masters and servants

Shuvo shokal from Dhaka,

Ever since Neil Young recorded “A Man Needs a Maid”, I’ve tried to work out what he means. To give a love, you gotta live a love. To live a love, you gotta be “part of”. What’s he on about?

Arriving here on the sub-continent ten months ago, there was some pressure on us to hire a maid (“to cook my meals and go away”). When we balked, one colleague argued that we were “buying time” (as if that was a commodity in short supply). Beth from Canada moved in next door with a fanfare. “I couldn’t afford a maid in Mongolia,” said Beth victoriously. We were given some resumés, referred to a folder full of more to choose from, and were lambasted for not hiring a servant of some kind. It seemed almost a given. We resisted the pressure.


     To both Linda and me – possessed of strong egalitarian convictions – the arguments put to us were pathetically weak, completely missing the point. What about the argument that you are in fact giving employment to a poor person? This, admittedly, has more veracity. It was perhaps on this point that Linda and I diverged slightly (leading to our compromise at a later date).

overpass on Pragati Sharani

     To me, the deferential attitude which is inherent in the unequal hierarchy of society is the element I have the most trouble with. Every apartment in the city has a 24-hour guard (woefully paid, incidentally) service. Some of these guards salute as the school van full of westerners arrives. (Kiwi Brian says, “it’s as though I’m important or something”.) The common refrain among shopkeepers, rickshaw wallas and others near the bottom of the socioeconomic pile is “Yes, Boss” (accompanied with a quizzical look when I reciprocate).

“This is what we do here.”

One shopkeeper sold me a middle-sized box of liquids and insisted on carrying it to the vehicle. When I protested, it became an argument in which the man broke into tears saying, “This is what we do here. This is what Bangladeshi men do”. I suppose one of us was bound to end up feeling impotent.

CEO Craig Salmon – an Australian from egalitarian Melbourne – recalls how he felt uneasy about his driver opening and closing his door. This was until another driver pointed out that Craig’s driver would feel inferior in front of his peers if Craig didn’t allow the practice.

no room inside

     All of these interactions leave me uneasy. Am I helping an individual by employing (I even hate that word in that context) a poor person to be a maid? There’s no doubt that that is true, especially if we pay above the going rate. I prefer to perceive the exchange from a systemic view. Joining in is endorsing the system, rather than effecting change. I couldn’t live with the thought that my casual relationship with another member of society is dependent on the baksheesh I had deigned to grant them ie. how many crumbs I was good enough to push off the end of my table.

on the beach at Cox’s Bazaar

    I can see a parallel here with the scourge of child labour, which is still a problem here. One example presents a difficult dilemma. Isn’t the eight-year old girl better off sewing soccer balls and receiving a small income for her family who is otherwise in receipt of nothing? Isn’t the maid better off? That argument could have held sway in England during the early days of the industrial revolution, too. Thank the trade union movement (and the Earl of Shaftesbury) that it didn’t. The system changed and nobody is looking back (except for Gina Rynehart).

    I’ve observed Nepalese porters lugging ridiculously heavy and awkward loads up steep Himalayan mountains for westerners who carry tiny camel backpacks. We learnt that one porter dropped dead under such a load on the Kokoda Track last year. I’m with Lary Shafer – an American – who says, “It’s not democratic”.

    So, we have come to a compromise position: we hire a local woman called Sati to be a cleaner twice a week. Others still refer to Sati as our maid but I refuse to use the word, because of its connotations. She’s a cleaner. As John rightly points out, cleaners are in business. Servants are not. I was never convinced by that Neil Young song.


Other photos from hereabouts

2 replies on “masters and servants”

Greg you said right, no doubt. But these people are so poor, no facilities from government (health care, unemployment benefits, free education etc.). So if you are giving them work that would help them to survive. One thing I should share you teachers are paying them high (in context of Bangladeshi culture) than general people. The people work for ISD or similar employees are earning 12000-18000 BDT monthly but the ones who work for middle class socio-economic people are earning half of that amount. You can imagine how they are surviving. If you go to their houses which calls “Basti” you will be surely sad to see their living.

Yes, Farzana, I understand the argument completely. I did visit some of the slums in Dhaka and you are right, it makes you sad. I’m looking at the whole system rather than individuals and the employment of servile staff keeps them from educating themselves to allow them to improve their lot through better jobs or successful enterprises. Some of those people who talk about are paying their maids and servants pittances because it suits that class of people to maintain the servile class. This is why public education is such an important tool in improving society. I’ve had this discussion with many others. I will always perceive the issue from a systemic point of view. Of course, that doesn’t mean I’m not interested in helping individuals (as we did in many instances during our stay in Bangladesh). I’m a bit supporter of microfinance (started off by Bangladesh’s own Muhammad Yunus). Thanks for leaving a comment. I value your input. Greg

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