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.