Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Adventure 13: Household Work

Today was quite possibly the most adventurous day of all.


I woke up, performed morning routine, and immediately got down to business. Today I was going to wash my clothes, buy supplies for the apartment, and cook lunch completely on my own… right from buying the groceries. I was alone at home all day today, so I was forced to do everything on my own, though I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. This is how one learns: by being plunged into situations where there is no other choice but to perform the desired skill. For example, I plunged myself into a situation at Veda Vijnana Gurukulam where I had no choice but to speak Sanskrit, even though I was barely introduced to it. But my goal was to learn Sanskrit! And so it happened. In the same way, I was plunged into today’s situation… and the desired techniques were washing clothes (with just a bucket, water, soap, and my hands… the best tools anyone can have), buying groceries from the street market (which included bargaining with the vendors… a perilous task, I was well aware, for someone not from here), and cooking a meal.


I filled the bucket halfway with water (lo and behold, you all can learn how to wash clothes too), and then added a decent amount of soap powder (detergent) into the bucket. Next I took the clothes I was going to wash (not too many, since I had just washed my clothes a few days ago – with the help of Ashwini, Upendra Mahodaya’s younger brother – but this time I was on my own) and put them into the bucket, and plunged them up and down a little bit, swirled a little bit, and then let them sit there.


While the clothes were sitting in the soapy water, I decided to go buy some groceries. This is the part that would be interesting, I knew. I had never done this on my own, so I wasn’t wholly confident of myself in this endeavor. I left the apartment with my cloth bag – empty – and some money. As I walked down the street that would lead me to the road that I otherwise take to BHU, where the street vendors all line up their stalls, I rehearsed in my head everything I needed, how much I was willing to spend for it, and how I would interact with the street vendors. I knew I’d have to put on a heavy Bhojpuri (the local dialect) accent so as not to let the vendors know that I was from America… otherwise they would raise the prices to triple or quadruple the amount! For example, if they knew I was not from here, instead of charging 10 rupees for a kilo and a half of potatoes, they would charge me 40 or 50 rupees… and if I tried bargaining, they would lower it to maybe 45 or 40 rupees, which for me would seem like a good deal (hey, 10 rupees off), but in actuality would be a huge rip-off.


I reached the long line of stalls, and started walking along it… looking for good potatoes (they actually all looked good to me…) and good parwal. I don’t know the name in English for it. It looks like a mini-cucumber, though the insides are not quite like a cucumber... I don’t know how to quite explain. As I was walking, I saw a stall where a lady was sitting there, kind of looking at me. I passed it, not knowing where I was going really, and she called out to me. “Hey, what would you want to buy?” she asked me in the common speak. I said “How much per kilo of potatoes?” in the same dialect (you have to get right to the point with these vendors) and she replied, “10 rupees for a kilo and a half.” I’m not perfect at imitating the Bhojpuri accent of Hindi (similar to a Texan in the United States trying to imitate a New Yorker or someone from Boston), but I thought to myself that 10 rupees wasn’t bad, which meant that I must have gotten away with it. I didn’t need to bargain in this case, but I also had no idea how much to actually buy. I figured, why not take the kilo and a half, because it’ll come in handy for the next couple of days. I said, “OK give me the kilo and a half… and how much for these?” I pointed to the parwal (at the time I didn’t know the name of it, and I knew it was going to give me away…) but she said, “Six rupees for a pao.” Got away with it again! A pao is quite possibly one pound, but they just refer to it as a pao, and if it isn’t exactly a pound, it weighs approximately that much. When vendors weigh out the amount they are going to give you, they hold up a balance (totally old school) in their hand, and put the desired weight on one side of it… often measured by a rock or collection of rocks. Then they put the equivalent amount of whatever you’re buying on the other side of it. Imagine the amount of weight lifting these people do all day!! One pao is measured by one rock about ¾ the size of my fist, the name for which is actually probably referring to the rock itself. So I got 1.5 kilos of potatoes (which ended up being a lot more than I expected) and a pao of parwal for 16 rupees, which is a little less than 50 cents. One of the coolest things about coming from a foreign country and living in India is that a little money goes a long way… if you know where to go and how to spend it. This only works in cities like Banaras… not cities like Mumbai, where all the prices are converted to scale for foreigners (the same amount of stuff that I bought would probably cost around 200 rupees in Mumbai, Ashwini informed me).


