In 1971, V.S. Naipaul published a short story collection titled In a Free State. The first story is about an Indian domestic servant who accompanies his diplomat master to Washington, D.C. The man bundles up his belongings in a piece of cloth and rides the airplane where he squats on the toilet seat. In Washington, he sleeps outside his master’s “government sanctioned” apartment, until he finds a closet. “I will be able to make myself very comfortable,” he says. “I wouldn’t even hit my head on the ceiling.” He receives a monthly salary of one hundred rupees plus a “dearness allowance” of fifty, a concession to America.
With his fortnight’s pay of seven hundred and fifty cents—the exchange rate being ten cents to a rupee—the servant ventures out on to the streets of America, only to discover that all he can buy with his riches are cheap snacks.
When I first read this story, I cringed. “There goes Naipaul again,” I thought. But now I realize that the story, like any great literature, is fresh forty-five years later. In fact, it reads like a popular creative writing assignment in which students are asked to write fiction based on a newspaper headline.
I am talking of Devyani Khobragade, the Indian diplomat who exploited her domestic servant to such an extent that the United States government was forced to expel her from the consulate.
In the Naipaul story, the servant confesses, “I was a prisoner. I accepted this and adjusted.” Khobragade’s servant too no doubt accepted her reality, at least for a while. But it is 2014 now. We have in our hands a recent United Nations (UN) report, which ranks India at the top of its index of slavery. Of the 30 million slaves living worldwide, it turns out, 14 million are in India. A distant second is China, which, in spite of its larger population, has about a fifth of the slaves India has. The other countries that lag behind our esteemed nation are Pakistan, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Russia, Myanmar, and the Democratic Republic of Congo; in other words, poor nations with autocratic governments and with internal conflicts bordering on civil war.
“India exhibits the full spectrum of different forms of modern slavery,” the report says, “from severe forms of inter-generational bonded labor across various industries to the worst forms of child labor, commercial sexual exploitation, and forced and servile marriage.”
And still we claim to be one of the most advanced nations on earth, with an allegedly democratic government, a free press, a technologically advanced workforce, and an educated class that excels in art, literature, music, and spirituality?
In case you doubt the UN report, read the March 2012 decision of the court of the Southern District of New York, issued against Neena Malhotra, an Indian diplomat. It reads like the script of Twelve Years a Slave. Malhotra brought her servant, Shanti Gurung, to the United States by falsely attesting that she would pay her $7 an hour, when in reality, the servant received a single payment of 5500 rupees over three years—The exchange rate is now one cent a rupee. Gurung slept on the floor, worked 16-hour days seven days a week, and was starved until she lost sixty pounds. She was kept a prisoner and threatened with physical punishment. It seems the Indian upper classes are so used to having slaves at home, they bring them with them wherever they go, even to the United States, a country deeply wounded by a history of slavery. Malhotra was ordered to pay $1.4 million in damages for “kidnapping, trafficking, and holding her maid in servitude.” But the diplomat absconded to India without paying the victim a single dime.
Apparently, Devyani Khobragade read neither the court’s decision nor the UN report. As an Indian oligarch, she perhaps held herself above the law. And why not? After all, diplomat after diplomat of our country keeps abusing the domestics, yet faces no consequences. Take the case of the Indian Counsel General Prabhu Dayal, for example, who was accused in 2011 of abusing and exploiting his domestic servant. And what happened to him? Nothing whatsoever. Could the accuser have been paid off? Who knows?
It is not surprising that the upper crust of India, which thrives on the enslaving of 14 million human beings, feels entitled to continue the abuse, even bring it abroad. But what is shocking is that India’s populace does not object. When Khobragade fled to India, she received a heroine’s welcome. And what did Khobragade do to deserve such a celebration?
Namely that she got away with her unethical and unlawful behavior. The justification many Indians offer for letting Khobragade off the hook is that Americans too exploit their domestic workers.
But two wrongs do not a right make.
While Khobragade was being welcomed like a heroine in India, no workers’ rights groups protested her treatment of her servant. The only thing people seemed to be concerned about was that they wanted to get back at the United States for throwing an Indian diplomat out. Even Arundhati Roy, who often acts as the conscience of India, has not commented on the case, as far as I know. Perhaps she too was carried away by the anti-US euphoria.
In the V.S. Naipaul story, the servant eventually escapes, even though his master cannot compete with the likes of Khobragade, Malhotra, or Dayal when it comes to the mistreatment of his servant. He is by and large a decent man who simply happens to be a product of his culture and circumstances. Besides, he lacks the awareness of India of the new millennium. Still, the servant cannot imagine going back to his old life in Mumbai. He becomes a cook in an Indian restaurant and marries a black woman to get a green card.
“All that my freedom has brought me is the knowledge that I have a face and have a body, that I must feed this body and clothe this body for a certain number of years. Then it will be over,” he says. It is a poignant ending indeed, with no possibility of fulfillment, joy, or redemption.
But what is even sadder is that billions around the world would give an eye or a tooth to have what the servant has at the end of the story; that nothing has changed in the last half century. That, in spite of all the research and data and alleged awareness, the Indian elite persists in living in what Naipaul once described as an “area of darkness.”
Sarita Sarvate (www.saritasarvate.com) has published commentaries for New America Media, KQED FM, San Jose Mercury News, the Oakland Tribune, and many nationwide publications.