Speak Up / Speaking Out

The kaamwali didi is on leave. Will your relationship survive the lockdown?

. 6 min read . Written by Shagun Rastogi
The kaamwali didi is on leave. Will your relationship survive the lockdown?

You can peeto the thalis all you want, but the real question is, who will wash them?

Working from home is one thing. Working from home without support staff, quite another.

It’s been a week without the didis who cook, clean and wash for many of us, and we are left with a ‘first world problem’ that is unique to the third world. That of running our lives, work and domestic chores all by ourselves.

The void left by our domestic workers is one that many of us born to privilege are most likely encountering for the first time. And like most voids, this one teems with possibilities.

For instance, it might reveal to us what inequalities lie beneath the surface, simmering on the stove, collecting dust under the carpets. In the absence of the house help, on whom does the lion’s share of the household burden fall? Who waits to be told what to do, while you notice the cobwebs, the dishes in the sink, the clothes in the washing machine, and the office email, all at the same time?

Redistributing the burden of marriage

A French writer once said that the burden of marriage is so heavy that it takes two to carry it, sometimes three.

He was, of course, referring to extra marital affairs. However, an Indian woman writer (me!), has since then come to the conclusion that this third person carrying the burden in your relationship is less likely to be a smart and free spirited co-worker, and much more likely to be the household help, the didi.

The hard-won ease with which middle class and upper middle class women have been juggling home and office, in a country with deeply ingrained gender behaviours, has been largely made possible by the easy (and cheap) availability of support staff. It is a soothing balm; one that quickly numbs the pain you might otherwise feel when you finish a hard day’s work only to find that the towel is still on the floor, and the children are watching TV and eating chips.

At least the food is ready,” you might think, as the sound of the dishes being done in the kitchen by the didi washes over you like a warm shower. In that moment, you trade a difficult conversation for some immediate relief and hot roti, and lo! The didi has saved the day and your marriage, once again.

So, will your relationship survive?

Without the didi(s), we have to come face-to-face with the cracks in our partnerships. We have no choice but to acknowledge that the division of labour in our relationships might not be the most equitable. And in order to retain our sanity, and our health, we have to work to shift that balance.

This rebalancing will inevitably bring up ‘stuff’; in ourselves and in others. Sometimes this ‘stuff’ is made up of ancient, deeply encoded ideas of masculinity and femininity. For example, some men might show extra resistance when asked to step up, accusing the other of nagging and complaining. For others, it might be the simple inability to see that this work is critical work, which is everyone’s job, not just a way of ‘helping out’. And some others might want to be celebrated for washing utensils.

A woman might realise that it is hard for her to ask for help, and that she is more than willing to take over burdens that she is better off distributing and delegating. That she is happier with praise and compliments than she is with shared tasks. Or that she finds it hard to trust that other people will do a task as well as her.

It is possible that some relationships might not survive this lockdown, that they may topple like a pile of unwashed dishes in the sink, unable to take the pressure. Know that it is because they were unbalanced from the start, but you are only seeing it now.

On the positive side, you may find that you have a keeper, whose ‘wokeness’ was not just lip service. I hope that many couples will find a happy balance, and emerge more resilient and less resentful. This churn is rich with insights, asking to be harvested.

Finding those Mr. India goggles that let you see invisible labour

The absence of the didi(s) also makes visible all the work that goes into keeping a house running, especially a house with kids, or other folks that need care.

The invisible labour that women (and the house helps) put in, is work that knows no weekends and almost no acknowledgement. Now, however, if this work doesn’t get done, we will see it. We will find it staring at us in the dirty mirror in the bathroom, in the toys strewn around the house, in the stale bread and Maggi, and in the clogged kitchen sink.

In India, in homes with working women and no staff, housework will say, “It is my day in the sun. Look at me. You are a mess without me, in more ways than one.”

Other reflections will arise as we begin to acknowledge, collectively, just how much work housework is, and give it its due importance.

Remember when you thought your mom only watched serials and napped, and yet you had ironed handkerchiefs in your cupboard? That was work, unpaid work that got no respect.

Or let’s think about our concepts, like success, for example. When we talk about successful men and women, how much credit do we give to the support structures around them that allow them to work hard and still be healthy and sane? No one, man or woman, can ‘lean in’ too far without a support system that keeps them from disbalancing and falling flat on their faces. Across the Western world, women have had to call this out.

In India, however, our house helps have cushioned the blow that domesticity and caregiving receive when a woman steps out to work. With them gone, and with men across the country taking their time to come to speed, we will begin to realise that we owe some of our worldly success to the didis. And in no small measure.

Swapping entitlement for gratitude, and fair pay

Gratitude, and not entitlement, is the only correct response to this realisation.

This is a huge privilege, one which happens only in India. (And some other developing countries.) Because only in countries like India, do we have such a large number of people, usually women from economically disadvantaged classes, willing to do this work for such little money.

What do we do with this privilege? Recognise that in its current form, it is unsustainable, unequitable and highly exploitative. Domestic workers have no pension, no job security, no paid holidays.

Considering that it is these very women that have enabled us to get out there and be successful at our jobs, we should be treating them in the same way we expect to be treated at our jobs, with respect and dignity to say the very least, and also with cash, raises, bonuses and paid time off.

Otherwise, we are at risk of turning the oppression downwards, becoming oppressors ourselves.

And what do we do with gratitude? With the ‘not taking this for granted again’ emotion in our hearts? Become nicer, kinder, more tolerant, less critical, definitely of the didis when they return, hopefully healthy and safe, but also towards ourselves. Soap not rinsed off the dishes properly? No big deal. Rinse it again. Roti did not phoolo? Happens. Let’s not deny to others the ways in which we make our own lives easier. Buy that floor mop which can be used while standing up. Don’t just mindlessly pile up utensils in the sink. Soak those burnt vessels.

Also, think. Think of the women across time and across geography, whose unfulfilled ambition, stifled creativity, keen intelligence, and unspoken wisdom was sacrificed to relentless domesticity. Pay them your homage. Be glad that you are not one of them.

But also remember, that domesticity is not evil. It is essential, which means that it contains within it, the essence of living a happy and balanced life. Now, however, it needs the attention and respect of all household members, not just the women.

When we respect the home and the kitchen, we will respect those who do that work for us, and we will find ways of living and working that include this work as an act of love and nurturance, instead of relegating it to the margins.

That will be the gift of this void. A new rhythm. Shared responsibilities.The forgotten beauty and symphony of simple household tasks, the meditative calm of sweeping, the creative contentment of cooking, acts which reveal their beauty only when everyone does their bit.

We engender love and respect, by ungendering house work, and that is the only way to win this lockdown.