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     Volume 9 Issue 39| October 08, 2010 |


 Cover Story
 Writing the Wrong
 Human Rights
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Mausumi Mahapatro

He looks grotesque except when he smiles. When he smiles, his face creases with these fierce lines that seem more cracks or fissures like on the earth's surface. Imagine the earth a stiff, aimless, aged boy, with no dreams.

Oh, but then, what can I venture to say about this boy's dreams. I am certain the boy dreams. Dreams, after all, are nondiscriminatory. But I have often wondered whether we dream differently. Not just language or color, but I mean, whether the very nature of our dreams differ based on our class, or race, or sex.

The boy is actually a young man or an aged boy, roughly twenty something, if not younger. He looks prehistoric: a cave man with a large head and large feet, and a river of veins inside his arms. I wonder what our colonisers thought seeing us the first time.

He serves me tea with toast biscuits using both his hands and with a gentle bow of obeisance which doesn't suit him. It makes him look out of place. I picture him only with a hoe or a hacksaw, or within the feeble chambers of a bamboo latrine. His servility is unmatched; it distinguishes him from the seasoned servants who talk back and act on an air of indispensability. But he surprises me at times.

Once, I saw him standing in the corner of the verandah just standing there like an imbecile. When I approached him and he saw that I was looking at him, he tells me, “What?” I couldn't believe it. He tells me, “What?” What nerve!

Then this other time, I saw him lying on the floor he had just mopped. When I approached him, he was still lying on the floor, looking at me with his hands folded behind his head. I asked him, “Why are you lying there?” He tells me, “I've finished my work.” Just like that, casually, without a care in the world.

He's like raw meat with fresh blood around the intestines and flies swarming all over. It's his rawness that is offensive. Maybe our minds are accustomed more to modern sophistries that anything atypical seems crude and inappropriate.

I work as a Communications Officer for an international organization and I do believe in human rights. In fact, I have tried to help the boy read and write. But the boy is hopeless. He's not much of a messenger boy as he can't ride a bicycle and he can't even tell time. When I tell him, it is 2 pm now and ask him to tell me the time five minutes later, he tells me it is half past one.

He just saunters aimlessly all day, a hapless boy who could never become an office clerk or a driver. When he sees me looking at him, he smirks. It's a complacent, patriarchal smirk. What a fool he must be to think I have interest in him.

He does know a few things though. He knows how to spread cow manure in the garden and debone a Hilsha fish. Sometimes I see him mopping the floor and he looks like a four legged beast that cannot stand upright. Then he buys a mobile phone and I imagine him in his village charming impressionable village girls with the buttons he cannot read. This is development.

Sometimes I just laugh it off but other times I am so infuriated I end up hollering until my voice cracks and I sound like tired, unhappy Napoleon. He reacts by drooping his dark eyes and puckering his mouth like a child about to cry.

What angers me the most is when he stares at me while I eat. In fact, he stares most of the time. He must have noticed the loose, sagging layers of my belly, or the way I belch after eating chicken rolls, maybe even the hairs that stand frigid on my arms when I get goosebumps. He always has this smirk on his face that makes me self-conscious. How can this beast laugh at me?

I will wear my dinner pearls tonight and black chiffon sari. He will see me, be reassured of the elegance of his master, and gleam with pride.

I want to reform him, transform him, or something of that sort. I guess one may call it vanity. I call it the work of an artist.

Art is the only way to cope with life, it seems. I can't draw or paint intricate mandalas or abstract visions of apocalypse. I only know how to write text for brochures, so this is my art. At first, I likened my inclinations to morality. We must help the worst of the lot and no, I am not referring to any biblical sense of morality just the generic kind.

But morality has me stumped. How I wish I could speak to Zarathustra. I remember him vaguely from a course I took in college. And I also remember my instructor asking, “How does one sail over morality?” Oh but I will never understand Zarathustra, something tells me.

If only some moral philosopher will explain how ought one to live. I don't mean the Ten Commandments or the Eightfold path. Holding prayers beads and bowing to Allah five times a day is not enough either.

