Has the Pandemic Shaken Up the Indian Middle-Class Household?

As I reflect on pending tasks like attending to unwashed dishes, a pile of sweaty clothes, or proposed projects, finding the mindspace for writing posts for Masala Chai has become a serious challenge. By the time there is some semblance of domestic order, the most productive hours have slipped past and the heavy heat of a tropical afternoon creeps up on the tired limbs. Soon, the resolve to write is transformed into a dream sequence of mid-day dormancy and another day passes imperceptibly by. As someone cleverly remarked, days have transformed into ‘this day’, ‘that day’ and ‘the other day’; our daily schedule has become organised around household rhythms rather than clocks. Just this morning, we declared to each other that today was ‘shopping day’. Sigh!

In a recent meeting of our team, we discussed some of our common experiences as homemakers and found many common features in our lives that have been impacted by the recent lockdown, whether in Dubai, Gurugram or Mumbai, but we also became aware of some features of middle-class Indian families that are relevant to domestic rhythms. To add to that, if there are requirements to work or study from home, to care for a person in need of extra attention, there are additional challenges. Some of these recurring patterns are universal, but a combination of these could be seen as peculiar to Indian middle-class homes.

Ding-Dong (Door)bell: Adjustments to the new sound-space-time coordinates

The regular and reassuring ding-ding (our doorbell doesn’t ding-dong) of the doorbell that punctuated the course of an ordinary day, announcing a delivery, the arrival of the maid, dhobi or some other visitor, has become transformed into this dreadfully loud and rather disturbing jangle. Like the ubiquitous ‘missed-call’ that provided a range of rather reliable messages during the times when phone-calls were expensive, the timing of the doorbell was a clear indication of who was at the door. At 6 am, Sarda farms fresh milk delivery, 7.30 am, fresh coconuts at the door….with an in-between thump of the daily newspapers, 8 am on weekdays the maid, at noon, garbage collection (separate dry and wet waste would be checked at the doorstep, and unsafe objects like broken glass were kept completely separate) … sometime between 11 am and noon, on all days except Thursdays, the dhobi for collection of a daily ironing bundle. There is a story behind the weekly break. As Pooja’s mother informed us, Thursdays are rest days for all washing activity for Hindu households, in honour of Brihaspati (Link in Notes section). But like all ritual proscriptions, there is always space for negotiation. If you had any urgent requirement, Ram Tirath would come, but only for you…and with no extra charge.

Back to the doorbell. Now each time the doorbell rings, our heart rates register a sharp spike. I have to remember to turn the volume down manually……… …. … maybe tomorrow. The Ctrl+Alt+Del of our recent lives (Lockdown+Stay-home+Distancing) has seriously messed with our lives, especially with the the space-time coordinates. Suddenly the daily rhythm is disrupted and even animals have responded to our absence. The situation has revealed several concealed facts about our lives. Although changes in pace and physical isolation may be universal experiences, the domestic dynamics of Indian middle-class homes share some peculiar features. This is the topic for today’s essay.

Reflecting on the importance of siblings

Pooja writes that this lockdown has reconfirmed her belief that it is important for a child to have a sibling and the lower the age-gap the better and it certainly helps if they are both the same gender.

“My two girls (2.5 years apart) have been a source of dramatic companionship for each other, ranging from entertainment to misery. Long days with longer hours have been filled up with constant bickering, but most significantly, with collaborative imaginative play. The younger one doesn’t mind (mostly) acting as her sister’s side-kick in all of the games and even goof-ups. If I reflect on a before-after scenario regarding behavioural changes of the two girls, I will surely find them playing with each other, engaging n conversations and sharing on both sides. The picture is far from rosy but having a playmate has been far more on the plus side during this time. Both for them as well as us. The benefits of having a sibling are endless. I am enjoying seeing them grow together and learn how to deal with this new normal. A friend from the children’s school said ‘I am completely lost with my 5 year-old, Pooja. Can you suggest some good resources to keep her busy? She plays alone but then after some time she needs our attention or wants us to play with her. We both are working and are unable to spend so much time with her. We have decided to hire someone to keep her engaged as I feel she desperately needs some monitoring. She is very bored by the end of the day and thus becomes very cranky.’ Another friend with a 10 year-old only child remarked ‘She is mostly busy with school-related tasks and in her free time she likes to do art and craft. Thanks to the option to work-from-home, my husband can spend time with her in the evening while I manage household chores. She sometimes does gets frustrated being alone and now we have encouraged her to call and talk to friends. I really hope this ends soon. Just the other day, she was frustrated and came to me asking for how long was she expected to talk. Should she start talking to the walls and keep moving from one room to the other?’ Reflecting on these two conversations, I am even more confident about our decision to have two children.”

