A crisis has a certain inherent quality about it, to bring out the best in people like nothing else. Time and again, people have united into a strange familial bond when calamities have struck us. Empathy and compassion which are usually nonexistent in our normal lives suddenly reappear; revived and resurgent running in every vein. And this is exactly what we, the Chennaites, witnessed in our hour of desperation. Every safe individual in his capacity has contributed and volunteered for the relief of his fellow citizens. Class, community, religion and such barriers drowned in the rising water. Only humanity floated. How I wish this sentiment to stay with us forever, long after we swim out of our deluge. This is the apparent, larger and overwhelming scenario of our calamity.
But unwittingly, this crisis gave me perspective on some smaller yet significant aspects of our day to day life. We Indians are spoilt by the relatively easy and cheap availability of domestic staff. It was only in their absence, that I realized the foibles of middle and upper middle class lifestyle and upbringing. While we wholly understood the staff’s catastrophic situation and leave, it meant that we were doing our own chores otherwise done by them. Doing these odd tidbits around the house, I realized that the biggest folly of our upbringing is that we believe with conviction that it is someone else’s responsibility to pick up after me.
A few instances will make it clear to you too. While I was loading the washing machine for the past couple of days, I found that several clothes would be inside out. The person loading the machine must then turn over other’s damp, dirty and sweaty clothes and if that’s dislikeable how about flipping over those sweaty and soiled socks as well. It’s not a very enjoyable task. Thinking about it, does it take any longer to take off the socks straight or flip over your own clothes before throwing it in the laundry bag?
Another instance that pinched me was about clearing our dishes. None of us regularly do our dishes in India, but of course in the absence of the staff we need to move our limbs more vigorously. Now there is always or mostly a small dustbin or clearing bin right next to the sink. But we are in such a haste to dump the dishes, one on top of the other, that all the leftover food just slides down, floats around in the sink and blocks the drain. And the person washing those dishes must put his hand and clean the muck. Wouldn’t it be so much cleaner and appreciated if we could just empty our plates in the dustbin and then deposit them in the sink? These things neither take effort nor time; it is just a matter of habit and a conscious consideration for others.
However, the bathroom cleaning chore left no doubt about our presumed rightful dependency on others to clean our filth. Day after day, all of us were using the bathroom as usual except that there was no one cleaning it. Two days later, it resembled some bathroom of a dingy highway lodge with dirty foot marks smeared on the floor, all fallen hair scattered around on the wet floor and more hair choking the drain completely. When I found cleaning my own mess so disgusting, I am sure the maid doesn’t find it any better.
Finally, the one thing that will be unanimously agreed is that no matter how happily our kids may follow, “time to put your toys away” at school, it is never the same at home and it goes for all ages. My toddler daughter point blank refuses to put her toys in place because she knows too well that her babysitter is readily available to do it and if not her, mommy is always there. It is a very taken for granted outlook that we live by.
However, these experiences also made me realize that it is not out of aristocracy or imperialistic tendencies that we do what we do. It is out of sheer unconscious behavioral attitude that we consider others to rightfully clean our filth from inside and outside our houses. It is a deeply ingrained belief with ancient origins turned into a vicious habit. Our silver spoon upbringing and the same that we are providing to our kids is largely responsible for our thoughtlessness. I am of course not advocating doing away of domestic staff. It is neither possible nor practical. But just a tad conscious shift in our attitude can make the job much less repulsive for others who do it for us.
We are not taught to be irresponsible but where is the conscious lesson on personal responsibility as well? No wonder, “Swach Bharat Abhiyan” is still only an abhiyan (campaign) after a year and a half and will remain so for another 100 years in our country. No wonder, the nauseating Cooum’s (the hopelessly filthy river running across the Chennai city) water inundated our homes in the flood because it was chock-a- block with our very own garbage and unfortunately there’s nobody to clean that sort of scum. A mindset change that “I am responsible to clean my own mess” beginning with these small tasks at home will go a long way in changing the social and environmental face of our society.