Next, after completing the mission of getting veggies for the dish I would make at home for lunch, I started walking back towards where I came from. On the way, as I was passing the fruit stalls, I stopped and asked a boy (his prices would probably be lower than the middle-aged men’s stalls) for the price of both bananas and oranges. I needed both at home, I was totally out of fruits and fruits are what are keeping me healthy here! He said 20 rupees for a kilo of bananas, and 35 rupees for a kilo of oranges. I bargained with him a little bit (you have to ask them how much they’ll really sell it to you for… it’s quite comical if you’re an observer, actually) and got a total of a kilo of fruits (half a kilo of bananas and half of oranges) for 25 rupees. This wasn’t much of bargaining, but I’m only a beginner, and it was actually not bad for me. I got 5 rupees knocked off the kilo-price of oranges! 25 rupees is around 70-75 cents. Again, not a bad deal from the American perspective (which is what I tend to see things from when I actually make purchases, I don’t know why)…


Finally I started walking back home, with the intention of stopping at a shop nearer to the apartment for some flour (for making rotis) and some oil to cook the vegetables in. The flour and oil have a standard price around here, so I couldn’t bargain for those… so I came back with half a liter of mustard oil (which is what we cook our food in here) and half a kilo of flour.


This whole process took about 45 minutes, and I would have gone on bike if I weren’t picking up so much stuff. I also picked up a 1-liter bottle of mineral water and some Parle-G biscuits (the best biscuits ever)… I ended up walking home with my cloth bag plus two little plastic bags full of stuff.


I got back home and unloaded all my stuff, immediately going to the bathroom where my clothes were waiting to be taken out of the bucket. I then unloaded the bucket one piece of clothing at a time, putting a little extra soap (there’s a separate special soap bar for this purpose) on each of the whites and forcefully scrubbing with a hard brush, then removing the soapy water from them, while adding clean water from a separate bucket. I have so much newfound respect for this kind of job – imagine squatting the whole time, with no seat or anything… just you, the bucket, the water, and the ground. Most people here have been doing this job since they were 5 or 6 years old, so they are in practice… but I was using muscles I have never had to use in my life! At the end of just 6 pieces of clothing, my back and my legs were sore (it doesn’t help that I have long legs, so when I squat they get in the way). But it felt really good to finish. I got up, and hung the clothes outside to dry.


Now, for food. By this time it was around 1:00 PM, and I was ready to get working in the kitchen. I quickly took a shower (I was done with the dirty work), and got cookin’ (literally). I first unpacked all the plastic bags I had originally put in the kitchen… realizing that I had so much stuff that I wouldn’t finish it all by myself even in the next couple of days… but that’s why there are two of us here! So hopefully it will get used up before it gets spoiled. Anyways I peeled the potatoes, cut them into little pieces, cut the parwal into little pieces (you don’t need to know the details, so…) then I put them in the pot with some oil and masalas and cooked all of it.  Since there is only one burner, I had to wait for the veggies to be done before I could make the rotis. (We seriously live in luxury in America, and I realize it more and more every day. We have running water all the time, electricity all the time, stoves with 4 burners, and lots and lots of other things that we don’t even realize.) I made the rotis – yes, successfully – and ate. I was so hungry that I finished everything I made… which was food for two people. This ended my real adventure for the day, and by this time it was about 3:00 PM. Then my work started… but I was so tired from the chores that I couldn’t get my mind to concentrate on my studies… So I fell asleep.


…And woke up at 7:00 PM, by which time Ashwini had come back. We chatted for a while, and then I got to work. Around 9:00 PM, Ashwini started making dinner and then we ate at around 10:00 PM.


Ok, now for the part where I tell you what I learned from this experience. First of all, I have SO much more respect for people who do the household work. If people ever look down upon housewives/husbands or homemakers, well, they shouldn’t. It’s quite possibly more work than going to a 9-to-5 job, because first of all, it is 24/7, and second, it involves a lot more running around. Imagine cooking food, doing dishes, doing laundry, cleaning the house… add in a kid or two (or three), plus the spouse in many cases, and all of their needs, and that is only the tip of the iceberg in the ocean of work that is maintaining a household.


