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Perhaps not in the sense of foreboding that William Shakespeare meant it in his Richard III, but more in the metre of John Steinbeck’s message of moral decay and rhyming with Helmut Flieg’s (Stefan Heym) tale of utter despair, this really feels like the winter of India’s discontent. I am not sure if it has become worse these past few years, or whether it has just been a very long winter and we didn’t know about it.

It was not the malaise of the economy, the alarming security condition, a new multi-kharab (खरब) scandal, or even yet another encroachment upon my civil liberties by the state that brought about this melancholy – living in the Third World, one is inured to many such things. Rather, it was the gratitude of my maid when I brewed a fresh pot of coffee for her when she arrived for work early in the morning, wet from a pleasant Bangalore drizzle. What is there to be grateful about coffee for someone working in an economically solidly middle class home (upper middle by Indian standards, I suppose)?

The plain truth of the matter is that despite the loud support many of us express for India’s rampant welfarism – FSB, NREGA, RTE, UHC – we treat our own servants (domestic help for the politically correct, or, why not – domestic management executives?) quite inhumanely. Collectively, India’s financially better-off classes seem to suffer from a combination of a massive Genovese syndrome and apathy. We would prefer that the state stepped in and helped these poor wretches, that they not take up any more of our time than they absolutely have to. After all, what are our tax rupees doing?

The fundamental nature of domestic help has changed over the years. A couple of decades ago, the conditions were harsher but the master-servant relationship was warmer. Today, the circumstances are not as onerous but the association is transactional and cold. As many poor have seen their financial status inch up and more and more handouts, quotas, and also opportunities come their way, many have abandoned manual labour, or have placed conditions upon their employment. It is harder to find domestic help nowadays, but not only because of the slight financial upturn the poor have enjoyed. Few servants feel the same loyalty and attachment to their employers that their parents’ generation might have felt. When employers mistreat their employees or don’t invest in them, the same is reciprocated from the bottom up.

I am not restating the silly Bollywood fallacy of the pre-liberalisation era, that the rich are bad and the poor are good. If one were to step away from the strawman zone of either extreme to the more common and everyday centre, there are many matters of virtue, prudence, justice, and beneficence that deserve to be pondered.

This mistreatment of servants need not take extreme forms; indeed, as Søren Kierkegaard warns us of the slow and unnoticed process of losing one’s Self, the daily erosion of human dignity between master and servant nudges us closer towards the precipice. It is not uncommon nowadays to find children being rude to the help; after all, they probably observed and replicated the behaviour from their possibly nouveau riche parents. I have seen guests leave their hotel rooms in deplorable states because housekeeping will clean up the room later anyway. My servant, who could not expect a hot cup of coffee on a cold morning, also had stories to tell of homes in which it was near impossible to keep up with the owners’ constant littering around the house. Others, she said, were unhappy with the stale leftovers they were sometimes given at the homes they worked in, but owing to their poverty, accepted it anyway. Sometimes, they would not even get that simply because the memsahib had forgotten or was busy. Pay is a monthly battle, as inflation corrodes the purchasing power of a salary and employers resist the upward creep in demands from their employees. Any time off is deeply resented, though the masters themselves need their two-day weekend and year for the occasional long weekend.

These are just some of the seemingly insignificant frictions between the master and servant that are caused more by apathy than malice. India’s New Society – rapidly wealthy, sometimes double-income, individualist, Bacchean, greed-is-good mantra’ed – has unfortunately not been able to cope with the accompanying social shifts. Modes of social exchange have been transformed, whether for better or for worse, without full cognisance. In our parents’ generation, servants stayed employed to their masters for long periods, sometimes over multiple generations. They got little, but there was little to go around in our socialist republic then, the black market and long queues outside ration shops for substandard goods being the norm. Other social injustices such as caste discrimination were, no doubt, more common, but literacy was low and poverty high. As is wont when we leave theory for the real world, we lived in paradoxes –  as a child, I remember my grandmother making it a point to give the servants the same food we ate but serve them in their own special utensils that no one else would use. Despite having several servants, my grandfather used to insist that we clean up ourselves; several of my friend and cousins were also reprimanded for their rare rudeness with the help. Our neighbour, a severe taskmistress if I ever saw one, would ask me or my cousins to help the servants’ children with their homework and ask after their progress in school though never allow us to play with them; for some of our friends, money might have been tight but anyone who worked for them was additionally compensated in food, firewood, clothes, and sometimes even a place to stay during the monsoons. For all the handed-down caste bigotry previous generations exhibited, many were equally generous and built relationships with their workers.

