After the driver of a radio-taxi company raped a woman who had hired his taxi, there were protests and outrage. The usual “Is Delhi safe for women?” question was asked and answered with different levels of rationality. No one ever asks, “Is the home safe for women?”, because the answer would be uncomfortable. It would be too much to actually allow ourselves to understand that the darkness of the world is not out there, but in here, where a woman should feel safe.
Then, there were questions about background checks. Why had the man been hired? He had submitted a forged character reference. Didn’t someone check? I have written several references for young people. Admittedly, these are journalists in the main or people in the media. I have had someone call me to ask if I had actually written such a reference only twice. These are valid questions and it is to be hoped that everyone will start thinking about background checks and reference checks. And, it is to be hoped that the fallout will not be too brutal for those who do not know the right kind of people, the middle-class bourgeois person who can write the right kind of recommendation. I don’t want to sound cynical, but I can see the entrepreneurial possibilities. Someone somewhere will get a bunch of nice middle-class people together who will sign references and offer their names for a suitable sum. Like everything else, respectability will be commodified and a new black market will spring up.
I already know of a senior lecturer at a very reputed college in South Mumbai who charges for academic references for students. Everyone who teaches knows you cannot charge, for if you do, how soon before you will be taking premiums for glowing testimonials? Will students be within their rights to ask for a refund if the post or seat in a university does not come through? The lecturer in question says she only charges because her time is valuable. I am only telling you that to be objective.
I hope companies will be a lot more careful. The concierge services who come into our homes, the cleaning services, the driver services offered to drunk young people so that they can party as recklessly and ruthlessly and rudely as they want — has anyone asked whether all their staff is all recc-ied up? The Mumbai police ask you to register household help at the local police station with a photograph. Have you? Is this a good time to be talking about your own home?
A conversation I had with two young women — both in their thirties — comes back to me. We were discussing laptops. N comes from Lucknow. She has spent some time in Delhi. Her mother has to keep reminding her that it is Jee Haan, not Haanjee. They are an old feudal family and in the capacious pockets of the family, many retainers live. And, so it came to pass that N came to Mumbai, where she was going to work in the entertainment industry and her mother called and asked if she needed some household help. This is the kind of question that most city-dwellers chortle about. One always seems to need household help, or one knows someone who needs household help, and so N told her mother to buy a railway ticket etc. On the doorstep, five days later, was a young man.
Everyone listening to this story stopped thinking about anything else. “A young man?” someone asked. “Yes, and he worked in my house for eight months.” One day, when N turned on her desktop, it seemed as if something had changed slightly. She looked in her internet history and found a series of pornographic websites that she had certainly not been visiting. The young man moved on.
The story had an odd effect on its listeners. One of the young women said that she would never be able to use that computer again. A young man asked the hypothetical question of whether imagining a sexual scenario was more of a sexual offence than seeing what someone else had staged for you, with consensual adults who are being paid to perform. But, the majority felt that N had been very foolish to admit the young man into her house in the first place. “How could you?” they asked, one by one.
“You had only to see him and you’d know he wouldn’t be a threat to me,” she replied.
How could she? I think I knew how she could. In the world of household help, we rely largely on informal networks. “Get me one girl,” I have often heard an aunt say. “Do you have a top woman?” someone else will ask. And, the links will be forged. Nurses have bureaus and they will be sent out to us on demand, but as for the people who live with us and work with us and eat our food and use our computers when we are out, we operate on a system of trust. Someone is sent to us by someone else. We trust that someone else, and so we transfer the trust to the person they recommend.
When my friend J died, I suddenly noticed how old his wife was. She is 90, and her only daughter is in her sixties. I also suddenly noticed that they had two live-in man-servants. I thought with J gone that that might change. Perhaps his widow and daughter would be more comfortable with female servants. They did not think fit to change. The young men have come and gone and other than some minor pilferage, nothing seems to have happened. I have never asked her what she thought about having two young men in the house. I suspect her answer would have been some variant of N’s.
But, as this case of the taxi driver reminds us, it seems as if we will all have to remember that the price of the freedom from domestic labour of various kinds is still eternal vigilance.
Jerry Pinto is the author of the prize-winning novel Em and the Big Hoom (Aleph)