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the narrative unfolds in a kind of past continuous

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Masters and Servants Boston Review

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Neel Mukherjee is part of a new generation of Indian writers dissecting postcolonialism’s failed promise of a classless society.

A State of Freedom
Neel Mukherjee
W. W. Norton & Company, $25.95 (cloth)

The winter I spent in New Delhi, more than a century after my ancestors left India for the Caribbean, I stayed in a friend’s vacant family apartment in the city’s elite southern quarter. The family lived on the other side of India, and the apartment—located in a gated complex of concrete high-rises—was their pied-à-terre. In their absence, for six weeks, I was its grateful guest. It was a cool-tiled refuge in a foreign city, but it was also a place where I found myself in a kind of time warp, unfixed by history and unnerved by hierarchies.

In India’s cosmos of masters and servants, the latter have to erase themselves to the point of not seeing, not hearing, not even daring to occupy space.

Two men flitted in and out of the apartment: a recent law graduate in his early twenties, whose sister was about to marry into the family, and a servant, also in his twenties, who had been with the family since he was a child. Both were almost like apparitions. The law graduate, enjoying his last hurrahs before beginning a prestigious job, was often away on outings into the countryside with friends. When his party returned at 2 or 3 a.m., the din, airy but sharp, would cut into my sleep as their voices wafted in from the living room. He would call for the servant, the syllables of the name elongated, a high-decibel command into the night: “Kukuuuuuuuul! Kukuuuuuuuul!” Summoned, Kukul would prepare a snack for the nocturnal gathering.

Where exactly he had emerged from was unclear to me. The apartment had only two bedrooms, and I did not know where Kukul slept. He seemed to materialize from nowhere, then vanish back into that spectral place. We had no language in common for me to ask where it was. Eventually I discovered that he sometimes slept in a makeshift room on the roof and sometimes on the living room floor. Kukul seemed to possess the uncanny ability to make himself smaller than he was. After laying out meals for me, he would press his back into a corner of the tiny kitchen, almost merging with the walls, and wait, perfectly still, as he watched me eat. Sometimes, soundlessly, nearly imperceptibly, he would remove a plate or add a bowl of chilies to the table.

I was in India on tour with a book about my family’s exit from British India, and their lives of oppression and gendered violence there, in the late nineteenth century. They had come from villages much like Kukul’s and from various castes—high, middle, and low. All, on leaving India indentured, to labor in the place of slaves on plantations in the British West Indies, were transformed into “coolies.” There, they suffered as part of a system of imperial and racial capitalism. A century later, their descendants came, first as nurses, to an America with a separate and sordid history of exploiting immigrant labor. This long migratory arc across generations and continents dislodged me from any ease as either master or servant. I was raised in a sugar estate’s orbit in Guyana and in a working-class city in the United States—I did not grow up with servants. And more than once, it struck me that I might have been in Kukul’s position, had my great-grandparents not sailed to a new world. Yet there I was, in the land they had escaped, moving in privileged circles, being served. This left me unsettled in the marrow, unhoused in my own skin.

Gender exacerbated my unease. Friends had warned me that New Delhi is India’s most sexually aggressive and unsafe city for women. A year after the gang rape of a young woman there seized international headlines, I was careful of how I draped and carried my body. I wanted my gender to be as unnoticeable as possible, both outside and inside the apartment. I went to absurd lengths to achieve this. Before Kukul claimed the laundry, which he scrubbed by hand, I made sure to wash my underwear myself. Stuck in the role of “Madam,” I tried somehow to affect asexuality.

To be a master is to be a total provider, and to be a servant is not a job but a total identity.

While I was in India, an Indian diplomat in New York was arrested and strip-searched after her domestic worker—a woman brought over from India—alleged that she was held against her will and illegally underpaid. The incident prompted a diplomatic stand-off between the United States and India. The Indian government and news media bristled with indignation, their nationalist pride wounded. I was stunned to discover that the law graduate and many others I met in New Delhi were on the diplomat’s side. Her domestic worker’s assertion of rights—to be paid the minimum wage, to move freely—seemed to be an affront to a centuries-old hierarchy. To be a master was to be a total provider, and to be a servant was not a job but a total identity.

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