Spring cleaning in Chennai, or: How the World turned Brown


We landed in Chennai on the night of 31st December. The city was a big party. Streets were crammed with revelers, men and women and children even, all in their best clothes. Policemen too were everywhere. A gang of spirited young men on motorbikes followed our taxi for a while, before veering off toward Besant Nagar. We drove on to Thirvanmiyur, to the beachside apartment we planned to stay in for a week. The beach, hundred meters or so from our balcony, was swarming with people, mostly men. They were screaming, in joy presumably, and we barely heard the waves. A minute before midnight the fireworks began, turning the starless sky into a canopy of dancing lights. This lasted a few minutes, an interval when we heard neither waves nor screams. The fireworks stopped as abruptly as they had begun, and the beach party did not last long. From the street we heard sounds of bikes roaring and people chattering. The new year was here. I turned off the lights and listened to the waves.

Earlier, at the airport, there was the Ambassador episode. The woman at the head of the prepaid-taxi queue named her destination and paid the fare. The man behind the counter handed back a receipt.

“Go to the airport-taxi queue outside – our man there will take care of the rest,” he said.

“What car is it?” she asked, in Tamil. This was, the way she asked it, an important question. I looked at her. Late forties; flashy green salwar-kameez; large leather handbag, camel shade; flat sandals with a black ankle strap; an expensive-looking suitcase, also green.

“We only have Ambassadors, madam.”

“Ambassador! You should have told me that in the beginning! Why did you waste my time?”

“You should have asked in the beginning. How would I know what you like or do not like?”

At this point the woman turned furious. First the insult of being assigned an Ambassador, now this chap behind the counter was talking back!

“But how CAN you give me an Ambassador?” she demanded. “There are no Ambassador cars on the roads these days! How can you still use them?”

“Which country are you from, madam? We have a fleet of Ambassador cars, and they run every day. If you can’t bear to sit in one, say so.”

“I don’t know what you are talking about. Give me back my money!! And don’t try to fool other customers this way!”

The man threw some notes on the counter and shouted back. The woman continued to howl as she dragged her large suitcase toward the exit, a fuming engine trailed by a green carriage. I looked at my wife. She too was looking at me. “Ambassador is ok?” I asked, mildly. To my relief, she smiled. And then: “But ask for an air-conditioned one.”

The Ambassador is among the few reminders of our colonial past still visible on Indian roads. Once a dominant species, it is now endangered. The first Ambassador, which started production in 1957, was based on a British model made by Morris Motor Limited. Later versions were labelled Mark I to IV, and since the 1990s a series of new models, Nova, Classic, Grand, Avigo, were introduced to revive the brand. Some Germans call it the Mercedes of India, but Ambassador’s fate is related to the Trabant. Ubiquitous in East Germany during the 70s and 80s, the Trabant went out of production after German reunification, when East Germans switched to second-hand versions of better-engineered brands from the West. Indians, too, have moved on to other brands after foreign players entered the Indian market. Ambassadors may soon exist only on film footage and in private albums.

* * *

Next morning I walked to a grocery nearby. The street that began at the beach ran a few hundred meters and met a busier road. At the intersection a coconut drink vendor sat reading a newspaper beside his pyramid of green fruits. Across the road a grey-haired man pedaled his sewing machine, steering the length of a trouser leg into the needle. Auto drivers idled together near the line of rickshaws. A young woman behind a mobile stall mixed dough in an aluminum bowl while her man poured thick circles of dosa batter on a pan. Two elderly women hunched over the sidewalk, sweeping it with straw brooms. Occasionally a car or a motorbike flashed past, leaving a trail of heavy dust. It was seven thirty, and the air was humid.

At the grocery a woman was talking to the store owner about an incident the previous night.

“There was some trouble in this area last night. Did you hear of it?” she asked.

“No. What happened?”

“Oh, nothing much. A few drunk youngsters were walking around smashing car headlights and window-panes. Someone complained, and the police caught them.”

“This is a regular occurrence on New Year’s eve.” The storekeeper shook his head. “It seems to be getting more violent each year.”

“When they caught the vandals do you know who they found among them?”

“Who?”

“Take a guess.”