I want to know this: Is pasting catchy slogans on human rights an illustration of the virtuous life? I want a moral psychologist to tell me how my mind can achieve such a level of generality where I see my servant as my equal. And I also want to know - is virtue defined by intention or the act itself? Or is it marked by sacrifice? Virtue seems a lot like enlightenment: vague and unreachable.

I only understand brochures and the rhetoric that infests them. I write about codes of conduct, social responsibilities and the right to life with dignity. My public morality is relatively intact. Then I come home, have tea with toast biscuits, and feel mercy only for the servant who places me on a pedestal.

Do not expect a denouement out of this no epiphany or sexual advances in this story. I will not cry out, 'Rape!' nor will I run off with him to his village. If I touch him it will only be if I hit him, and this, I fear and shun out of pride.

We pride ourselves on not being like the rest. We buy them land, settle their disputes and pay for their operations but we consider them beastly, not someone to fall in love with or marry. It is your typical white man's burden genre of morality. Every bourgeois household in Dhaka ultimately subscribes to this form of morality. Kipling would have been proud.

We expect our requisite number of salaams and servile gestures; then only do we feel comfortable opening our purses. In our minds, we must feel they are indeed beneath us, beggars at our mercy, and it arms us with a tender power to subjugate and dispense love at the same time.

I'm not sure if they mind entirely; there are Uncle Toms' amongst them alongside prospective revolutionaries, I suspect. And their capacity to subjugate the servants beneath them is far more vulgar, I assuage myself.

In the past, we have bought land for our servants who then straight off rented it out for bargha it's like giving a loan (or gift) to a person who then goes off and loans it to someone else, making a handsome profit in the process, no doubt. Call it the entrepreneurial spirit of the poor. I imagine the status jobs they hold in Dhaka are highly coveted instruments for these kinds of pre-capitalist gifts, if they may be called as such. But that is only for the lucky ones who are not daily beaten and harassed, I would guess.

I struggle with these thoughts. A Communications Officer is not supposed to have these thoughts we are considered shallow, I suppose, like housewives and pale women who frequent parlours all day. Who am I to judge?

My partner says, “Look, there's no point in saying sorry to the servants after screaming at them. It makes you look like a fool.”

I tell him it is the only way I can partially absolve my guilt. He says, “Remember who holds the noose and whose neck is tied around it. You can't change your position. Be firm. Don't confuse them with your NGO slogans, scream at them and say sorry afterwards. They are raw and you never know when they'll try to break the rope and tie you up.”

I look at him aghast but I know what he means. We have young bourgeois woman championing human rights from 9 to 5 and returning home to palacial bastions of servitude. Their fathers and husbands run sweatshops and wield pistols. How is one to come to terms with that? We should all fear the guillotine. No one is absolved from the crimes we commit.

Have I mentioned I am a Communications Officer for a humanitarian organization? Equality, freedom for all, justice, all these words buzz in my head the way beggars crowd the intersections. Remember, I deal with these vacuous words a good forty hours a week.

And they are empty words devoid of substance. I understand love. And envy. But equality, I grapple with. It's not something you feel, like when you bite your tongue or burn your finger. It's some vague metaphysical ideal that we are all supposed to aspire to in the name of progress and modernity. And it is this grand moral project that sets us apart from the beast and savage, so they tell us.

I remember once I told a woman her servant was beautiful. She must have felt insulted though I never intended it in that way. I guess a bourgeois woman's beauty will, as a matter of principle, always surpass the beauty of the servant girl. We feel the same insecurity the nineteenth century white American woman felt next to the slave girl.

And what of morality? If I have a child, do you think I will ever allow the servant's child to outwit my own? Never. Charity I can give, but, my child, my family, above all else.

And so all I have left is my piece of vanity, my project, my transformative art. Call it what you may. The taming of the shrew. White man's burden. At least, now I can sleep at night not having to think myself depraved. Or better yet, I shall sleep with the admission of complete, unadulterated depravity.


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