Covid has revealed the great fiction of civil life in India


IWhen you are fine in Kolkata it is easy not to see things. As a kid, I loved watching the sun set over the city’s sparkling horizon from the windows of the 13th-floor apartment where I grew up. I didn’t look at the slums below. And until the coronavirus pandemic, little of us thought about the fact that our own homes contained a layer of impoverished workers: servants and maids, cooks and drivers breathing the same air and now dying the same deaths.

I cannot imagine my own life without Saraswati and Nageshwar. Saraswati was hired 42 years ago to help my mother change my sister’s diapers, ease her tantrums, and do the household chores for tea. She was temperamentally motherly and scolded us for not eating right. Nageshwar’s affection was quieter. Nobody, not even him, remembers when my mother hired him, but we’ve all been saying “more than 20 years” for over a decade. It’s been years since someone called Saraswati an Ayah (Maid) or Nageshwar a Naukar (Servant). When asked, my parents and I like to say: “You are like a family to both of us.”

Servants and nannies, cooks and drivers who breathe the same air and now die the same deaths

I didn’t question this claim until 2019 when I returned to the family home after a few years in Mumbai. In the beginning I enjoyed the comfort of never having to lift a finger. I hired a cleaning lady part-time in Mumbai, but we rarely met. In my parents’ apartment, Saraswati and Nageshwar were always there, hardworking and attentive. Saraswati put an extra layer of butter on my toast every morning. When Nageshwar made my bed, he made sure to smooth out every last wrinkle. You treated me like a king.

It wasn’t long before my domestic arrangements began to seem strange. I had always seen our apartment as a single place. Now I realized that it was divided into two zones. My parents and I occupied the bedrooms, reception and dining area. On the balcony, Saraswati dried our clothes and Nageshwar ironed them. In the kitchen, which I rarely went into, he and Saraswati sat on the floor and ate rice, which was cheaper and coarser than ours. Saraswati rolled out her mattress in the living room every night, and Nageshwar slept outside in what the blueprint calls the “servants’ quarters.” He didn’t come into our bedrooms until it was time to clean them.

When the pandemic hit, the status of Saraswati and Nageshwar became even sharper. After Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a tough nationwide lockdown last March, Nageshwar came up to me in despair. He was used to traveling to the neighboring state of Bihar every month to give his daughters his salary. How would he get it to them now?

Two weeks later, when covid killed the owner of an apartment above ours, Nageshwar asked me if “covid” was just another word for death: if the fear of the coronavirus was some kind of conspiracy for panic people. He seemed upset and wanted to be with his family. I finally realized that our apartment was Nageshwar’s place of work, not his home.

E.Earlier this year, Modi began to brag that India beat the pandemic. Shortly thereafter, a second, more destructive wave raged across the country. On April 21st, my mother came to tell me that every other resident on our floor had tested positive for coronavirus. Both of my parents woke up with a fever three days later. I heard Saraswati cough in the kitchen. Nageshwar said his body was injured.

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We were tested: everyone but me had the virus. When we got the results, my father’s oxygen levels were so low that he had to be hospitalized. Even the private facilities were running out of beds, but through our network of family and friends, we eventually found a place for him. Then I thought about the rest of the household. What would happen if Saraswati and Nageshwar got seriously ill?

I finally realized that our apartment was Nageshwar’s place of work, not his home

The reality, I realized with shame, was that we had never offered health insurance to Saraswati and Nageshwar in all the years they had worked for us. Our general practitioners had seen them over the years for minor ailments, but we had never planned what to do if one of them needed a modern, well-equipped hospital. It was too late to take out insurance now. We agreed that the terribly underfunded public health sector was not an option if their conditions worsened – we would pay the bill for private treatment.

I invited Saraswati and Nageshwar to stay in the apartment’s guest bedroom while they recovered. Both said they preferred the floor to the bed. They wouldn’t even accept food brought to them on our plates: they wanted to use their own. Nageshwar’s phone kept buzzing with worried calls from his daughters. For the first time in my life, I saw him not so efficiently, but so loved.

Their reluctance to cross class boundaries has been confirmed in our own bourgeois social circle. When I asked a doctor to write a prescription for Saraswati and Nageshwar, she laughed and later told my mother that she found my concern for the “staff” a little exaggerated. When a concerned relative heard that our domestic help had tested positive, he asked me on the phone: “Do you think Saraswati will still be able to make tea for your mother?”

“Do you think Saraswati will still be able to make tea for your mother?”

When my father returned from the hospital, Saraswati and Nageshwar recovered. Saraswati returned to her daily routine with extraordinary cheers – collecting milk, making tea, washing plates. Although Nageshwar was a little tearful, he claimed to be back in full strength. To my relief and discomfort, the old order was restored.

We heard reports of how others were doing in the building. Most of them haven’t had their help tested. “They are concerned about who will do the job if they test positive,” my mother said. I was angry but stayed calm. If there is one thing I learned during this ordeal, it is that I am unable to moralize.

Shreevatsa Nevatia is a Calcutta-based journalist and author of How to Travel Light: My Memories of Madness and Melancholy.


additional pictures: getty / alamy

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