The Help

How many of you have maids at home? Or have had a plumber/electrician working in the house? Or hired farm hands? And how many times have you had a 'different' cup for them to drink tea/water from? 'Different' meaning not your for-regular-use cups, definitely not your special cups, but cups that are somewhat chipped, or discoloured, or with the handle missing. Cups you don't drink from. Cups with a lower social standing on your kitchen shelf.

I have always had a maid -- sometimes two -- when I was growing up. And I clearly remember there always being a designated 'maid's cup' in the house.
We weren't royalty or politically established or even rich, but the maids didn't sit on the chairs when watching TV with us. No one ever asked them to, and they knew better than to ask. Their social standing (or sitting) extended to the carpet or on the floor. Maids -- when they ever were offered something to eat -- were never served in glassware. They were always served in steel plates, preferably the ones that were slightly bent from all the washing. (Steel is considered 'common' in India, poor people have steel, rich people have crystals and Army houses have La Opala) The maids were also only offered left-overs. It wasn't just so in my house, I've seen it in every Indian home I've been to. 

Maids also never used the toilet in the house. I had never thought about where our/the maids went to pee -- I mean they must have wanted to go some day if there were working 2-3 hours at a stretch? -- till I read Kathryn Stockett's The Help. The book stunned me. It also shamed me. "Three ordinary women are about to take one extraordinary step," declares the front cover of The Help (2009), the author's debut novel. It took Ms Stockett five years to complete it and was rejected by 45 literary agents. The story takes place in 1960s Jackson, Mississippi and is narrated through the voices of its three main characters. Two of those women are black and are house-helps, or maids, as they are called in India. Or even 'servants' by some. 

I picked up the book quite per chance. I was manouvering my way inside The Sun Bookshop -- it's small, I had a pram -- looking for something to read. There was nothing new from my favourite science-fiction-fantasy authors and whatever other SFF there was, I was quite reluctant to try. The reluctance was due to my recent experience with China MiƩville's Kraken; still trying to read, bookmark firmly in place, no success. This is the first time I'm reading him and both the book and his writing have just not done it for me. Perhaps I'm neither smart nor cool enough for Mr MiƩville. So I was browsing around when I noticed the sticker on The Help. The bookstore people had helpfully selected 50 books that they deem are "Must Read" for 2010. Despite my natural aversion towards anything (anyone) that tells me to "Must", I picked up this book. And I'm happy to tell you it has since found a place in my all-time favourites list. Once I get it back from my mother-in-law, I'm going to give it a second read.

Right from the first passage, I couldn't put The Help down. Perhaps because the first passage had to do with settling a colicky baby. No, it's not a baby-rearing book, but dude, I tried the trick from the book on Mia and it worked. Baby-settling apart, I absolutely loved the characters. Each voice is distinct and despite no chapter names and first person narration, you know who's talking. For a novel about house helps and one with minimal male-characters, no sex and no titillation of any kind, the pace is good. Usually I get quite bored when there's the mandatory 'back story' or character introspection happening; not so with The Help. The story flows so beautifully that I wanted to know what happened next. And I cared about what happened next. Can't say that about many books I've read recently.

And it made me look at myself honestly. And realise I am as prejudiced as the next person. As racist. As classist as Miss Hilly. As self-righteous, head-stuck-in-my-arse as every other person who thinks they own someone just because they are paying them wages. And like every other person who's had a maid in India, I've argued about giving her a raise of Rs 200. And had a stupid cocktail for Rs 500 the same night. I am ashamed.

But don't let all that scare you. Read The Help, it's a bloody good book.

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