Josna Rege

163. Servants, or Cleaning My Own D*** House

In 1960s, 1970s, India, Inter/Transnational, Stories, United States, Work on October 28, 2012 at 2:07 am

Everyone who came to stay at Gandhi’s Sabarmati Ashram had to take a vow to clean the ashram’s toilets. No one was exempt from this chore, not even the Mahatma himself, in keeping with his deeply-held belief in the nobility of all work, no matter how menial. Making caste Hindus clean their own latrines was also part of Gandhi’s campaign against Untouchability, in which he sought to elevate the status of outcastes relegated to the job—although he never condemned the caste-based division of labor altogether. The late writer Mulk Raj Anand discusses this in his 1935 novel, Untouchable, which, though heavily influenced by Gandhi (Anand stayed in his ashram and sought his advice in revising the novel), shows the Mahatma helping to give the Dalit protagonist (as we would call him today) a new confidence in himself and pride in his work, but not promising to liberate him from the work itself.

Photo by Nita Jatar Kulkarni

Growing up in India a decade after Gandhi’s death, I found the revulsion toward toilet-cleaning very much in place. Our maidservant Lakshmi would wash the dishes and the floors cheerfully, but drew the line at toilets. My mother had to clean them herself, but I never heard her complain about it.

When my mother first went to India as a newlywed, she balked at the idea of having servants. Deeply egalitarian and coming from a working-class background herself, she was against it on principle, but also for the practical reason that she didn’t trust anyone else with the hygienic preparation of food. Eventually she had to give way, when it was made clear to her by the neighbors that she was expected to have servants, but she insisted on paying them what she considered a living wage. That got her into trouble with the neighbors again, who complained that she was driving the wages up by spoiling her servants, that their servants would all start demanding parity. In the end she found ways to supplement Lakshmi’s and our mali’s wages in kind, with food and clothing. When we left the country for the last time my parents paid a pension to Lakshmi for the rest of her life, sending it to a neighbor to cash for her.

When I was nineteen I took a vow never to clean someone else’s house again and, in the future, to take responsibility for cleaning my own house myself. While at university I worked a number of jobs to help pay for my junior year in England, including catering, waitressing, pumping gas, and house-cleaning. At one particular house, I couldn’t bring myself to enter into the Gandhian spirit and perform the work whole-heartedly. I was filled with resentment at the upwardly mobile couple, both young doctors. (Irrational, I know, since as residents they must have been working five times as hard as a lazy undergraduate like me.) I had just decided to become a vegetarian and, as if to spite me, the couple seemed to be particularly fond of eating meat. They would broil large steaks until they were black and leave the burnt-on, greasy mess for me, without even thinking to soak the pan so as to make it easier to clean. Why couldn’t they clean their own damn house? They expected me to clean their house at the same time as looking after their six-month-old baby, who, deprived of both his parents for long stretches of the day, would wail miserably for hours at a time. I could barely contain my irritation at the poor helpless little thing, since the only way I could get him to stop crying was to put him on one hip and play music on the record-player while simultaneously vacuuming the floor. (I do have a positive memory of the music, though. John Prine’s album Sweet Revenge had just come out, and I listened to his inspired Mexican Home again and again, wielding the vacuum cleaner with one hand and holding the baby balanced on my hip with the other.)

I have kept my vow all these years, but at the expense of subjecting my family and friends to a very messy house. What with work commitments and my dislike of housekeeping, something else always seems to take precedence over cleaning. By now many, even most of my friends—all of whom are extremely busy and some of whom have physical disabilities as well—hire someone to clean, and given that there are many people who need the work, I find myself wavering in my resolve not to do so, or at least having to recognize that I am in no way righteous, just plain stubborn. Nevertheless, I hold on to the idea of the nobility of all work, and can’t help but feel that once one has a regular servant, a master/mistress-servant dynamic necessarily develops. Before long, one is complaining to one’s women friends about the sloppiness, or dishonesty, or attitude of the cleaning lady and bemoaning her uppity demands for more money while doing less work. Remembering how I felt when I cleaned other people’s houses for them, I still maintain that I should clean my own damn house.

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  1. I have a wonderful woman who comes every couple of weeks to help me clean and I really appreciate not only her willingness and careful attention to detail, but just the fact that she is actually willing to clean my house. Without her my husband and I would be in real trouble since I don’t have the energy or the physical ability to do the work any more.
    I remember when I proudly cleaned my own house and did not have to have servants like we had in India, but now I am chastened and realize that Nelly is a gift from God!

    • Dear Marianne, thank you for reminding me that holding rigidly to an ideal of complete independence is not just self-reliance but can also be a mark of pride. It is indeed humbling to have to acknowledge that one can’t do it all alone, and to accept help with gratitude.

  2. When I was a kid, growing up in India, my mother had an arrangement with her maid similar to your mother’s. She would supplement her wages by buying uniforms and school supplies for the maid’s two daughters. My sisters and I would help the girls with their homework in the evenings. I know now that the two girls would never have obtained any education without my mom’s exhortations that girls needed schooling as much as boys and her monetary help. Not only that but without the mother supplementing her husband’s meager daily wages, who knows what other methods they would have had to stoop to in order to put food on the large family’s table?

    Does the western world’s aversion to using domestic help stem not from an entirely egalitarian mindset but from its painful memories of slavery from its relatively recent history? While India probably saw its share of slavery during its long history, as far as I know it wasn’t as widespread or as common in its recent past. Makes one wonder….

    • Thanks for your comments, Hema. I am imagining you and your sister, as girls, going through homework with your maid’s two girls. I wonder how far they went in school. And if you ever met them later, as adults. . .

      I dont think that the entire Western world is uncomfortable with domestic help. Americans, who like to think of themselves (ourselves?) as classless and egalitarian, may feel particularly uncomfortable with the idea.But increasingly, with age, affluence, and two-earner families, Americans are hiring people to do their manual labor for them. Whether the spectre of slavery colors those relationships I don’t know, but it well may, and must especially have done so a generation or two ago, when many Northern families hired as domestic help black women who had recently migrated from the South.

  3. When I lived in Cambridge and was actually making money, my housemate and I had a woman who came to clean every week. It was heaven. I was really busy and stressed as it was, and that combination pretty much ensures that I live in a horrible mess if left entirely to my own devices. She was from Guatemala and here with her whole family. I don’t remember what her husband’s job was, but they struggled. Unlike my neighbor, for whom she also worked, I gave her paid sick days. Having had to work without them myself for so long, I knew how important they are, especially for someone with kids.

    I used to feel it was wrong, too, but no longer do. What is wrong is to pay them far too little and that they usually work without protections or benefits.

    Nowadays, alas, I’m back to messiness, although it helps a great deal that I have shed a lot of my stuff in the interval, so there isn’t as much to spread around!

    • Very sensible solutions, Sarah. Until I undertake a major decluttering project, I might as well admit that I can’t maintain my house at a reasonable standard of cleanliness and—with fair compensation—find someone whom I can work with to help me get it done. x J

  4. That’s beautiful that Gandhi had visitors clean the ashram’s toilets. What a powerful statement. It reminds me of an artwork by Mierle Laderman Ukeles, in which she shook the hand of every sanitation worker in New York, during a period of a year, thanking them for their work keeping the city functional.

    • Thank you so much for your comment, Adele, and thank you for introducing me to the work of Mierle Laderman Ukeles. I had never heard of her before, but now I have started reading about the Touch Sanitation project you describe, and looking for pictures of it. There’s an interesting link here: and another here: http://www.artslant.com/ny/works/show/303447

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