One of the many standard narratives populating accounts of the desi experience in the US is the difficulty in explaining the vast numbers of ‘servants’ performing a vast litany of semi-skilled labor in homes all over south asia. In the context of the American D.Y.I mentality (definitely eroded by our service economy), it seems incredibly strange to employ somebody for the purpose of cooking or taking one’s children to school–an unjustified expense when one has the time and the means of transportation to complete the task. NPR correspondent Eric Weiner entered this discussion as a result of being posted in Delhi and summarized his interactions with his ‘servant,’ “Kailash” in the New York Times. Cultural relativists, as critics of the post-modern regime in the humanities are wont to remark, do a disservice to academia when they uncritically accept what they see as a ‘cultural practice’ on the grounds of it simply belonging to a culture different from the observer’s own:
A few days later, the servant loped upstairs and reported for duty. He was skinny, alarmingly so, with mahogany skin and sharp features. His name was Kailash, and he was 11 years old. This was a cultural difference that I was not prepared to accept.
Weiner clumsily avoids the relativist’s folly by boldly going where perhaps a million other travel writers have gone, “It’s strange to me and feels wrong, so I can’t accept it.” But, like many before him, Weiner must eventually capitulate:
I started downstairs to confront the landlord, but then hesitated. I rationalized that if this boy, an orphan from a neighboring state, didnâ€™t work for me, he would work for someone else, and who knows how that person would treat him? Washing my hands of Kailash seemed like a cop-out, or so I told myself.
It was at this point that I remembered a similar strain of teeth-gnashing from a writer of yesteryear:
Take up the White Man’s burden– Ye dare not stoop to less– Nor call too loud on Freedom To cloke your weariness;
“What?,” you say. “Weiner was assigned the post–he had no choice about what cultural practices he could accommodate.” These things are true, however, it does seem as if Weiner saw this story as following a predetermined path:
I always imagined that our relationship would follow a linear, screenplay trajectory. Orphaned Indian boy has fateful meeting with bighearted American; boy struggles to overcome disadvantaged youth; boy finally perseveres and is eternally grateful for bighearted Americanâ€™s help.
Kipling was less sanguine about the chances for progression along this storyline–the native, in his opinion, was sure to wreck the grand venture just as it became almost tangible:
And when your goal is nearest The end for others sought, Watch sloth and heathen Folly Bring all your hopes to nought.
Weiner, too, finds his narrative halted in the middle stage–the part where the native finds his own bootstraps and puts his back into the pulling, for him, is curiously absent:
But more than a decade after I left India, Kailash and I were stuck in the second act…. …Thanks to my quarterly wire transfers, Kailash lives in a tiny apartment in Delhi that is too cold in the winter and too hot in the summer.
Kipling too felt the native’s hopelessness and ascribes this failure to appreciate such genuine and altruistic assistance to the native’s ‘nature’:
Your new-caught, sullen peoples, Half-devil and half-child.
Kailash, ungrateful rakshasa-child nature notwithstanding, apparently proves Kipling to be right–the native will live forever on the good graces of others while complaining all the while and perhaps directing vile non-violent protest at the benevolent others:
Take up the White Man’s burden– And reap his old reward: The blame of those ye better, The hate of those ye guard– The cry of hosts ye humour (Ah, slowly!) toward the light:– “Why brought he us from bondage, Our loved Egyptian night?”
Weiner corroborates but supplies what may he think of as an original caveat:
I have raised his expectations, a dangerous thing in a country of more than a billion restive souls.
The tea room is too lofty a goal for the young man–how dare Weiner introduce the hope of a more profitable line of work into Kailash’s life! Why, left unattended by Vestern journalists, a boy like Kailash might grow up to be a proper street-sweeper some day!
I find the author’s tone unsettling–as if Kailash did not possess the wherewithal to realize that he had everything to gain and that a life of beatings over poorly made chapatis was not optimal. Intentions in this case, as usual, are good but what is the cost of thinking in this manner–that it takes a western journalist’s benevolent intervention to salvage the life prospects of a disadvantaged Indian child and that this kind of assistance will ultimately lead to welfare-grubbing,sepia-toned, outstretched hands?
The “White Man’s Burden” beckons though, with a Nostradamus-like confidence in forecasting the alleged incompetence of the subject native. Weiner cannot deviate from the storyline–his is a Quixotic tilt at cultural windmills that stifle economic advancement by conditioning the native to depending on foreign largesse:
â€œO.K., Kailash,â€ I said, looking at the handsome 23-year-old who has replaced the scrawny boy of years ago. â€œAs you wish.â€
or as Kipling put it:
Take up the White Man’s burden– Ye dare not stoop to less– Nor call too loud on Freedom To cloke your weariness; By all ye cry or whisper, By all ye leave or do, The silent, sullen feebles Shall weigh your gods and you.