Why is news of Bollywood stars ill-treating domestic helps shocking?

Bollywood stars are simply more preened and richer versions of ourselves. Why do we expect them to behave any differently from the average Indian who can hire help? Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

Bollywood stars are simply more preened and richer versions of ourselves. Why do we expect them to behave any differently from the average Indian who can hire help? Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

In December 2015, BookMyBai.com which is a domestic help placement agency, made the news for all the wrong reasons. It had released—and then defended—an advertisement, which essentially commodified the very people who ensured that it had a service to provide, which is the bai or maid. The massive ads had stated, “Diamonds are useless! (The alarming-ness of this statement being brought across by the exclamation mark, I presume.) Gift your wife a maid.” Rarely has an ad managed to be elitist, sexist and also commodify human beings in the same breath. You can read about the ad in detail, here.

On Wednesday though, all this sexism/elitism/objectification was forgotten, because a blogpost written by the CEO of BookMyBai, Anupam Singhal, made the news. Titled “Why did BookMyBai put a blanket-ban on providing a maid to Bollywood celebrities”, the blog listed various instances of physical abuse, refusal to pay fees, inhuman conditions and other atrocities which various Bollywood stars had subjected the domestic helps provided by BookMyBai to. It makes for quite an awful read, and will fill you with revulsion. One actress refused to provide any food through the day other than tea and bread to her full-time help. Another refused to give leave to her help to perform his mother’s last rites, until a replacement arrived at her doorstep. The list is long and disgusting.

Now, of course, it’s good to know that Singhal, while endorsing sexism and elitism and thinking maids are objects (he did justify the earlier ad by saying it was “lighthearted humour”), does not endorse physical or emotional abuse of the same objects you can gift to your wife. What has surprised me is that people are so surprised by his revelations. We were so shocked that news channels actually had news segments on his blog post and newspapers printed reports on it.

People ill-treating domestic help? How shocking! This is unheard of in India.

Bollywood stars are simply more preened and richer versions of ourselves. Why do we expect them to behave any differently from the average Indian who can hire help? Because they act in films and stay in fancy homes in Pali Hill? What an utterly infantile expectation. The Bollywood stars have essentially behaved just the way you see your neighbours and relatives treat their help.

The concept of domestic help, as we know it in India, is warped as it is. People travel miles from their homes, leaving behind their families to come and live in our houses so as to earn money to send back to their families. They do not see their families for practically the entire year. They travel to different parts of the country, if ever we shift home. They are in very large part, displaced people. The least you can do when they are staying or working in your home is treat them like they’re human and not chattel. But if only that was the case.

In my fancy gated colony, peopled by journalists and editors and full of tree-shaded parks, drivers are not allowed to sit in the parks or on the benches. They are either supposed to swelter in your car or I assume, stand in the sun on one leg. Of course, most of us who are more disposed to fighting, simply tell our drivers to sit in the park if they want and send the complaining neighbours to speak to us. A room was finally opened up for the drivers as a waiting room—it has no fans and no chairs and one tiny window. So they can die of asphyxiation instead. But they must not step on the grass.

In another uppity condominium in Gurugram, there’s a separate service elevator. That is the only elevator which the help can use. Why? Because residents have complained that the help has body odour and the residents’ noses may fall off as a result. That the residents themselves often have body odour or stand a little too close to you for your liking, is beside the point. The help who has been working in our house for years are petrified of stepping into the main elevators at my mother’s condominium when we aren’t accompanying them, because residents stare at them and some even ask why they didn’t use the service elevator.

Most houses which eat non-vegetarian food do not serve the same to the help. Why? Because they should eat dal and chawal. It’s food for sustenance, right. Imagine what it does to someone, to see you eat copious amounts of food which they are allowed to cook—but are not allowed to eat. I know of people who have CCTV cameras in their kitchens to monitor what food items the maid or cook eats and cooks. Others lock their fridges when they leave home. The maids have come to our houses and asked for cold water because their fridge is locked. Others expect the maids to sleep in the kitchen, under the counter. As if they’re utensils.

How many of us have seen families on holiday, stuffing their face with food, while some underage maid or even an older maid sits at a separate table with no food, and is occasionally summoned to be told, “baba ko paani do” or “baba ko ghumaake le aao”. I agree that most help, at least people who work in my home and my family home in Kolkata, do not want to eat at a restaurant. They feel uncomfortable eating with their hands in a fancy restaurant, are unfamiliar with the food on offer and tend to be suspicious of whether beef or non-vegetarian has been cooked in the same utensils. But if that is the case, don’t take them along and make their discomfort worse. It is definitely better for your help, your children and other diners in the restaurant, if you just leave your help and children at home with each other.

But much like maids, in our metro cities, children are also treated as accessories or goods. To be carried around for show and tell—and kept propped up at the next table.

My point being, why are we surprised that Bollywood celebrities have simply behaved the way the average Indian does? And before raising our eyebrows at them, maybe we should take a closer look at our own friends and family and see how they treat their help.

Take a leaf out from what Chunky Pandey said last week to prove that he loves Bengalis. “I’m obsessed with all things Bengali, man. I love fish, my maid is Bengali, I acted in Bengali and Bangladeshi films.” We could all learn from Chunky and love our maids but in a slightly less feudal manner than we do. And let’s hope that along with standing up for abuse of domestic help, BookMyBai’s CEO has also realized the folly of commodifying the very people who form the backbone of his very lucrative business.