02/10/2015 8:28 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

What America Taught Me About The Gandhian Ideal Of Self-Sufficiency


I grew up in a beautiful villa, surrounded by a lovely garden. Green lawns and roses were fringed by bougainvillea climbing over the walls. The backyard housed a vegetable garden. The walls of my room were a pistachio green, enclosing a biggish wardrobe in which neatly ironed clothes would always be ready for wear. Big windows with a jasmine creeper scaling the wall ensured that the evening air smelled heavenly. In short, my surroundings were nothing short of idyllic and I grew up in the lap of luxury. I did not contribute much to keeping my surroundings and home that way. Under the able supervision of my mother, about 10 employees took care of the grounds and the house.

"A strong feeling of entitlement is an inheritance for the financially sound classes of the Indian society... until it is washed down by hard work and a sound reality check..."

With the availability of cheap domestic help, every single household chore in an upwardly mobile Indian household could be taken care of by multiple people coming in to help. The level of domestic help hired by middle-class households in India varies. However on an average each household may have up to three regular helpers. This number can increase to 10, 15 or more depending upon the financial condition of the household. There could be a help for washing clothes, one for cleaning utensils, one for taking care of the kids and another one who does random chores, a cook, a driver, a gardener or multiple people in these capacities. Not once may the kids be expected to do a chore, let alone clean their rooms, their bathrooms, wash their clothes, dust the furniture. Nothing at all may be expected from them. Usually even the ironing is done by a dhobi or a special shop dedicated to ironing clothes. Domestic work keeps a vast poor population of India alive; a rapidly multiplying population whose baseline needs alone are met on a regular basis.

Coming to the US for people who come from a rich background or even the upper echelons of the middle class can be quite humbling. Neither are they used to doing any of their personal work by themselves nor can they afford the level of household help they're used to having. They are seriously handicapped at this point, as self-reliance is something they have never learnt. When I see the young 20-somethings who have just stepped aboard from India, I see my own reflection in them as I was when I first entered my new homeland. A strong feeling of entitlement is an inheritance for the financially sound classes of the Indian society. It is present in varying degrees in each one of us, until it is washed down by hard work and a sound reality check provided by the new definition of "middle class" that we discover in America. This feeling of entitlement may even have shades of indignation in it, upon the discovery that we actually have to clean our own bathrooms, make our own beds and cook our own meals! All alien tasks for the first many years of our life.

Young people feeling this way has a lot to do with parental attitudes towards work. A few days ago we went to a local Indian restaurant to have the buffet lunch typical of all Indian restaurants in the US. These places are decorated in the most ethnic way possible, and often have paintings depicting scenes from India's rich history and mythology. One painting had a scene showing a queen resting and her dasis or maids around her fanning her to give her relief from the heat. My son noticed this painting and commented, "It's not very nice that she should be sitting comfortably while the other ladies are working around her." A little boy growing up in an affluent family in India would probably not think twice about this picture as he would connect it with the stories of kings and queens he grew up with and the scenes of servitude in his own home.

"It is liberating to know that you don't have to wait for anyone to come clean your space, to be responsible for your clothing and grooming..."

In many households, even less may be expected of the male child in terms of contributing towards household work of any kind. Little prince is born literally with a silver spoon in his mouth. Little prince is always given the best care by his adoring mother; he is called the ghar ka chirag, which is literally translated as the lamp of the house. All Indian women living abroad are more than familiar with the mother-in-law who suffers heartbreak seeing her prince doing the dishes or the father-in-law who is more concerned about his son's comfort after his daughter-in-law has given birth -- because his son must be exhausted after standing in the labour room!

In many ways it is a liberating experience for us to learn that we can actually be self-reliant. No doubt it is a steep learning curve, having done nothing at all in terms of personal work for 20+ years of our life. But once you climb that hill, it can be truly liberating. Not only is it liberating, but it becomes a preferred lifestyle for many. It is liberating to know that you don't have to wait for anyone to come clean your space, to be responsible for your clothing and grooming, to be able to cook and feed yourself a healthy meal, to maintain your space the way you want with maybe minimal paid help. Having less help will probably force you to simplify your life and take a careful look at all the excesses that can be trimmed off, but the spring cleaning may leave your life smelling sweeter.

Dignity of labour is a principle advocated by our own beloved Mahatma Gandhi. Why have we so conveniently decided to ignore this fact when the entire nation happily takes the day off to celebrate Gandhi Jayanti?

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