Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Ladies and Maids in South Asia

As part of my neverending quest for ladies-and-maids material, I've come across a collection of pictures that, I am sure, fans of Maid in China in particular will find very interesting. It's called "Close Distance" and features joint photos of mistresses from Dhaka, Bangladesh together with their maids. The photographer commented on his work in an interesting interview.  I found these words particularly relevant for this blog:

Housemaids don’t cross class boundaries because house owners won’t welcome it if they do, and this behavior is part of the system of inequalities. Naturally, when I asked them to sit side by side, it was awkward, to say the least. In most cases, the house owner had to ask her domestic maid to sit beside her. The household helps were reserved. Many of them sat only after they had been repeatedly told to do so.

Indeed, you can almost feel this awkwardnes in most of the pictures!


  1. We had a short layover in Dhaka on the way to Kathmandu, Nepal back in 1988. We were on a led cycle tour and leader suggested we take advantage of the 10 hour wait to take an official minibus tour of the city. He said it would prepare us for Nepal becuase it was so much poorer and he was right.

    The trip obviously took us to the best parts but the poverty was stark. None of us on our tour were particularly wealthy but compared to many we saw we were like oligarchs. Where we criticise the so-called wealthy 1% in the west, Bangladesh it's probably like the 0.1% (or an even smaller number0). I can only imagine the the huge gap between mistresses and servant that must exist there. It's perhaps even greater than it was in (say) the London at the turn of 20th century when my one time landlady (I was in lodgings as a teenager) was 'in service' and she hated it.

    An interesting set of photos, Camille, thanks.

    1. Interesting story, thank you. I wonder to what extent it had actually changed for the better since then. Even countries that are considered successful in the region tend to shock you by their extreme poverty and class distinctions that would put early Victorian England to shame and Bangladesh is typically considered a complete basket case so it should be even worse there...

  2. As an outsider to the intricate distinctions of class and culture in South Asia, it is not clear to me which one of these ladies is supposed to be the maid.

    1. Just observe which is the one sitting most comfortably. The other is the maid.

    2. Seriously? I think it's pretty obvious. Unless they are into lady-to-maid fetishism that is!

    3. There is a scene in Saving Private Ryan where two German soldiers killed during their attempt to surrender to Allied forces. The Americans can't understand what they are saying as they approach (and don't really care to be honest), shoot them and laugh at their misfortune. It is not made clear to the audience that these "Germans" were actually speaking Czech and were probably conscripted into the German army against their will.

      Don't underestimate the inability of people to differentiate the rich and cultured histories of those outside of their own. The homes in which these women were photographed look rather nice, but their clothes are an entirely different story. There is very little distinction between the haves and the have nots in their attire. A bunch of the "masters" are wearing very cheap looking sandals. Both women feel very out of place amongst the luxury interiors.

    4. I've noticed that too, but I think you would agree that there is very little correlation between dressing good and/or expensively (not the same thing, of course) and one's wealth or social position. This is true in the West, I am sure this is true in the third world as well (although to a lesser degree, perhaps). It is also a cultural thing, in some regions it is expected of women to look their best no matter the situation, even if she just went out to a supermarket. It's changing too, but in places like Latin America or much of Eastern Europe you are much more likely to encounter overdressed women just going about their everyday lives than you are in Germany or the U.S. But even in societies that are obsessed with "looking good" all the time, it is not uncommon for people to dress down in the privacy of their own home. So a lady of the house can wear cheap sandals or a worndown t-shirt from 10 years ago. I do agree that both sides look completely out of place on most pictures though.

  3. Thank you, Camille, very intersting article...

  4. Could you write a story or captions on ladies to maid indian version.

    1. The sound of loud banging at the door of Shoma Chowdhry’s affluent Upper East Side apartment prompted her to chastise her home servant for the last time.

      “Joba, they are coming for you now. I told you that this is what would happen,” she said, speaking to her in their native tongue.

      There was a slight hint of disappointment in her voice as a replacement would not immediately be forthcoming, but what choice did she have? Joba had not only asked to be paid a fair wage, she requested back pay as well. The impudent brat did not know her place, Shoma reckoned. Transporting the indigent girl with her to New York City should have been payment enough. Her new accommodations were better than anything she deserved back home and yet, the live-in maid demanded more.