“A film star or some celebrity?”

“No. It was a policeman from the same station. He was on sick leave since a week.”

* * *

The apartment was dusty. No one had lived in it for a few months. The sea-facing windows were not weather sealed, and a fine film of dust coated everything. I called a ‘Professional Cleaning Services’ company and enquired about their ‘Spring Cleaning’ service. They charged by square-feet, the woman on the phone explained, and they cleaned everything: doors, windows, floors, ceilings, bathrooms, balconies, and furniture too, including “dry dusting” the insides of shelves and wardrobes. We fixed a date.

The woman, co-owner of the cleaning firm, arrived on time, but her cleaners – a set of four – came an hour later. A young woman, about thirty, of medium height and build, she wore a plain-looking blue salwar-kameez and carried herself with a quiet dignity. Her manners were marked by an unusual degree of patience towards her workers; she did not order them about or raise her voice. It was a difficult job: she was charging us for the results, but the workers were paid by the hour. She looked through all the rooms and estimated the apartment would need four to five hours; it took eight.

We were not easy customers. In India I was largely immune to dust, conditioned to ignore the disorder around, but the twelve years in Germany have altered my attitude toward cleanliness. Now I notice grime on the shower head, dirt on a ceiling fan. I stay away from dust-ridden windows and I’m quick to clean that spot on the sofa. I’m not sure if I like this acquired fussiness, but that is the person I’ve turned into. (I am also well-trained by my wife. She warns me when I leave my coffee cup on the table; the warning is upgraded to a threat when I hang my trousers on the coat stand; eviction notice is served when – despite being told “a thousand and one times” – I do not load the dishwasher in the right order, arranging smaller vessels under larger ones.) So our expectations were not easily met. After each room the woman would ask us to “inspect” it; we inevitably found half a dozen unclean spots, and she would assign workers to those places again. I thought they would be more diligent after one or two examples, but the pattern continued.

She did not know we were NRIs (I told her we lived in Bangalore, and this apartment was to be rented out soon), but she asked me if we were brahmins. Keeping one eye on me, my wife replied that brahmins these days are not as clean as their reputation suggested. I winced. The woman looked skeptical.

I asked her about the cleaning company. They specialised in hospitals, she said. Hygiene is important in hospitals and they expect high standards. (The workers in the apartment today, she added quickly, were fresh and were not trained to the “hospital-level”.) They also worked for offices. Demand was high, and rising. Recently an Australian firm had expressed interest in a collaboration; they wanted to enter the Indian market, and were looking for a local partner.

This reminded me of a recent conversation with a friend in Chennai. We were talking about the rising living standards and costs in the city, the sky-high property prices. This friend, an entrepreneur, had a library of examples. Property rates in Besant Nagar, he averred, were higher than the rates on Beverly Hills. An auto-rickshaw driver in Chennai earned between fifteen to thirty thousand rupees a month. Then, moving to the topic of cleaners and unskilled workers, he made an astonishing claim. In ten to fifteen years, he said, such labourers in Indian cities will mostly be whites. White people doing the job of sweeping, washing, cleaning stuff, in the homes and offices of rich Indians.

I smiled. He listed more examples. Servants were hard to find and retain, he said, because many had children working in banks or insurance companies, white collar jobs that gave them a status they had not known before, and these children forbid their parents from working as labourers. I had heard of such cases, but I continued to smile as he paid the bill and we said goodbye.

A few weeks later, The Economist ran an article on the ‘Servant Problem’ in India:

Demand is rising as more women go out to work and fewer live in claustrophobic joint families where in-laws act as nannies. Yet supply is falling: 18% of urban women in the informal sector took up jobs as domestic workers in 2009-10, down from 27% five years earlier, according to a 2011 study led by a Harvard academic.

Economic liberalisation in the past two decades has created a wider range of low-skilled urban jobs. Malls need shop assistants. Offices need errand boys. In rural areas a job-creation scheme for poor households is keeping potential migrants at home. Meanwhile, middle-aged servants have invested in their children’s schooling so that their offspring do not follow in their footsteps. Pushpa Khude, a 45-year-old maid and cook in Mumbai, began watering plants at a Bollywood actor’s house at the age of seven. Her son is a bank manager and her daughter is studying commerce.

