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So we all know that men take the credit for ‘Swachch Bharat’, right? But then swachchata at home is the job of handmaidens, err… women, don’t you know?
Let me recount something that happened before Durga Pujo, that made me think on some of the roles women are expected to fulfill in our homes, merely because they are women. So bear with me as I go back a month in time.
I could feel it in the air that hit my face as she passed by. I could hear it in her jangling bangles and also in the silence of her work. Since the concoction of fresh morning air and caffeine takes quite some time to stimulate my grey cells, I could make nothing of this hurricane speed.
So when I peeped into the kitchen and gave the blank inquisitive look Sapna di had come to recognise in all these years, she declared, “R toh shudu dui din ache!” (Only two more days left!) My memory and understanding failing me again, I was unsure of the reason for the countdown.
“Calendar dekho!” (Look at the calendar!) she instructed without revealing much (or may be without indulging in too much talking). The calendar announced the month we had entered, as did the cottony clouds spotting the azure sky. The fragrance of shiuli in the air, mixed with the smell of new clothes stacked in the corner of the bedroom, waiting to be allotted their space in my wardrobe or to be gifted away, and the ring of H-O-L-I-D-A-Y that could still make my heart leap with joy, I could feel October with my closed eyes.
It was only when I opened my eyes again, that reality hit me as I spotted cobwebs on the wall before me, then all over my house. The music and fragrance made their swift departure while the mess around gained extra-visibility. I turned my eyes to the weapon everyday Durgas (read, women) are blessed with to destroy all evil (read, dirt) and restore goodness (read, cleanliness)- the broom. All knots unknotted hence, I realised with a sigh that fate which strikes at almost every woman at the beginning of the festive season had struck us both. However reluctantly, we need to gather all our energy to switch on the *’Marjina-mode’ in ourselves. Our brooms were calling us urgently to task as very soon Maa Durga would officially arrive, bringing with her several reasons for engaging the attention of women in the households – beginning with a woman’s foremost duty – to clean the house.
The festive season has innumerable signifiers. While ticket booking counters overflow with people waiting to confirm their relishing of a holiday, the urge to make something new a part of one’s own makes people throng markets and malls.
Most women do have their share of role-playing in this hullabaloo which comes as an additional charge (with or without perks!) along with home front management, a frontier where we have battled almost single-handedly since times immemorial.
Nothing much has changed in the exclusive character of this domain which still remains an index for measuring womanliness. In fact dusting and cleaning never seems to have severed its ties with women who are supposedly born with the skill and finesse to dust and clean every insignificant corner of the house, their magic wand having the capability of transforming ‘house into home’ that should sparkle.
It is interesting how the onus of cleaning the house unfailingly percolates through the line of women in a family, who could be of any age or size, while there is relatively no interruption from men of any age or size, who could however boast of cleanliness without doing much to achieve the effect. Hence women are supposed to prove their womanhood (again!) through their potential of keeping every corner of the house clean, from bathrooms to kitchen to floors to clothes.
The media also attests to this innate talent of a woman by transforming her into a powerful cleaner at home, who smilingly performs her tasks while the husband cajoles her for getting a promotion for his spotless white shirt that the lady has washed with washing powder. She can also help an ambulance out of dirt and do so in her spotless white clothes, which she can wash with some granules of feel-good feminism and set a benchmark.
Thus when women can be dragged to court on any normal day for being unclean, festive days hold special power to slap them with severe charges, as a slip on such a day could incur the wrath of gods, especially the Hindu Goddess of wealth, Lakshmi, who has particular allergy to unclean spaces- a risk mortals would rather not take. Hence women unquestioningly take on this cleaning spree, once again, in the name of tradition and natural instinct.
It is imperative for women to be meticulous cleaners at home where they might find very less assistance. If not working in a group, as might be possible in case of female members of joint families, most women need to depend on maids who are again bound by time and other obligations. Hence women are mostly left to themselves to achieve the laurels of planning and processing the dusting schedule, if at all laurels could be given for performing naturalised responsibilities! However, this dusting schedule can provide ample variety which women prepare (mostly unconsciously!) keeping several factors in view.
First, the spots which are regularly cleaned and occasionally cleaned are to be differentiated, and days to clean them must be allotted. The effort required to clean such spots is directly proportional to the number of times they have encountered the broom in the past.
Having worked upon these areas the next important decision to be made is about rearranging or changing furniture. This sometimes becomes joint decision where the man in the house has a role to play, mostly a vital one. When these, along with décor adjustments are settled, comes in another important decision- what all to discard and whom to offer/sell/give away the discarded stuff. In this department women have never had had a free hand.
There are umpteen cases of enraging grievances within family members when the mother/wife/sister found a certain piece of cloth unfit for any further use and chose to give it away to the kabariwala without much guilt. Many a times some such pieces of clothing were gathered together after days of rearranging the cupboards and used to buy utensils in exchange offer. While the kitchen gets a new member, old members of the family hardly find this intrusion bearable, although their bursts and fits of anger is more about the single-headed decision taken and executed by the women of the house, without consultation with those members who were not even present to help them find those long-forgotten, over used, discarded pieces of clothes or other equipments.
