banno, dhanno and teja in bumm-bumm-bhole-land

the diary of a chambermaid (1900) – torture garden

Octave Mirbeau (1848-1917) was raped as a child by the Jesuit priests who were supposed to educate him.

He wrote, “The universe appears to me like an immense, inexorable torture garden. Passions, greed, hatred and lies; law, social institutions, justice, love, glory, heroism and religion; these are its monstrous flowers and its hideous instruments of eternal human suffering.”

Not surprisingly, he embraced anarchism, which aimed to sweep away organized society, and replace it with a culture of equals. He did so, despite the fact that as a businessman, investor, journalist, novelist and dramatist, he was extremely rich.

Mirbeau claimed that he wrote ‘The Diary of a Chambermaid’ to expose the plight of French domestic servants,  preyed on by employment agencies and brutalized by their owners. He used his inside knowledge of the upper classes to attack them.

Celestine, the protagonist of the book, is a cheeky, voluptuous maid, exploited by men and women alike for their sexual fantasies. Celestine moves through various upper class homes, with barely concealed contempt and disgust for her employers. She sees it all – shoe fetishes, women with dildoes, a dying boy’s sexual urges, sadomasochistic frenzy, pornography, bestiality, never losing her own perverse sense of humour.

In a scathingly cynical end, Celestine chooses to marry Joseph, a gamekeeper, a virulent anti-Semite, a sadist and probably a sexual murderer. Joseph steals their last employers’ silver and uses the money to open a bar in a small, seaside town. Celestine and he settle down, become rich, and Celestine with ‘upper class’ fastidiousness, begins to complain of her “thieving, shameless” servants.

In 1900, the book was taken as erotica rather than crusading fiction. Celestine was too robust a heroine to be identified as a victim. She took too much pleasure in the cruelties perpetrated on her.

- Taken from John Baxter’s introduction to the HarperCollins 2006 edition of ‘The Diary of a Chambermaid’.

While I was reading the book, a daylight robbery occurred in our housing complex. Four men knocked on a door, entered the house by force, and holding up an old woman, went off with her jewellery and cash. The fact that they entered this particular house on a Sunday afternoon, indicates that they must have inside knowledge of it, they must have known that they would find only an old woman there, and plenty of loot.

Security was beefed up, the security agency got a stern warning, the lift-men and watchmen were scolded harshly for failing to provide adequate security. I am sure all the residents wondered at least once, secretly or openly, as to which one of the security personnel was party to the robbery.

What surprises me about Indian society today is not the amount of crime, and violence that exists, but the fact that there is not more. One only has to look at the inhuman conditions that the people who work for us live in, particularly in cities like Mumbai; their unfairly low wages which ensure that they will never get out of those living and work conditions; the day to day treatment meted out to them, usually rude indifference coupled with an expectation of gratuitous politeness or humility from them; a 365 days per year work schedule; to know that there is something skewered in our system, and sooner or later it has to collapse.

As for sexual exploitation and abuse, there is no dearth of that either in our society. Is there? Sexual needs in our employees, particularly those who live with us, make us uncomfortable. We actively discourage the girls working in our houses from having boyfriends and turn a blind eye to the measures taken by the male workers to fulfill their needs, most of whom live away from their families. However, our own sexual need of our servants is taken for granted. When found out, it could be understandable, forgiven as a momentary lapse or condemned, depending on the manner in which it comes out. The shame is in the nature of the proof, and not the deed itself.

The relentlessly unforgiving stance of Celestine in ‘The Diary of a Chambermaid’ makes for an effective critique of the bourgeoise, their grotesqueness hidden under a thin veneer of respectability. Perhaps in 1900, the book did shock French society out of its complacence.

But does Indian society today react any more to such expose´s? Has not the intrusion of the media in every aspect of our lives, made us more insensitive to any portrayal of stark reality? Does not every new expose´ make us more cynical, more thick-skinned, even abetting us in our own evasions of morality?

Each employer that Celestine works for, insist that they will call her ‘Mary’, as ‘Celestine’ is a name too fancy for a servant. What they of course seek to do, is stamp out any trace of her identity apart from being a maid. While in our society, we do not change our maids’ names, a ‘Sunita’ is easily replaced by a ‘Lalita’. Extreme poverty ensures that there will never be a shortage of servants in Indian society, at least in our lifetimes. The few days of hardship suffered by us while the turnover takes effect is to be grumbled about, a calamity rocking our domestic peace.

The hardship of our servants is perhaps pitied if we are sensitive souls, but usually dismissed as their ‘karma’ even by themselves. We all know that the poor are poor because they drink, because they are superstitious, illiterate, lazy, stupid. If only they had been clever enough to be born as us.

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16 comments on “the diary of a chambermaid (1900) – torture garden

  1. Unmana
    June 24, 2009

    I agree with you, Banno. With all the skills and intelligence we are proud of, we would have been nowhere if we hadn't had the privileges we rarely recognise.

  2. @lankr1ta
    June 24, 2009

    I found myself nodding in agreement at every word you wrote.

    Oh and love the new picture on the blog

  3. Violet
    June 24, 2009

    'If only they had been clever enough to be born as us.' Well said Banno! It hurts me to see how underpaid and mistreated domestic helps are, and how people who splurge insane amounts on pleasure, grudge their meager salaries.