I began to see the logic in my friend’s argument. With rising demand and shrinking supply, a gap will emerge in the domestic Indian labour market. In the West, increasing automation and high education costs will lead to a large population of jobless low-skilled workers. These unemployed whites in Europe and elsewhere will rush to India. And where UK does not want Poles, Romanians, and Bulgarians to land on their shores looking for work, India will welcome them. Climate may take some getting used to. (For Spaniards, even this won’t be a problem.) But the pay will be good and there will be no shortage of work. Training centers will spring up, offering courses for whites to understand Indian habits and customs. A McKinsey report will estimate that the Indian low-skilled labour market “will grow by 36% in the next two years.” Interracial marriages will solve the dark-skin-complex Indians have been suffering from since decades. The fairness cream market, growing at about 15% annually until 2025, will begin its downward slide in the 2030s and all but disappear in the second half of the century. Thomas Friedmann – or his successor – will write a book on globalisation’s next wave: The World is Brown. (Comedian Russell Peters, who predicted that in a couple of hundred years the world will turn brown, will be laughing his teeth out.) Novels will be written, films will be made, and the next India-based Oscar winner, a sequel to the previous one, will be about a poor white boy in a Chennai slum. Some hard-working whites will rise up the economic and social ladder, leading to tensions with the insecure Indian middle-class. Racism of a new form will emerge. Matrimonial columns will reveal the demand for Pure-Indians, a class uncorrupted by the white gene pool. Unemployed members of this class will demand job reservation quotas for themselves and college quotas for their children. Indian cities will reshape themselves into clusters of white neighbourhoods, mixed-race neighbourhoods, Pure-Indian neighbourhoods. In unexceptional times political debates will circle the issue of integration of whites into society and the benefits they should receive, but during elections focus will shift to the long-pending immigration bill: parties on the left and the right will promise a ceiling on visas for immigrants. ‘India for the Indians’ will be a slogan much heard those days, although what India is and who Indians are will continue to be inconclusive, a topic for debates in schools and TV-shows and a theme for public intellectuals writing books on the Indian condition. While the arts scene – insular, high-minded – will continue unchanged, music will see a confluence of styles, blended (in a Sumeet mixie, some would say) to create a new genre of Euro-Indian folk music. Gastronomic options will explode, and this will draw more whites in search of culinary opportunities into the subcontinent. Universities in the West will channel copious funds for research into this new Indian society, and a host of white academics – social and political anthropologists – will visit India to observe and understand what they call in their abstracts ‘The Grand Indian Social Experiment’. Some of these academics will marry locals, turning observers into the observed, all of this rich material for the theater of the absurd. Churches will spring up in unexpected places, and soon the Vatican will label India, not Africa, as its fastest growing market. The Pope – a younger, healthier one – will visit the country thrice each year, and while the Congress, singing its secular tune, will welcome this, the BJP will find itself shaken. RSS influenced factions of the party will call for radical measures to oust the ‘Christian Pimps and Whores’ (as a secret internal memo would have it), but more moderate party elements will suggest that they focus on the old foes, the Muslims, who still outnumber the Christians by a large margin. Krzysztof Khan, of Polish and Indian extraction, will emerge as the new star of Bollywood. Known to his fans as KK, Krzysztof will go on to win a Best Actor award at Cannes for the patriotic block-buster, Gora mera rang Bharath mera desh. TIME will feature him on the cover, a story captioned ‘The First International Movie Star’. Abandoning a flourishing career in movies, Krzysztof will turn to politics, taking up the cause of underprivileged white and mixed-race Indians. And forty three years after Sonia Gandhi refused to accept the PM post, exactly one hundred years after its independence from British rule, India will get its first white Prime Minister.

6 comments

  1. Hahahaha!

    But you know, it could happen. We just need to figure out what to do with all those new white collar workers when there aren’t that many white collar jobs to go around.

  2. I am asking a rather mundane question here. Can you share with me the contact of the cleaning agency who did the spring cleaning. I am looking for one and chanced on your blog.

    Interesting read … esp on the point of your new found intolerance to dust.

    .

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