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The Myth Of ‘Hardy’ Domestic Helpers & Labourers Who ‘Have Good Immunity’

Posted: April 30, 2021

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This whole idea that the ‘poor are healthy’ is nothing but a privileged myth. It is a convenient excuse to keep them deprived and breaking their backs to suit our needs.

I have often heard people say that ‘the poor are so healthy even though they don’t get what we think of as healthy food, they can work so hard when we can’t, they don’t make issues of things like we do and adjust so easily to things’ and blah blah blah.

The inference I have often seen drawn is that we make a ‘needless fuss’ about food, emotions and needs. And that the poor are better off than us even though they have so much less because they do not fuss.

Inference: Not fussing is a virtue. And the hardworking ‘poor’ are hardier.

My domestic help, surviving on a fixed routine

So the other day this village lady came to my house to clean. I hire her once every month to shine up my house so I don’t have to. She comes in the hottest hours — 1 pm to 4.30 pm, and works very very hard, sweating profusely all the time.

Now each time she comes I offer her cooling things — juice, butter milk or something like that. Today I even went out on a limb (for me) and offered tea because she teared up talking about her son’s difficult marriage. I never offer people regular milk tea. But I thought she may like it.

But she never ever accepts any drink. She has her bottle of water and that is all she drinks. She says she eats or drinks nothing after her lunch till she goes home.

Urban & rural poor not ‘healthier’, just high functioning

I am familiar with this phenomenon. A lot of hard working poor I have worked with — rural and urban — survive by having a very rigid discipline around what they eat and when. Their food is not healthy — often it is very high in calories but lacks nutrients. It keeps them going at the inhuman amounts of work they have to do. If they upset that routine, their bodies may not function.

The poor are not healthy. They are high functional. They can get through very high amounts of physical labour, take very few or no breaks, and go on doing it day after day after day till one day they can’t. And they can do it on very little. They survive by numbing everything — physical exhaustion, aches and pains, serious health issues, anger at oppression, other mental and emotional issues, everything. And then one day they just can’t go on any longer.

Our ‘development’ puts the adivasi way of life at risk

I have seen a different kind of health among adivasis — the ones who still live a close to nature life in the forests with relatively less pressure from development.

They can work very hard, but they take breaks. Their food is very simple but it is way richer in nutrients. They snack often, munch on forest fruits and other natural stuff regularly. Big parts of their food are organic. They have elaborate rituals to process their emotions — dances, grieving, trance, movement, even alcohol on specific occasions and in specific rituals. Their routines are not deadening — they change with seasons and there is always newness. And they express their emotions in their own ways. And that is very very different from the so called ‘health’ of the labour class poor.

And with their resources being taken away by increasingly rapacious development juggernauts, they too are losing their spontaneous health and resilience and evolving the same deadening endurance as the laboring classes.

This whole idea that the poor are healthy is nothing but a privileged myth. It is a convenient excuse to keep them deprived and breaking their backs to suit our needs.

Image source: a still from the film Jait Re Jait

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Aparna Pallavi's current callings are as a therapist, contemplative writer and researcher of indigenous

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