  4. ?!
    June 24, 2009

    "…when you too discover what this word karuna means… from that moment on your lives will never again be the same".

    But then, later you discover he didn't mean it all works out well.

    I often wish for comfortable numbness. Seems enough of it around.

  5. memsaab
    June 24, 2009

    At least in my experience (break-ins, robbed at knifepoint) the perpetrators have not been "poor"–or at least that's not the motivating factor which turns them to crime. They have been drug addicts who needed to feed their addictions.

    Having said that, it does astonish (and perturb) me when I visit India how callous—and just downright rude—the upper classes are towards the people who serve them. My personal code is not to ever be rude to someone who can spit in my food, or pilfer my cupboards (or anyone, really)…

  6. Grasshopper
    June 25, 2009

    Yes, life is bittersweet, ain't it? Pleasure and pain and pleasure and pain. khatam baat.

  7. dipali
    June 25, 2009

    So true, every word of what you say.
    Power equations rule every relationship:(

  8. dustedoff
    June 25, 2009

    Just yesterday I got a note on Facebook from a friend who's doing research for a book on caste and gender issues in India. Among the questions she asked was: "If the servant class in India were to vanish tomorrow, would we be able to manage?"

    Was reminded of that when I read your post…. very insightful.

  9. anja
    June 25, 2009

    Banno you struck a chord as always..I totally relate, the inequality and feudal nature of life in India always made me uncomfortable. I tried to ask why they had to sit on the floor or why they had to work all through the day, why kids my age were begging etc etc, but was never satisfied with responses, 'that's how it is'. I tried to compensate by being friendly but always felt odd at the equation.

    In general though I have noticed the apathy and numbness in M'bai getting worse every time I come home. People don't even realize when they are being rude or cruel. This past visit, I had gone to Bandra to buy shoes with my sister. My 2 and 1/2 yr old daughter was sleeping in my arms. When we got to the footpath, I saw a woman about 16-20 yrs old slapping a boy about 3 years old on the face repeatedly. The boy's screams got louder and the woman went on relentlessly, expressionlessly slapping away. I screamed at her to stop, my sister rushed towards and screamed and got so angered she slapped her on the face and asked, 'Mat maro! Kaisa lagta hai?' We were both shaken up and very upset. In the shop the shop keeper said, 'yeh roj usko maarti hai paisa mangne ke liye, uski ma hai.' On the way home in the auto my sister was angry with herself for her reaction, I told I would have done the same if my child wasn't in my arms. And that at least we reacted, people were just walking by nonchalantly. We were both upset and wondering what that poor woman's life must be like that she was so emotionless/brutal with a child, that might be her own. Was she hungry for days? Was she raped and impregnated? Was she beaten by someone everyday? What made her so deadened? By giving her a slap what did we do different than the world has already done to her. I still get tears in my eyes every time I think of that day…I still don't have any answers to why life is so unfair and why so few react.

  10. Banno
    June 25, 2009

    Unmana, Yes, a couple of months ago we were shooting in a slum near the airport. While I am quite familiar with slums, this was night. Huge rats scurried around, the lights were dim, the lanes filling up with drunk men. In the heat, everything stank. Children played as usual. And it struck me yet again, how most things are just an accident of birth.

    Alankrita, thanks.

    Violet, oh yes, I'm often appalled at the wages that people think are fair for domestic help. And in a similar vein how people will haggle for a few rupees with street vendors and cough up unlimited amounts at designer stores or malls.

  11. Banno
    June 25, 2009

    ?!, yes, I do too. And maybe, living in Mumbai, I will soon achieve it.

    Memsaab, maybe most break-ins are by addicts or hardened criminals. But the fact is, that brutality is perpetrated by years of rudeness and arrogance towards those working for you. Perhaps the worker may not spit in your food, but sooner or later, her son or grandson or daughter is going to react and cut off your head. (I don't mean YOU, lovely Memsaab).

    Grasshopper, :-) :-(

  12. Banno
    June 25, 2009

    Dipali, oh yeah.

    Dustedoff, no. I know I'd collapse. I've been able to work all these years because of the help that I've had. Period.

    Anja, I don't know whether I would have reacted. Somehow, living in Mumbai, you find yourself shutting up more and more. Each day, you face traffic, noise, crowds, dirt, commuting, expenses, and you think I've a hard enough life as it is. I can't cope with any more.

    It's great your sister and you did react.

  13. writerzblock
    June 25, 2009

    You are bang on when you say '…Has not the intrusion of the media in every aspect of our lives, made us more insensitive to any portrayal of stark reality…?' Extremely well-written. One I can feel the angst in your voice.

    P.s: Nice new look of the blog :-)

  14. d gypsy!
    June 27, 2009

    i thought you had written it all about the book…though , thanks for the introduction, would like to read it…hopefully, understand the perspective..

    about the worker class, i agree as well. And how there are small things which we consciously or not do stealing identities of a lot of people around us…

  15. Hades
    July 18, 2009

    What surprises me about Indian society today is not the amount of crime, and violence that exists, but the fact that there is not more

    Yes. But ancient mores hold this sort of society together, I guess.

    Nice post.

  16. scarlette
    July 22, 2009

    Hey Banno,

    i hav been reading your blog for some time. nice work.

    Have created a link for this post on my blog. Hope you approve.

    regards

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This entry was posted on June 24, 2009 by in books, real world.
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