Sunday, August 12, 2012

Reflections: The Help

Skeeter (as she is called) is an aspiring writer in the small town of Jackson, Mississippi. It is the early 1960s, a time of much social awakenings and upheaval in the United States. Skeeter agrees with the socialist movements, in principle. Everyday she witnesses her clique of snooty white friends settle deeper and deeper into their rigid and narrow ways - insulting, segregating, and oppressing their African-American maids, focusing their time and effort to scale social ladders through superficial parties, and perpetuating the notion that women, that too white women, are too precious to do any hard work. Skeeter finally picks up the courage and determination to write a book from the perspective of African-American maids, with the hope that the book shall bring to light the pitiable lives of such maids and the dynamics between them and the white families they serve. With sharp characters and engrossing writing, this is an honest, simple, and heart-warming story of racial prejudices and social pressures that affect sincere, innocent lives.

Racism is the main subject of exploration in the book. But the parallel exploration that interested me was the relationship dynamics between a maid and the family that she serves. Maids, or rather Domestic Helps, are still part of most households in India. In many families, the Help is an indispensable part of everyday functioning. From cleaning the house, to helping in the kitchen, to running errands, to taking care of children, they are part of all the core elements of the household. In my own family, our Help has been with us for close to 20 years. She has grown to be one of my mother’s closest friends and support systems. Having seen me grow, I am more like a granddaughter to her. Despite such heartwarming closeness, I am aware that there is still a boundary that is drawn on either sides - define it with whatever term, color it with whatever emotion - I can’t articulate the right words for it. The dynamics is dotted with hiccups - of social hierarchy, financial status, educational differences, and overall differences in lifestyle. Perhaps it is unrealistic, given natural work boundaries, for a Help to be fully integrated into a family, but the book makes you wonder and give it more thought. Why doesn’t she ever sit with you at the same table to share a meal - nobody prevents her, there are no official rules or contract - but an implicit set of antiquated rules always hangs in the air. It is sad that in many households this is still a matter of deep-seated prejudice - the rules are imbued very seriously, with the upholders presenting thin, but vehement justifications.

As much as I hate to say this, most times the justification is presented in the name of hygiene. The book brings up this same “justification” and revolves a story around it. It shows that such rationalization is a blow to basic dignity, especially in these times. The characters in the book make an appeal to adopt more progressive attitudes.

The characters themselves are starkly black or white - good or bad. Except for Skeeter’s mom, many of the characters lacked complexity - they were simple, but beautifully portrayed. Despite the wealth of characters, each has their unique voice. Sometimes, it is nice to read stories with such simple characters that tell a basic story of injustice; a refreshing break from the world of greys we live in. The bad pay their dues, the good get blessed with a break. But life is not an ideal fairy tale, even in the most simplest of stories. The characters’ lives fork, twist, and turn, and some renew their faith and goodness to carry on, while some contently resort to their old, rusty ways. In that sense, there is a lot of realism in the story.

The wide array of memorable characters, the thread of suspense, the bristling injustices and prejudices, the rooting feminism and social liberation, make the book a straightforward success. I couldn’t put the book down, despite its length. No wonder a movie was promptly made!

1 comment:

Aparna said...

Hmm. Very true statement this - "I am aware that there is still a boundary that is drawn on either sides". This book I should pick. Sounds like an interesting read.