Often cleaning at home, just as any other homely task, has been depicted as a mindless physical activity that is best suited for women, who, however, must not go too further in taking decisions to discard any piece from the house, the house that a woman must clean and tidy up, mostly by herself, to give it the feel of a home. A complex business, I must say.
In their efforts to make their homes feel adequately homely during pujas, therefore, woman of the house must run around picking up every item that makes her home and dust them clean. In fact women remain most busy during these festivities as they should be seen almost everywhere that could mark as something as the preparation for the festivities. From shopping (which is considered a genetic disorder in women), to parlour visits, to preparing the puja special dishes, to sweets, to you-name-it anything, women must be a part of it.
But if time permits, these cleaning sessions can also become moments when nostalgia could strike, memories could be made, long forgotten treasures discovered, and the swift spell of time could be made to break away from its racing speed and sit beside her as she sifts through life. The homes they are parts of are many times discovered anew during these sessions. Where they work in a group, there could be moments of idle talk, gossip, discussions and fun. Long spells of work, tiring brooming around, or strenuous dusting or rearranging could also be interrupted by breaks of tea brewing in the kitchen- this time with a sprinkle of ginger and elaichi.
This innate capacity to make life bearable is what allows women to move on, accept, while they remain attached to the dusts of past, always trying to make things anew. Although such depictions can scarcely add glamour to this strenuous task undertaken by almost every woman, in various capacities, these moments exist and may open up those womanly spaces which could be understood and described by a language that women alone speak.
Cleanliness is an idea that can have numerous takers while the activity of cleaning up, especially in the literal sense of the term, always finds a deficit of performers. While everyone is comfortable with cleanliness around, very few actually play their parts in keeping places clean. May be this could explain the dirty public toilets or any such public place that the public never feels responsible towards.
Cleanliness at home too could be an idea most people brag about, but the time and effort that goes into living up to the idea has mostly been the department of women. The fact that homely work has never received due credit of being accounted as labour is not unknown. Cleaning up the house too falls into this category where not only is the work invariably attached to women, they are mostly not given due credit for being the only active agent behind the enormous and regular care, keen observation, understanding, logic and energy that they spent in carrying out the task tirelessly.
While a woman may or may not receive compliments for keeping a home hygienic and clean, an unclean home invariably becomes a tool for judging the woman of the house. She could be either categorised as lazy, or inattentive, or unhomely, or inexperienced. Similarly the uncleanliness of a house could also reflect the presence or absence of a woman inside the house.
Interestingly, as in most other cases, men do not have any such cosmic connection with cleaning inside their homes.
They could brag about cleanliness, and stop at that without putting any effort into the physical activity of cleaning which is mostly taken care of by the mother/sister/wife/maid or even girlfriend and ex-wife. While living as bachelor, and away from mother, their being unclean could be a matter of slight mentioning, that is often dismissed for greater feats they are set to achieve, which would eventually help them get a wife who would then look after the insignificant cleaning part while they can invent rockets!
In fact clean men are often considered effeminate, who are capable of raising the levels of discomfort in other men. Unclean unmarried women, however, are sore sights for people who are unable to understand how women who bleed every month can remain dirty. Men have an advantage over women in this one too- they do not bleed and masturbation is still a taboo and not discussed much.
This is not to say that to bring about gender parity uncleanliness must be allowed. But to burden only one shoulder with the entire onus of cleaning, a community activity, seems flawed to the core. Not just outside homes, where any activity could be masked as nation-building activity and thus have a patriotic feel to it, but cleaning must be a shared endeavour within the house which can thus bring up healthy members of a community.
This naturalised responsibility of cleaning might leave many elderly women listless as they can no longer allow themselves to undertake such tasks physically. Low bone density among numerous Indian women could also lead to accidents while women try to reach the farthest corner of the ceiling to wipe off the slightly visible cobweb.
The cleaning activity must be a participatory activity where every family member must have a role to play, in order to lessen the burden of women within the households and to create understanding and respect for a seemingly negligible job. Cleanliness must be a way of living, and the cleaning activity should surely be ungendered.
I ruminated over this before I could turn to Sapna di and educated her with my new found wisdom. “You should not do it alone,” I said.
“You help me,” she said.
“Of course I will, and you should ask for help at home too,” I advised.
“Oh yes! I asked my daughter to start the work while I would join her in the afternoon,” she said.
“Why only your daughter! Ask your son too!”
“Kono dorkar nei…aaro amar kaj barabe!” (That’s out of question! He will just be a nuisance if asked to clean!).
The road to cleanliness is long and too gendered. It requires thorough brooming or brain-wash, I realised!
*Author’s note: Marjina-mode- derived from the 1973 Bengali film directed by Dinen Gupta, Marjina Abdulla, based on Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. The film featured a popular song- Maar, jharu maar, jharu mere jhetiye bidai kor- sung by the character Marjina while she was brooming the house, a typical condition of women!
Image source: a still from the movie English Vinglish
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