Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Reflections on *Ek Naukrani Ki Diary* & *The Help*

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We Are Not Essentially All the Same

...And the trick is not to be afraid of our differences while we're searching for common ground -- and not all ground needs to, nor should, be common. A light-brown-skinned Indian friend of mine recommended that I read *The Help* more than a year ago. At that point, I was in the thick of my part-time Masters program and wanted only to read books that I had found, since so little of my discretionary time was available for reading anything other than journal articles and textbook chapters.

A couple of months ago, I reached the point where I had much more time available and finally read first a fiction recommendation by my mom, *Cutting for Stone*, about twin boys raised in Ethiopia and much more, which was superb. When I picked up *The Help* directly afterward, I was jarred by the dialect and thought it was predictable initially, and put it down for more than a month. In its place, I picked up *The Stranger's Child*, the writing of which was beautiful, but the plot of which did not compel me the way the author's prior novel, *The Line of Beauty* had.

And then suddenly, Pat and many of her Facebook friends were reading *The Help* and loving it, and that was almost the nail in its coffin, since Pat and I rarely have the same taste in books. Still, I picked it back up and went ahead.

What I Related To:

Now that I'm done with the novel, which turns out to have borrowed from the author's experience -- and doesn't all fiction? -- I do appreciate it and feel enriched for having read it. *Ek Naukrani Ki diary*/*The Diary of a Maidservant*, which I found and read while we were living in India in 2007, was written by a well-educated man and translated by a well-educated woman, rather than having been written by an actual maid in India, and yet, I heard the maid's voice, just as I heard the voices of the maids in *The Help*, which was written by a well-educated White woman.

For six months in 2007, we benefited from the cleaning services of a daily maid. That was the first and last time in our lives, and the whole time I was reading the book, I was feeling like I needed to keep it out of sight of our maid, who spoke good English, and I was also feeling guilty, that is, there but for the grace of God or whomever go I. With *The Help*, a lot went through my head about my own Whiteness and the memory of recognizing it best when we lived in India. The same Indian friend who recommended *The Help* once said to me, "If I were in a wheelchair and you and I entered a restaurant, you would be attended to first [because of the color of your skin]."

In the United States, I always felt not quite White, since as a Jew, I was on the Ku Klux Klan's list along with Black people. I'm pretty sure I've written about this here before. And yet I also recall my dad's stories about growing up in Washington, DC in the '30s and early-40s and how discriminatory it was there for Black people, and also how during his U.S. Navy experience on the USS Alabama, he said that all of the Black sailors were waiters and they lived at the bottom of the ship.

Both books -- the Indian and the U.S. one -- were about abused workers who wanted a vehicle/voice to express the abuse, but who were not historically entitled to express it or protest it. How can I relate to them? Can I?

My second semester at Michigan, I needed more work-study hours and signed up to mop the cafeteria floors. They paired us up -- two per half -- and the cafeteria spanned the width of the super-wide dorm. As moppers, we were invisible, cleaning the floors pre-meals and then disappearing. It was the closest I ever got to being a maid or janitor and it didn't feel great. The difference was that when my shift ended, I could go study, or to class, or to play badminton with my friend Gerald or go eat in the cafeteria, and the janitorial identity was just temporary -- a means to help pay for my terrific education.

Wait, when I stretch back further, I recall a relative who treated my sisters and me like maids. Often, this relative lay in bed watching TV. Routinely, she would ring a cow-bell and one of us had to come running. "Get me an orange and a knife," she'd command. We'd run and get it. "You forgot a napkin!" she'd say with frustration and we'd go running again. She also paid us 50 cents an hour to clean her home. Back then, that felt like a good wage because we were eight and 13, though it wasn't minimum wage...and I don't think we even knew about the concept of minimum wage.

Still, ultimately, that was all temporary. Why was I born White, with education-oriented parents, in the 20th century? Many Indians would respond that it's the effects of karma, but it's mysterious to me. Still, through their maid characters, both authors did a detailed job of enabling the maids to observe the pain of their employers, of being anyone who's alive -- whether privileged or not. The jealousies and heartbreaks and pettiness-es and desires and shame -- they are the common ground.

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