This is not a nostalgic recounting of the “good old days,” nor is it an eternal damnation of the present. Then, as now, the experience is mixed; however, nowadays, the value of the relationship-building of yore seems to have been missed. Interestingly enough, some of the same apathetic people have also given substantial sums to charitable organisations (though I wonder about the purchase of social approbation), which points back to unthinking indifference rather than malice. Though coined by the French philosopher Jean-Marie Guyau, it was a sociologist from the same country, Émile Durkheim, who popularised the term Anomie to describe the dissipation of bonds between individuals in a society. Normally,

sensitivity to mutual needs promotes evolution in the division of labour. Producers, being near consumers, can easily reckon the extent of the needs to be satisfied. Equilibrium is established without any trouble and production regulates itself.

However, as we become a more transactional and impersonal society, these ties that bind begin to unravel. The breakdown in empathy between employer and employee, when replicated across society, carries with it unseen scars in much the same way as Basil Hallward’s painting did of Dorian Gray.

We don’t need philosophers to tell us that Man is a social animal, or that the good life is possible only through society. However, al-Farabi, the famous 9thcentury Islamic Neoplatonist polymath, goes a step further than self-interest of association (Plato) or even eudaimonia (Aristotle) to the soteriological dimension of cooperative – dare I say eusocial? – living. Unlike Plato or Aristotle, al-Farabi believed that happiness can be achieved by the masses as well as the elite. Some scholars think that al-Farabi’s theory of four-fold happiness (theoretical, deliberative, moral, practical arts) rests not only on the Greek thinkers but also on the Qur’an (9:71) and hadith (al-Tirmidhi 604, Muslim 496, 1774), but the philosopher himself, interestingly, steers clear of religious vocabulary in expressing similar ideas. Al-Farabi exhorts us, beyond philosophical enlightenment, physical skill, and mental excellence, to support each other in need as limbs cooperate with a body. Only thus can a good (perfect) state evolve.

Qur’an, Surat al-Tawbah (9:71): The believers, both men and women: they are guardians, confidants, and helpers of one another. They enjoin and promote what is right and good, and forbid and try to prevent the evil, and they establish prayer in conformity with its conditions, and pay the zakaat.Sahih Muslim, Hadith 1774: The believers, in their love, mutual kindness, and close ties, are like one body; when any part complains, the whole body responds to it with wakefulness and fever.

Another thinker who expressed similar communitarian ideas is none other than the father of capitalism, Adam Smith. In his oft-neglected The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith lays out the framework of what informs all his other writing. Rejecting reason alone as a guide to moral action, Smith informs his world view with psychology in an early echo of Antonio Damasio’s explication of the importance of emotion in higher rationality. Smith’s “invisible hand,” for long taken as an endorsement of market forces, also makes a case for concern for the welfare of your fellow citizen.

The rich only select from the heap what is most precious and agreeable. They consume little more than the poor, and in spite of their natural selfishness and rapacity, though they mean only their own conveniency, though the sole end which they propose from the labours of all the thousands whom they employ, be the gratification of their own vain and insatiable desires, they divide with the poor the produce of all their improvements. They are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants, and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society, and afford means to the multiplication of the species.

To return from my brief philosophical rambling to the topic at hand – apathy towards our servants – the importance of being nice, not just to service providers like maids, waiters, and receptionists, but to all, cannot be understated socially, morally, or even economically. Our present state of apathy is blamed on many things – sudden wealth, erosion of traditional values, internet isolationism, rampant materialism, postmodernism, delayed adulthood, constant distractions – and I have neither the expertise nor the space to open that can of worms. While a quick “good morning, how are you today?” or if you feel like it, a fresh warm meal, might not cost you much, it could go a long way in forming bonds whose value is not discernible today.

This post appeared on Tehelka Blogs on July 24, 2013.