May 11, 2022

How My Recent Housekeeping Experience Taught Me Deeper Things

As a child growing up in the city of joy, Kolkata, I did very little chores. Although I had some cooking and cleaning experience from my work in Tokyo and London, that was nothing to brag about.

Everyone wants to save the earth; no one wants to help mom with the dishes. So while darling mom handled the kitchen business (still does) with gusto, dad handled the house cleaning activities and chopping the vegetables (one of his carefully chosen lock-down tasks) with great enthusiasm. . And here we were looking at the ‘critical situation’ – with the lockdown starting towards the end of March, my wife and I were left dry without our wonderful maid, Shraddha and our chef, Nalini. They have been one of the constant factors in our lives since we moved to Mumbai ten years ago.

George Akerlof, winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize in Economics, said: “When men do all the outdoor work, on average they contribute about 10% of household chores. But as their share of outside work decreases, their share of household chores does not exceed 37%. But in my household, I could have proven Akerlof wrong because the share of work assigned to me would have easily exceeded 60%!

I tried to be oblivious to the dust and grime for the first few days, then whispered a silent prayer while waiting for someone else (read: wife or grandma) to remove the stain from the kitchen or clean up the loose hair strands in the living room. When all else failed, an urgent family reunion was called in early April. It was unanimously agreed between grandma, my wife and I that we would be responsible for cleaning our apartment at least twice a week.

Scavenging began as a nightmare. After two days of obviously sincere effort on my part, my wife was kind enough to take over. It’s amazing how quickly four-year-olds learn to use iPads, but here I couldn’t turn on the vacuum. But the undisputed worst job of all? Unclogging the drain. What two bottles of sink unblocker couldn’t do, Popat Pawar, the building’s plumber, did effortlessly. Now that I am also responsible for washing my own clothes, my daily clothing selections are heavily influenced by the amount of ironing they require.

Since all of this took about 15 hours a week at N&S (Nalini and Shraddha), we estimated it would take the three of us about five hours each to do the same thing. A few hours later, as we recuperated with Don’t Breathe (no pun intended) on Netflix, we pondered how much hiking to give N&S when they return.

My recent experience in house cleaning has forced me to think about deeper things, for example, how does it really feel doing hard physical labor for a living, working for years without meaningful health care or retirement benefits. It really is the moment of truth to formulate rights reform and establish retirement policies that are adapted to the type of work that people do. I knew that California had developed public retirement programs that ensure that people employed as cleaners for a living don’t end up fighting to the death. Although many households continue to pay the monthly salaries of their servants and cooks, I know of at least one family that has no such intention.

We are all in the middle of the same pandemic tornado, only the ships we are traveling in are different. Some are in super yachts while others paddle in their rickety, leaky canoes. What’s the silver lining in all of this? We will probably give N&S a raise for the same amount of work when they return. But why is it only now that we think of the low wages, lack of upward mobility and security, poor sanitation and lack of health care from service providers sharing our home 15 hours a week? No wonder our bureaucrats and policymakers have no idea how the world works when even smart, well-meaning people are blind to it.

But we have hope; events are the biggest teacher of fools. May this pandemic provide the much-needed impetus for the creation of a more equitable society.



The opinions expressed above are those of the author.