The Help has generated glorious buzz among readers and film buffs alike, with the ambitious but ultimately lacklustre cinematic rendition starring the lovely Emma Stone, who is sadly no match for the spunky Miss. Skeeter.
Promising the ‘other side’ of Gone with the Wind (immortalised in the line “Everyone knows how we white people feel, the glorified Mammy figure who dedicates her whole life to a white family. Margaret Mitchell covered that. But no one ever asked Mammy how she felt about it.”), Stockett tells the tale of The Help who populated the peripheries of white Missisipi in the 1960s. The writing is wonderful in its ability to convey the complexity of heartbreak and small joys existing side by side, as these women, both coloured and white, perpetuate and challenge a grey rainbow social injustices.
The book has been met with well-deserved praise, and I shall ramble no further save for saying pick up a copy, if you haven’t already.
I would also however, like to draw attention to the novel’s epilogue that remembers Demetrie, Stockett’s own childhood maid. She writes,
‘I’m, pretty sure I can say that no one in my family ever asked Demetrie what it felt like to be black in Mississipi, working for our white family. It never occurred to us to ask. It was everyday life. It wasn’t something people felt compelled to examine… I have wished, for many years, that I’d been old enough and thoughtful enough to ask Demetrie that question.’ (2009:45)
Within this third world island (Or do I mean a politically correct developing world, emerging economy?), labour is cheap and bound to a tradition of devoted ‘help’ that raise the ‘babies’ of wealthier women, wash clothes, draw baths and prepare meals; the kind of dedication that made ‘Sri Lankan’ domestic labour prized beyond its watery borders.
The peripheries of my own existence in Colombo were populated by a steady stream of women and men, mostly if not entirely of Plantation Tamil origin , who transited through our home, for anything from a few weeks, a few months to a few years. Sometimes three generations of the same family, vertical and horizontal relatives flitted through, attending to our meals and laundry.
I would be lying if I said I remembered the names and faces of these umpteen women whose own lives were intimately bound with our own for pockets of time. But several remain deeply ingrained as a part of my childhood.
There was Mallika, a teenager with a mop of curly hair from Kandy, who was a worthy playmate and went on a trip with us to Anuradhapura.
There was Mary from Rathnapura, who watched me when schools were shut at length in the late 90s and adept at frying prawns and letting me sneak ice cubes out of the fridge.
There was Poovathi from Badulla, my sister’s nanny whose incessant aches and pains made me dub her ‘the paper doll’. Her family remained linked to our’s for many years: son, daughter, husband, a cousin who had a dramatic encounter with ‘spirit possession’ in our living room one night.
There was also Seetha who lasted three days, being intermittently possessed by her dead father severely interfering with her ability to hold down a job. I kid you not.
There was Yogamma, a refugee from Trincomalee whose tragic life we still speak of. She liked me the best, I think of all her counterparts and spared no butter in making me sour dosai. She wanted more than anything to ‘go to Dubai’ as she would say to earn money for her children who had been relegated to a refugee camp in India. Conned by several employment agencies, she died in the Tsunami in 2004 while attempting to claim and sell her family’s land in Trincomalee.
There was Letchumi, a raging but ultimately endearing alcoholic from Rathnapura who lived with us for many years, until she fell off a Jack tree while on leave at home. She thankfully recovered, but her love for the bottle continues.
Presently, there is Kala, the most idiosyncratic of them all and Letchumi’s daughter. A riot around the house, she once garnished coconut chutney with sliced plums, coriander, carrot and one solitary segment of green bean. She is also of the bucket fame, when one morning a group of builders working on our house found her playing Tarzan on a bucket pulley dangling off the roof. We always laugh about that one.
The faces, the names, the stories are numerous. Enlaced but separate, filial but somehow lesser, familiar but never friends.
Within the Sri Lankan context, the relationship between the help and their employers remain as complex and blurred as that of 1960s Mississippi, albeit less about skin colour and more about class and sometimes ethnicity and the injustices, jealousy and resentment that arise from these socio-economic and cultural differences.
Two Sri Lankan writers, whose books I don’t love but certainly consider worth reading, explore the snarled threads that tie nonas, mahaththayas and babas into convoluted relationships of dominance, reciprocity and even wickedness.
In A Disobedient Girl, Ru Freeman captures the interplay between patronising generosity and resentment, between Latha, an orphan deemed to a life of perpetual servanthood , and Thara, the baby of the privileged Vithanage household.
I could not bring myself to sympathise with any of the characters, who I found to be overwhelmingly selfish. I did not care for the plot revolving around the mysterious connection between Latha and Biso, a wronged woman fleeing to safety with her children.
Freeman does succeed tremendously in portraying the sexual politics and tangled struggle of human emotion seeded in the soil of class prejudice; a socio-economic terra firma that both nourishes and poisons the actions of those entrapped in inflexible social hierarchies. Freeman’s account is moving and insightful, allegorically representing relationships of servitude, upper hands and curious unspoken friendships that are all too familiar to those of us who were fed, cleaned and watched over by women and girls not much older.
Karen Roberts‘ The Lament of a Dhobi Woman is not a great piece of literary fiction by a long shot, detailing the life of Seelawathi, a village girl brought into an exploitative and demeaning equation within a Colombo household. However, what it lacks in skilled prose and plot, it somewhat makes up for in its observations on the fractured nature of Sri Lankan society.
The author positions the book as a sort of exposé ‘to shame people into changing their behaviour‘ (2010:288), which in my opinion impacts Roberts’ character development negatively, with an almost unequivocal demonisation of the proverbial ‘Colombo set’, save for the innocent untouched by the wickedness or sociality.
I suppose, the point of this post- aside from a few recommended reads- is to remember, to wonder about those very women whose lives are in most ways no different to those of the real-life Abileens and Minnys from half a century and several continents apart. They toil, raise children and be enmeshed into the most private spheres of those people who will never acknowledge them as equals.
I wonder the same thing Stockett does, the questions it never once occurred to me to ask.
“We are just two people. Not that much separates us. Not nearly as much as I’d thought.” (Kathryn Stockett, The Help)