

So when you come across the line, "Do you have a servant to top up your glass?" or variants thereof, it's best to acknowledge that there is, in all likelihood, someone to top up your glass if you do choose to outsource that difficult job. It's also good to admit that while hiring someone to metaphorically or literally fill your glass points to a astounding silliness about how we choose to divide labour in this country — typified by scenarios like having the maid put one's laundry in the washing machine — it isn't the horrifying shame that the English word "servant" is likely to conjure up.

As long as a "help", "maid", "domestic servant" — or whatever you wish to call such a person so that western foreigners don't get yet another confirmation of the fact that the biggest elephant in the room in India is indeed its class divisions and barriers — gets the respect that everyone deserves, even if that means proverbially forcing it down his or her throat, it's ok to have someone around to top up your glass. And, of course, as long as you're paying him or her well.

 
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