      Joba narrowed her eyes defiantly and spoke in English, “This is the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

      Shoma was surprised to learn her young ward had picked up the language so fast. She had tried herself with private lessons, though ultimately the embarrassment caused her to discontinue them. Joba, on the other hand, took every opportunity to soak up American culture and her hard work had paid off. While Mrs. Chowdhry had isolated herself in a small, tight knit community, Joba hadn’t struggled nearly as much to integrate herself.

      “I.C.E. open up!”

      The pounding at the door grew more insistent and Shoma gleefully opened it for the immigration officials waiting to be let in. Though she needed to plead ignorance that Joba had overstayed her tourist visa, her anger got the better of her and she started ranting.

      “Get that filthy street urchin out of my home and send her back to Bumfuckistan where she belongs.” She pointed down the hall at Joba, their target for removal.

      The man in uniform suppressed a laugh. He couldn’t understand a single thing the middle-aged lady said, except for one slang word that sounded like something it probably wasn’t. While his mind wandered, his training kicked in and he forcefully restrained her as his team searched the building.

      “Up against the wall!”

      Shoma was belligerent and did not peacefully comply with the order. She tried to argue that she was being treated unfairly and that the person they were looking for was over there. Her wrists were bound in a plastic zip tie then she was shoved to the ground. Joba was similarly rounded up and restrained, though she was far more compliant.

      “It’s just these two, boss,” his subordinate stated.

      “Alright, now which one of them is, uh... Joba Sarker?” he asked, reviewing his paperwork. He thought it would be obvious as to which one was in the country illegally but that was not the case. “Neither really looks like they belong. The older one is wearing drapes and the younger one has sandals.”

      “Hmm. What about the dot, sir?”

      He turned Shoma around so they could get a look at her face. The large, red dot on her forehead was unmistakeable.

      “And the other one?”

      Joba was made to face forward and it was plainly evident that she was not marked in such a fashion. She hastily formulated a plan in her mind to avoid getting arrested.

      “It is a semi-religious symbol worn exclusively by the untouchables in our country,” Joba explained in plain English. “She is of the lowest class.” People in the United States were largely ignorant of such matters and hoped the lie sounded convincing. “And I’ll have you know that I was on my way to the beach and those so-called drapes are from Salvatore Ferragamo on Fifth Avenue.”

    2. “Are you Shoma Chowdhry, ma’am?”

      Joba did not hesitate for a second in asserting that she was.

      “Yes, I am and this intrusion is outrageous. This is my own private domicile and I will not be harassed.” She repeated the phrase she heard from watching television. “Where is your warrant?”

      The man in charge furiously flipped through a stack of documents and presented it to her aggressively. “This piece of paper was signed by a judge and gives me the legal right to detain your housekeeper, Joba Sarker.”

      Shoma didn’t know exactly what they were talking about but it was clear he was showing Joba the papers that would deport her from the country she loved. American hospitality came at a price the poor girl couldn’t afford to pay without a generous host, such as herself. When Joba’s name came up, she affirmed that they had their miscreant.

      “Joba Sarker!”

      “Joba Sarker?” He questioned, stopping to accept her confession.

      Shoma nodded vigorously.

      “Alright, I think we’re done here, boys.”

      He helped Shoma to her feet and she smiled knowingly at Joba.

      “If you know what is good for you, you’ll go quietly,” she instructed her house slave in a language none of the authorities could comprehend.

      “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney.” The officer started reciting Shoma her Miranda Rights, which Joba recalled from the multitude of police procedurals. He knew the woman would need a translator, however, he didn’t want her to be set free on a technicality because he forgot to say the magic words.

      Joba’s eyes were bursting with crocodile tears as he spoke. It distracted Shoma to the extent that she didn’t notice that they were talking to her. The man turned to look at Joba for some assistance.

      “Stop crying already and ask her if she has a lawyer or if we need to give her one.”