I have a newfound appreciation for this kind of work. It really is an art, and requires a talent beyond just following protocol. Today’s adventure got me thinking about such things in much greater detail. There are unexpected twists and turns in every task, even when there are machines to help do all the work. You have to get the machines repaired every once in a while, know what needs to be done when, and who needs attention when. Essentially the homemaker is the best manager of time, resources, and people… without the recognition or the title. What humility one must have to be a true homemaker! I would like to acknowledge here the hard work and dedication of my mother since I was born (and even before that), who has taken care of every single one of my needs, my brother’s needs, the home’s needs, and somehow had time to take care of herself… without asking for anything in return. I have realized how much work she did for our sake before, but one can only truly understand the nature of another’s feelings when they are plunged into the other’s shoes. And today, I got a taste (and I repeat, only a taste) of what it means to take care of a household. So thanks mom (and moms everywhere), really.


I have also come to appreciate the reason there are two people in a household (essentially, why we have the system of marriage). One cannot possibly hope to take on the task of caring for the house and managing a job at the same time, and doing a satisfactory job of both (especially if there are kids involved… I had a tough enough time taking care of myself). It is written in our ancient scriptures that men and women have two different tasks towards a household, acting as a team, for neither can hope to accomplish all the tasks by oneself. There is great wisdom behind these words. In modern times, people shut these words out because of years and years of conditioning that says the opposite. In our society, men and women take on the same tasks at the same time, both trying to earn and take care of the house at the same time, resulting in extra money but an unsatisfactory environment at home. There is so much competition between the two! Who earns more money? Who does more work? Who contributes more to the house, who does this better, that better, etc… Since “work” in America nowadays does not require quite as much physical labor (thanks to machines) as it used to, anyone can do it, so the ancient wisdom of how to maintain a household is pushed to the side or forgotten entirely with the opportunity for everyone to “work.” However, we fail to acknowledge that it is in fact the women who have a natural tendency towards children (since they are the ones that bear them, after all) and caring for others (that many men simply don’t have)… Interestingly in olden times the household chores also required a LOT of physical labor, which the women alone used to perform. And we also fail to acknowledge that it is only by pairing up as a team, dividing and conquering, that a family unit (husband and wife) can properly take care of a home. Of course, if they are satisfied with always scrambling to make ends meet between work and the home, that’s a different story… but I have a feeling that almost nobody is totally satisfied in that situation.


The other great wisdom in these words of our ancient seers is that when the two partners in household management do not share the same duties (though it is not a bad thing if either one helps the other), there is never any competition between them and therefore reduced – if not eliminated – conflict in the home. However, there should not be a judging between the two jobs either, like “which one is more important” and the like, because neither one can function without the other. Keeping this in mind if we enter into a relationship, there will be a mutual respect for both jobs and things can only turn out for the best.


Again, I must write here a thank you note to my parents for carefully maintaining a peaceful household throughout my life, neither infringing upon the others’ duties, nor trying to prove that one was better than the other. They maintained a perfect harmony that I can only hope to achieve in the future. It is because of their stability and selfless effort that our house was always a welcome place to come home to, always a place of respect and dignity and gratitude and support, always acting as a sanctuary. I cannot thank them enough for that, nor can I begin to count my blessings for being born into such a family… and I am grateful every moment of my life for it.


I truly believe that if a family can operate as a unit that divides and conquers the tasks involved in creating and sustaining a home without judging or harassing any of the other members of the unit, then the home will always be a haven. I believe that my mother and father have created such a haven for our family, and I only wish such peace and protection upon everyone else as well. I cannot thank my mom enough for being the strongest person in the world and while taking care of household duties, being the superglue that keeps us all so perfectly united at all times.


I love you, mom.


Kalena said...

Hi Varun,

I know this might come across as completely random but I was wondering if you could help me... I found references in your blog about a really good freind of mine that I grew up with ..Shayur ..and I was wondering if you know where he is and whether he is contactable?

Thanks for your help,


Jiji said...