“Few tasks are more like the torture of Sisyphus than housework, with its endless repetition: the clean becomes soiled, the soiled is made clean, over and over, day after day... The battle against dust and dirt is never won.”~ Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex.
After a week of pushing files around and toying around with excel sheets, I clean my tiny apartment in the weekend and inevitably end up with a back pain; wishing I never have to do it again. Even when I live aided with a variety of cleaning machines, I struggle to keep to my schedule of dusting, cleaning, vacuuming, washing and folding. I remember the women who brought me up—all keeping their jobs and maintaining way bigger homes, keeping up the eternal struggle against dust.
Women around me have all had jobs—my mother worked in an airline company, my aunts were principals of their schools, and another aunt was a Central Government employee. As my mother left home at 4 am, their homes have all been formative spaces as I ended up spending a considerable amount of time growing up in them. They were all neat spaces with huge bookshelves, littered with curios collected from travels and walls adorned with frames that never collected dust. I remember the women who would take over these homes when my aunts and mother were away and kept them clean and ordered—leaving behind their own homes, taking early morning trains into the city. I remember the army of working women who would come into these homes and enable my mother and aunts to be working women, promptly taking over the forever battle against dust.
When my mother joined work after her maternity leave, Arati Didi looked after me. The day she eloped with her boyfriend, she took me along and left me at my aunt’s place. She didn’t have to, she could’ve just left me home after feeding me, but she didn’t. I’d like to believe that her boyfriend filled her life with the love she showered on me so selflessly. Through the years, my mother climbed her way up the ladders at work, often hitting her head in the glass ceilings and finding ways around it. One day when I saw her pinning a black ribbon to her uniform sari, I was stunned. She told me the workers’ union at the Kolkata Airport was on strike! Of course, she was my mother and she was the woman who made the best momos in the world, but that day she also became a working woman for me; a unionised working woman striking for her rights. That day was a formative day of our relationship.
My mother did all these things with a smile while a line of women brought me up and kept her home clean. Year after year as my mother came home, there would be hot food on the table, washed clothes folded up on her bed and clean rooms for her to walk through. For years, almost like magic, Biji Biji, Namita Didi, Sandhya Mashi, Meena Mashi, Geeta Di, Bharati Mashi, Malati Mashi and Jamuna Di arrived on time, took over the house and made it into a home, all the while making it seem effortless and natural. Before the debate over skilled and unskilled work emerges here, let me just lay it blank that raising a child needs skills; from knowing how hot the food must be, to folding the dough into fantastic mughlai parathas, to making me sit still and braiding my hair, in the face of my tantrums, not just required skills but also a tremendous amount of patience that I, as an employee, rarely bring to my workplace.
When I moved out of my parent’s house and became a “working woman” myself, I was joined by Mamta Didi who would ring the bell at 7:15 am, smile and wish me Good Morning before going on to make our first cups of tea for the day. I, too, ended up joining the ranks of my aunts and mother, as I sat complaining on days Mamta Didi missed work or on the days a bit of dal still stuck to the plate she had washed. The day she came to work with fever, I gave her a Crocin, some toast and asked her to leave. While I had the luxury of sick leaves, personal leaves, and paid days-off, she had none. While I had HR policies dictating how much I should get paid, Mamta Didi’s salary was arrived at only after I haggled with her for a good twenty minutes. While the debate on menstrual leave gains more voices, these women come to work in each of our households and continue to bend over and sweep our floors while they are cramping and menstruating.
In 1857, in New York City, female garment workers are believed to have gathered together to demand workers’ rights. This is believed to be the first act of resistance carried on by women demanding fair wages and better working conditions. In 2018, domestic workers in India are far from being unionised, in spite of continued and sustained efforts for decades now. This International Working Women’s Day, we should obviously congratulate ourselves for having made it this far as we plan for the long road of struggle ahead. But let us also take a step back, and realise that our victories are not our own—like our mothers, like us, there are women leaving their homes and children every day, just so we can step out and immerse ourselves in our privileges. There are women who are constantly taking things off our plates just so we can go on to take on some more. Let us not forget that this too is a skill, a skill we could do well to learn.
It’s 2018, as our clean hands navigate books, spreadsheets, and slides, it’s time we paid our dues to the warriors of dust.
#BeingAWoman is a special series to celebrate womanhood in today’s India on the occasion of International Women’s Day 2018
(Author, a resident of New York, writes on films, food, gender and most other things. Views are personal)