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Our prejudices about
domestic workers, often deeply rooted in caste hierarchy, only take on new
avatars in the wake of the pandemic.
Last week, when I wrote about our prejudices about domestic workers, and how these are likely to be exhibited when they return to work post lockdown, I had not imagined that I would soon have a textbook illustration of such prejudice in the form of an ad by a well-known company.
Well, a highly advertised brand of water purifier obliged me by putting out this ad that features an automatic dough maker that they believe you may need because?
If you “allow” the maid to knead dough for you, her “infected hands” may cause you trouble.
There was much outrage immediately and the company pulled
the ad down. But this is not about them. This is about us, their target
audience, whom they clearly believed, would relate to it.
And the sad truth is, many do.
We may not put it as baldly, but despite the ‘elite’ origins of this pandemic, many believe that it is ‘they’, the poor, who will infect us. None of the data matters, because this idea is core to our understanding of who we are. Moreover, for many upper caste people, our deeply embedded notions of caste purity are all too ready to emerge, hiding lightly under a surface veneer of progressiveness.
But what has caste got to do with it, you ask? (As indeed, I
am seeing many ask on social media chatter). Caste has everything to do with
it, beginning with the fact that we live in a system where the majority of
domestic workers belong to castes historically discriminated against; including
the fact that ‘we’ consider ‘them’ good enough to do our work, but not clean
enough to really be ‘worthy’ of doing it.
If you are an upper-caste reader reading this, chances are
you know a home where the domestic worker is asked to use different glasses.
Where she (and it is most often a she), is not allowed to enter the kitchen.
Where after she has washed the utensils, the lady of the home pours water over
them again. Where you will take her with you to a restaurent to hold the crying
baby, but she cannot possibly sit down while you eat. Yes, I have seen families
that answer to each of these criteria, often wielding these insults in the name
The truth is, if you were really concerned about the health
or hygiene of the domestic worker who comes to your home, you would ask her to
stay home on paid leave till it is safe to come to work; instead, we would like
to use their labour, yet accuse them of ‘being dirty’. As a society, if we were
really concerned about the health or hygiene of poor people (and yes, there is
a strong relationship between class and caste), we would ensure more affordable
housing and a good running water supply for everyone. But hey, we’re building
statues, look, look!
The pandemic is only another reason for these ugly prejudices
to flourish, because the truth is, they never really went away.
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