Saturday, June 13, 2015

Everyday interactions, communication, and domestic work: A narrative account from field notes

Ashish is a twenty-one year old boy of privilege, studying in one of those engineering colleges in India that his MNC Executive father placed him in by paying a large donation to the college. His upper caste dad of course was more than happy to chart out the destiny of his only child, the heir to the upper caste throne of the family. After all, this is the entitlement his dad had experienced all his life. Someone to cook, someone else to clean, someone to drive the car, and someone else to polish the shoes. Ashish had grown up seeing his dad have high expectations from those that served him.

After all, a servant has to be kept in his place. Ashish had grown up seeing his parents manage this role so well, dictating, abusing, blaming, and disciplining. 

Having grown up in a family of four, and being the only boy in the family that his parents so desperately wanted for many years so they could earn their legitimacy, Ashish has a strong sense of who he is in the world.

He has not had to work for anything. His dad has rolled in the dough whenever needed, finding connections and seeking networks. And his mother has ensured that he gets all the comforts he demands.  The world has been created to please Ashish. His mother ensured that Ashish got what he wanted.

Ashish, an upper caste, upper class boy of privilege knows that the world has been created to respond to his demands. Others exist to cater to his orders and to follow the instructions he issues. Ashish knows his place in the world. The place of privilege.

Ashish also knows his place in the family hierarchy. His needs are the command of his family. After all, he is the heir to all the property that his great grandfather had amassed.

He can command respect and is entitled to it. He can dictate his wants, expensive watches, mobile phones, e-toys, you name it. He can also tell people what to do. When things don't happen the way he wants them to, he can throw a tantrum and all will be aligned.

His sense of entitled respect is particularly strong when it comes to how he treats the twenty-six year old Narayani, who came to work in his household when she was sixteen years old. Narayani, the oldest daughter of a landless laborer from Narayanganj, came to the Roy family to work so she could support her ailing father and make some money to send her brothers to school. Narayani has four brothers and she knew at an early age it was up to her whether they could get an education. 

Ashish and Narayani live in the same space, within the same four walls, but experience entirely different parameters and rules of communication. This is the sort of inequality that marks the material sites of India, where caste, class, and gender come to intersect so dramatically in defining the norms of communication.

While Ashish sits in his room, playing his video games and orders Narayani around, she wakes up at 5:00 in the morning to prepare the breakfast that Asish will take to college and goes to bed past midnight after cleaning up the kitchen and utensils at the end of the days work.

Ashish, our twenty-one year old, also knows that he can hurl abuses at Narayani whenever it pleases him. When he is in a bad mood, he can accuse Narayani of not preparing his milk properly. When he does not want to eat the meal, he can turn to his mother, who in turn can go about abusing Narayani for not having prepared the meal.  He can make up whatever he wants to abuse at Narayani. He can accuse her of lying. When his earphones go missing, he can ask his mom to search through Narayani's suitcase. When he makes a mistake, he can pass the blame on Narayani.

You see, Ashish is always right, whatever he does. And he owns Narayani. His family owns Narayani.

Privilege is so integral to Ashish's life that he knows exactly how he is supposed to behave with Narayani. His social science texts in college, his readings in sociology, are just that, readings to be memorized from the texts. For Narayani, however, the markers of the sociological concepts Ashish reads about in his texts are everyday parts of lived experiences.

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