The first time it struck me as odd was when a family friend came visiting. He was a well-read person and had served in various capacities in the government and outside. Now, leading a blissful retired life, he was narrating tales about how he had worked valiantly to secure his organisation from the wrath of imminent disasters. His wife sat by his side with a smile plastered to her face. She listened to him intently, even though she’d probably heard him tell the same story hundreds of times. It was selfless love, I imagined, which bred such patience and restraint in her.
As the anecdotes ended and the conversation steered towards the weather, I started to get up and, in the process, accidently spilt tea on the floor. Call it habit or instinct, but I immediately fetched a mop and began to wipe it clean.
“Get up. Help him,” I heard him command his wife in an authoritative tone.
“That’s okay,” I said, “I’ll manage.”
His response almost made me cringe.
“It’s a woman’s job, son,” he said, “She’ll do it.”
Before I could say anything, the kind woman had got down to pick up the pieces of the shattered teacup and had emptied them into the dustpan. Despite the inhibition posed by her elegant sari, it took us barely two minutes to finish the task at hand. Meanwhile, her husband had found a new anecdote to narrate about his bravery. In my eyes though, he wasn’t so brave anymore.
Having been brought up in a household with three women, I have been witness to the sheer burden that housework can impose. Photo: Screengrab
There were certain questions which I intended to ask him but could not, lest I ended up at the wrong side of the cultural spectrum by “disrespecting my elders”. However, this was not the only time it happened. At various other places and with numerous other people, mostly literate, I came across the same proposition being put forward with a ruthless, almost unabashed normalcy. This led me to arrive at the following conclusions.
For one, it was widely held that a woman’s place is primarily at home. Some justified this in the name of tradition while others contended that women staying in and men venturing out was just the “way the world works”. Apparently, this arrangement was necessary for the healthy functioning of the society.
Secondly, it was believed that choosing to step out of the house was granted as a privilege, not a right. At work, even if a woman had the potential to conquer all the male bastions with ease, she still had to be back in time to feed the children. If this implied that she needed to wake up at an unearthly hour to finish the housework, so be it.
Last but not the least, the work being put in within the confines of the household was not really considered as “proper work”. Even if it required toiling hard throughout the day and came at a huge opportunity cost, apart from the obvious physical strain, there was to be no economic basis for classifying it as “unpaid labour”.
Having been brought up in a household with three women, I have been witness to the sheer burden that housework can impose. As men, a lot of everyday things are made much easier for us than we would care to admit. We wake up to cooked meals, we come back to clean houses and we sleep on made beds. Those who manage our routines for us often go unnoticed and more worryingly unappreciated.
Feminisation of housework has probably been the greatest achievement of patriarchy.
However, the picture is not as grim as it sounds. Times are changing. Men who continue to enjoy the privileges bestowed on them by their gender will soon have to start sharing housework responsibilities or face the prospect of leading a lonely life. Learning how to cook or how to clean up after yourself is neither belittling nor menial. If anything, it is liberating because it teaches you the value of being truly independent.
Nevertheless, there will always continue to be women who, despite the availability of professional opportunities, will voluntarily choose to be homemakers – my mother being one of them.
As she skilfully switches from cooking a mouth-watering dal to tidying up the drawing room, I ask her why she does this at all. Is it out of a sense of duty, an absence of options or is it nothing but social conditioning? She smiles, either at my silliness or imprudence. It is out of love, she answers pragmatically. That is an argument I cannot refute.
The least I can do is help.
Do you hear, dear family friend?