Two very different novels shed light on the lives of those who serve

In the midst of patriotic outrage about an envoy who was accused of underpaying her maid, hardly anything has been seen of the maid, who is equally an Indian. Those who serve are often forgotten, maybe because they are trained to be invisible as they work to make another person’s life easy. I recently picked up one of my favourite novels, The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, at the same time that I was reading Mulk Raj Anand’s Coolie. These two very different books, with vastly different protagonists, offer an insight into the minds of those who serve.

In Coolie, the young orphan Munoo is sent out by his uncle to earn his living in the house of a Babu and the Babu’s harsh wife. He finds some solace in playing with the small daughter of the house but he soon gets into trouble and runs away. He works for a while in a pickle factory with a kind master. Then that master is bankrupted and Munoo must again stumble from one miserable situation to another, reaching Bombay as inevitably as a raindrop drains into a sewer.

In all this, what is odd is Munoo’s relationship to the pickle factory owner. When the factory goes bust, Munoo works elsewhere and brings his wages back to support his former boss, instead of striking out on his own. Time and again, the coolie imagines himself to be part of a family, not just exchanging his labour for money.

The coolie’s life is nothing like that of Stevens, the butler of The Remains of the Day. Stevens dresses and dines like a gentleman and is treated with dignity. But he too identifies himself with the estate he runs and believes absolutely in the moral stature of his master. Whenever his master regrets his actions and changes tack, the faithful Stevens suspends judgement and follows along.

Coolie is a simple narration of what happens to a boy from the hills. But Anand also exposes the labour and social conditions of India in the 1930s and, in the last few chapters, introduces the wider political realities of the time, with a hint of communal conflicts to come.

In Ishiguro’s novel, the reader is trapped within the reminiscences of an unreliable narrator. Stevens rambles on about staff plans and the characteristics of a good butler as he embarks on a short driving holiday to meet a former colleague. The holiday lasts just a week, and Stevens’ history is fleshed out through flashbacks that overlap and sometimes contradict each other. Behind his laborious arguments and conclusions is a relentless psychological investigation, a verdict on his entire life. Stevens sheds layers of self-delusion until his stellar career looks more like a train of missed opportunities.

Can a literary hero be forged from the life of a servant? Munoo and Stevens do not labour toward a life of independence. They are heroic in their service, but they live through their masters, and they live to be forgotten.

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