Saturday, February 2, 2008

A servant disappeared

Shakti left without even saying goodbye.

He told our landlord he was going to go visit his family in West Bengal. He said that the government was about to raze his parents' small village home, and that he needed to go there -- armed with cash -- to stop it. Our landlord gave Shakti several hundred dollars. Shakti said he'd call when he arrived at his parents' home.

That was about a month ago. He still hasn't called. A few days after Shakti left, our landlord realized he'd taken every single thing he owned with him.

Shakti was the live-in servant of the family we rent from (as you may recall, we live in a small house on the roof of their large home). The Aggarwals took Shakti in after a nail pierced his eye on a construction site they were managing. He cleaned house, fixed things with Mr. Aggarwal, walked and played with Ryan the dog, looked after Abhishek's 2-year-old son, and watched a lot of TV. Mrs. Aggarwal said he was as close to being a member of their family as a servant can be. He'd been here about two years when he did the old skedaddle.

Shakti claimed to be 17, though I think he was about 25. He's the sort of Indian whose age is difficult to discern -- his slight body looking prepubescent, with his rugged skin, legitimate mustache and winning smile giving a more adult appearance.

Shakti cleaned our house every other day. He took out the trash. He got on his hands and knees and scrubbed our tile floor with a wet rag. Sometimes he transformed our messy pile of shoes into an orderly line. A few times, he dumped the ash from our incense burner into the garbage. When the internet went down, he fixed it. When our water stopped running, he fixed that too. Shakti did a good job, and we liked him.

Housecleaning is included in the rent we pay. But a few times, we gave Shakti a bit of extra money. Fifty rupees when he shouldered my 70-pound duffel bag up four flights of stairs when we first moved in. Ten rupees when I felt guilty that he was wiping the floor around my feet while I sat at my desk and tapped away at my laptop. It always seemed to make Shakti a bit uncomfortable when I gave him money, so I stopped several months ago.

Every Sunday afternoon, Shakti took a semi-clothed shower using the trickling tap at waist level on our terrace. We'd spy on him through the window. Aliyah often wanted to invite him inside to use our shower. We never did.

Shakti slept on the floor of the small office that the Aggarwals built adjacent to their driveway. Some nights, we'd see Shakti walking out to the office with a blanket and headphones in hand. We'd feel bad about this briefly, but quickly realized that this situation was probably downright luxurious compared to the dirt-poor village he came from.

We struggle with the servant situation in India. We feel awfully guilty sometimes that we unnecessarily rely on the ultra-cheap labor provided by a class of supplicant servants who are born into incredible poverty. This country's continued adherence to an antiquated caste system gives people like Shakti almost no chance to be anything bigger or better than a deferent attendant to the rich.

Aliyah and I privately heap disdain on privileged friends and acquaintances who take for granted the shackles of servitude that they help to keep locked tight. We wonder with furious whispers whether a friend of ours even knows his servants' names.

But of course, it's not really that simple. Shakti was inarguably better fed, better clothed and better housed while a servant here than he was, or will be, in a destitute village in West Bengal. Maybe servitude in a cushy home isn't such a bad life for someone who grew up in a village with no water or electricity, in a hut where snakes dropped in through the ceiling at night.

We've talked a lot about servants in India over the last six months. And now that Shakti's gone, we realize just how much we liked and respected him.

The Aggarwals replaced Shakti a few weeks ago with the brother of a servant who works for friends of theirs. The new boy does a pretty good job. He sweeps the floor, and even moves the furniture around to find hidden dust bunnies. Shakti never did that.

The new boy is polite, quiet and usually avoids looking me in the eye. I've never seen him smile. I doubt he's older than 13.

1 comment:

Leslie said...

Maybe make him a sandwich, or teach him an on-line video game? Something to help him feel welcomed.