A young newly married couple, just finished with their degree in medicine, full of hope and dreams, begins their life in the metro city of Mumbai. The young bride has a supportive mother in-law who patiently teaches her the skills she would need to be a good homemaker.
It is a modern home where the young bride is not blamed for not having certain skills; she is patiently taught to be the ideal homemaker who balances work and home. Her husband is supportive; who will do as asked. He needs to be asked and she would never ask; because that would mean she can’t do her job well.
The hardworking couple raise their children with care and affection. The children would be woken up with love, served breakfast, given a tiffin-box for lunch; their mother would wait for them to return from school and discuss how their day had been. Anything that the children would need, the mother would provide for them. She would even ensure that they say their night prayers with her before bed-time.
That was my childhood.
Cut to 23 years later, I whimsically decide to move to Sikkim, a north-eastern state of India, to teach school kids English. My father reminded me that I wasn’t used to the hard life, would I be able to do it?
In a fit of rebellion, to prove to my parents that I was capable of living life on my own, I decided to move there for a year. My living situation was not as per my regular needs. I was excited and determined to make the new life work.
I shared my room with a roommate; the room was barely furnished with a bed and a table, I was provided with a modest washroom and basic food comprising dal, rice and sabzi (a vegetable side dish). I felt very proud of myself for achieving the difficult.
As time progressed, I discovered more about my hosts: the Sikkimese.
The children (of my school) came from modest backgrounds; where the parents were either drivers, farmers or working at government jobs. They were trained to take on household chores, cook for themselves and their families, take care of duties at the farm and finish their studies.
According to a statistical appraisal conducted by the Government of India in 2012, Sikkim has the highest Work Participation Rate (WPR) in the country with 12.04 per cent child laborers among total children in the age group of 5-14 years. The very young children (age five to seven years), both boys and girls, are mainly doing unpaid work for someone who is not a member of their household. The older boys age 12-14 are mainly engaged in paid work or family work, whereas girls in this age group are involved mainly in household chores or family work.
I don’t condone the existence of extremes of child labour, but I am left to wonder what these children cannot do. I was also wonderstruck with how children were not discriminated, based on gender, from teaching the crafts of the household chores.
Another study revealed that the northeast is better off than that of the nation as a whole in terms of gender equality. Women are seen boldly moving on the streets with no threat perceptions. Sikkim boasts of 50 per cent reservation for the women in the grass root governance called the Panchayats.
However, inequality between women and men exists in the region where a woman is expected to take care of her family, not speak in front of elders, and follow the rigid sexual division of labour. Gender gap exists in terms of access to education, kind of employment and health.
The children weren’t pampered based on their age or gender. It was poverty which had led them to these extreme conditions. Children, half my age, were contributing members of their family and society at large.
I realised two things then: I had grown up into a pompous adult and had no clue about how to sustain myself. I wished then, that my mother had let my brother and I learn how to work on our own. After this realisation, I had two options: either I would have to get married and learn the ropes of being a model home-keeper cum professional like my mother had (and struggle to make my husband understand gender equality) or I would have to learn how to be self sufficient.
That made me ponder on how one can learn the art of self sufficiency without falling into the trap of gender roles and societal norms. Can household chores be a part of holistic learning for families?
If we consider every individual to be an equal member of the family, one wouldn’t have to worry about values like social responsibility and humility. The learning could start in the childhood to train the individual for challenges in his/her adulthood.
Studies show that when individuals involve themselves in a set of chores, they have higher self-esteem, are more responsible, are humble and are better able to deal with frustration and delay gratification.
In an article in the Time Magazine, Maia Szalavitz says: “Humbleness has also been linked with generosity. What’s more, humble people tend to make better employees and bosses. Evolutionary theory suggests that humble people will be more helpful to the group because a trait that involves subsuming one’s own needs to those of others is only likely to be preserved in a species in which cooperation is necessary for survival.’
The Japanese balance it very well. In Gakko Soji, the practise of daily cleaning of the classroom, an aspect of education in Japanese public schools, they foster the child with skills to become a functional and contributing member of the society. It teaches the children to respect law and order and take up responsibility. To Japanese, it comes naturally, as culturally they believe that: ‘If you use something or spend time in a certain place, whether that’s a classroom or your own room, you need to clean it up yourself.’
As equal human beings, inculcation of two essential qualities: self-sustenance and humility are the keys to a harmonious life. If household chores can leverage our understanding of them, there is no question as to why one cannot begin practising them.