      Joba quickly composed herself to act as an intermediary. “They want to know if you’ll accompany them to the police station and give a statement without an attorney present.” Her eyes begged Shoma not to.

      Shoma didn’t need a representative to testify against Joba, she could do it herself. She wanted to do it herself. It was one of the many privileges she had as an upper-class woman. She would revel in watching the sorry girl face her punishment and told her as much.

      “She says she is willing to talk.”

      The exchange had a calming effect on Shoma as one of the men placed a hand on her shoulder and escorted her out of the building. She was so giddy that she simply didn’t care that they hadn’t yet cut off her wrist tie as they helped her into the backseat of their squad car.

      She was docile as they photographed and thumb-printed her. The American justice system was nothing if not thorough, she thought. All that paperwork just for a witness seemed excessive, but that was the cost of stopping the corruption and bribes that had befallen the courts back home. She waited and waited in a cell like a prisoner for someone to see her. There must not have been any other benches available. After an intolerable eternity, they finally brought her into the court.

      An overworked public defender stood beside Shoma at the podium in front of a judge who rushed through hundreds of these cases in a day. They went through the repetitive motions with little enthusiasm.

      “Joba Sarker, how do you plead?” the judge asked.

      “Not guilty, your honor,” the attorney responded when Shoma didn’t.

      “I’d like to hear that from her,” he reminded him.

      “Not guilty,” Shoma repeated after some prompting.

      “Very well. Joba Sarker, you are hereby remanded to the custody of Orange County Jail until a trial date can be set. Next!”

      Shoma was bemused that they didn’t need any more than that. Maybe the courts here weren’t so different after all? A few words from the right person were enough to send the accused away. She thanked the judge as best she could for recognizing her preeminent social status from abroad.

    3. In the intervening hours, Joba was a nervous wreck. She was unable to enjoy her newfound freedom, as she was worried that it was temporary at best. She suspected the ruse wouldn’t last for long and was constantly expecting I.C.E. agents to come back and bust down the door. The thing was, they never did. Not on the day of Shoma’s arrest, the day after or even weeks later.

      Gradually, Joba began to relax. She enjoyed not sleeping on a cot and having to eat as little as possible. She still cleaned up around the house mostly out of habit. The reason for her good fortune remained a mystery as she was hesitant to seek it out. Eventually, she worked up the courage to look up what happened to Mrs. Chowdhry and was suddenly fearful at what she would do to her when she was released. She hastily arranged to expedite the process with an attorney who specialized in immigration law.

      He got Shoma freed not on a case of mistaken identity which would have taken forever to clear up, but on a sponsored work release. Every week, “Joba” would have to meet with her parole officer to ensure that she was fulfilling all the terms of the agreement. The primary obligation was to maintain employment until her residency status could be determined through the courts. With an ankle bracelet keeping her bound to one location, this would have been difficult if not for her gracious host.

      Shoma was relieved to be back in her Upper East Side apartment, though she hated that she was now legally obligated to serve her housemaid. Joba had no choice in the matter of posing as Mrs. Chowdhry to the parole officer who scrutinized the both of them, trying to find evidence of a scam. As the months passed, their respective roles were cemented. They never could be too careful.

      Joba’s trial date kept getting pushed back or so she was told. She couldn’t read English, let alone the jargon in those documents, so she relied on Mrs. Chowdhry to keep her informed. She wasn’t concerned at the outcome as she knew how badly the former domestic wanted to stay in this country. She knew she would do everything in her power to stay right where she was.

    4. Wow, a nice one! Shall I republish it as a full story? Do you have more?

    5. That is all there is in response to the prompt. I cannot say much more as the subject matter is completely foreign to me. If you want to turn it into a caption as requested or save it for a rainy day, I do not mind way one or the other.

    6. Good, thanks. I'll turn it into a short story then. Can you drop me a line to my e-mail please so that I can run it past you once it's ready?

    7. Addison Hughes. Even though that's foreign to you. You have penned it very well. Can I send the full version to my mail

  5. I've sent you a message.

  6. Wow.. awesome. I would like you to be more crisp on the lady to maid part. May be the boss can be humiliated more