being brown

Fie on Society

My parents moved into a relatively up-market part of Mumbai, in to an up-market apartment in an up-market building. And I with them. There is a swimming pool (length and breadth approach Olympic sizes, though depth is only 4 feet throughout! I mean, who does that??!), a gym, a club house, couple of squash courts, a badminton court, a tennis court and sundry other less impressive activities and all equipped with state of the art machinery. For those who are Indian, this spells luxury living.

Like most upmarket people and places, people in my building are shit scared of security threats. Each flat has a video camera in the lobby that gets activated with the ringing of the doorbell. Security measures at the gate are so much more painful. The big gates are for the ‘owners’ and ‘residents’ of the flats. The small gate is for the people who service them. They file in at that gate every morning, in their hundreds (its amazing how many people are required to service this handful) and they have to provide all their details. Regulars are issued identity cards after ‘police verification’ and a letter from their employers. There is a separate, two cubic metre lift for this majority while the minority of the rich blokes get to move up and down on two beautiful looking elevators, the size of the ‘servants room’! While filing out, if employers give them knickknacks to take home, they should also be furnished with a letter that gives them permission to do so from the employer. While filing out, bags are checked, faces scrutinized, because, well, its only the poor who cheat and become terrorists.

I have been aware of all this and more ( really, you must be a dunce if you don’t notice it and your blood doesn’t boil, because its just so stark), but, it kind of came home to me when I had two experiences with the ‘service people’ as they are called.

The first took place about a week ago. I was returning home at about 1PM, and had summoned the lift at the basement. (there are 45 floors in the building, so it takes some time for it to descend). And while I was waiting, another lady joined me. She had her sari pulled up at her waist and a wet umbrella and called for the service lift. As we waited, I smiled and so did she. My elevator came first and she got in along with me (there was no liftman, if there had been he would have asked her to leave). I pressed 15 and she pressed 8 and we stood in the aimless fashion in which you stand in lifts. Presently she asked “its so late! Where are you going to cook so late in the afternoon?” I wasn’t sure I heard right. Infact, I didn’t know what she was saying. But she asked again. “its 1, when will you finish cooking and when will your memsaab (madam) eat?”. I quickly realized that she had mistaken me for a cook. So I said, “I don’t cook here. I live here.” What came next completely took my breath away. If I mistook someone for someone else, I would apologise and show mild embarrassment but that’s about it. This woman was literally shaking as she apologized, “ oh sorry madam! I didn’t realize.”. I said, “arey that’s ok! Its an honest mistake” and then I had to hear a rant about “ you know other madams wouldn’t take this that kindly. This is so embarrassing. Please forgive me. I didn’t mean to be rude. Etc etc etc.”

The second instance happened this morning. As I left my house, I walked out the big gates to my building. The security staff had changed overnight and I noticed some new faces. Then one of the watchmen came over to me and asked me why I wasn’t going through the service gate (so I could get my carry bags checked for stolen items). Again, I didn’t understand what he was saying to me. Initially I thought he was offering to get me a cab. They do that sometimes. And I instinctively said, “oh no. I am going to the station (I don’t know if travelling by local train is something they do in this building since every member of the family seems to have a car entirely to themselves)”. But he insisted, and so did the other watchman who had come to join the fun. Then they asked me if I was an ‘owner’. (I guess my confusion was so apparent that they entertained the idea that they might have been wrong). But then, I wasn’t, I grew even more confused. So I said, ‘well I live here on the 15th floor.”. Then I think they realized that this is no ‘service person’ we are dealing with. It’s a ‘memsaab’. What followed was profuse apologies from all members of the security staff. A lot more than the situation required or deserved.

Hmmm it makes you wonder doesn’t it? What kind of a fucking society are we building?!

( apologies to my more delicate readers who don’t like the use of certain strong words. )


3 responses

  1. Tom

    I personally liked the strong words. And I agree! What kind of world are we building?! I dated a girl who lived in a posh high rise and it was very similar. Unfortunately, the other residents didn’t seem to have a problem with it.

    July 21, 2010 at 3:44 am

  2. Rene Lacoste

    I respect you for not lending undue importance to the more obvious implications.

    We, of course, live in a world where the owners of capital demand respect from those whom they can’t accord any in return. We’re building a class-gap. After all, while we were born equal, all our lives we strive to be more equal than the rest of us.

    October 12, 2010 at 6:21 pm

  3. sumanyav

    Rene, I cant agree with you more.

    October 13, 2010 at 6:54 am

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