The Big Fat Indian Family

A recent estimate reveals that the average size of Indian families is 4.8 members, a significant reduction in recent years. Census data from 2011 and earlier years is available on the Government of India website. See Notes section for link to most recent count of household size and type. Although the average is significant, the fact that almost 2 million households (17,24,608 to be exact) have 15 or more members living together demonstrates the persisting popularity of the joint family model.

The world over, the size of the household unit is shrinking, with more people living alone than ever before. We will look more closely at this phenomenon along with the history of the nuclear family in the next post since these recent events have brought a sharp focus on domestic units and the spread of the virus. As people live through these events between isolation and overcrowding, the preparation for a future in coexistence with Covid-19 will need to be examined carefully. Scholars have mostly investigated family size, structure and functioning. The traditional Indian Joint Family has been the subject of several of our essays. You can find the links to these in the Notes section. Today we will examine some aspects of family dynamics.

Our team member Reshu remembers her childhood days growing up in a large family, and the impact that it had on her.

“I can sew, embroider, repair electrical connections, cook, do some gardening, knit, pickle vegetables, activities that so many of my friends are unable to do. As I was reading about the joint family, I realize that all these skills have been learnt from being in a large social group, the extended family as well as the friendly neighbourhood. As children, we used to spend a lot of time together, and those of us who wanted to pick up things always had someone as role models, carefully observing and imitating different people for different skills. My chacha (father’s younger brother) was into carpentry and I remember spending a lot of time with him just watching and trying out my hand with his tools. He was also the handyman around the house and I watched, and learned how to fix fuses, join wires and replace switches and repair small problems in electrical appliances on my own. My grandmother was the best cook, so I used to learn cooking by watching her. Not all of us cousins were interested in everything, but those of us who were, had so many people to learn from. I learnt a lot about plants by spending time with my grandfather. One aunt was good at stitching, so I learnt to sew from her and another (aunt) could create magical patterns with her needlework. I was fascinated with this and soon picked up embroidery. One of my aunts was a teacher at school, and she was the one who supported my academic learning. From my mother, I learnt to knit as she was good at it and was in charge of knitting sweaters for everyone. No one cared about separating boys and girls, you followed what you were interested in. Not all of us cousins were similarly curious, but those of us who were, had so many people to learn from. Everyone seemed to have a love for music so I grew up listening to different kinds of songs. We learnt team work and collaboration by doing things together. At night when we slept in our ‘aangan’ under the sky, and talked about the sky, nature….listen to stories. It was great fun to be together, I miss it and whenever we come together for family functions, it is great fun because my daughter also gets to experience some of what we had.

When I think of the model of multiple intelligences, I wonder if such childhood experiences could explain a wider range of capabilities that children can develop by being among many people. Of course we learnt at school, but there was so much that we picked up in informal settings at home. I strongly believe that some of the recent changes in family life and community relationships have caused a profound loss of these informal ways of learning by being in the company of adults.”

Household helpers

Census data does not include regular people who form part of the domestic unit, household helpers, who either come for a few hours, spend the day, or live with the family long-term. Despite the fact that their contribution is often underestimated or ignored, helpers play a critical role in family dynamics. It goes without saying the the size and extent of outsourced housekeeping work is dependent upon a family’s economic status and decision to invest in this assistance.This role becomes even more important as the family shrinks in size as can be seen from documentaries about carers of the elderly in different parts of the world. Recently the issue of elderly care and domestic helpers has come under attention for being highly underpaid and unrecognized (Links in Notes section).

Recently, I have become more acutely aware or the fact that my domestic routine has, over years of fine-tuning, been customised through the outsourcing of specific chores. This distribution of work-load affords several indulgences, choices that our relative affluence has permitted us to make regarding how we arrange our space and how we manage our time. Quite honestly, if I knew I had to do everything myself, there would be some changes I would make in these arrangements. Somethings would be edited out and others would be invested in. The one thing that we (both) have realised is that the size of our tiny appartment may not afford the luxury of a permanent housekeeper or a walk in the garden, but it is highly adaptable to our new Ctrl+Alt+Del lives. It is just small enough to make it manageable. People all over the world are adjusting to new conditions, mostly households have become tighter, work distributions have changed and as one acquaintance mentioned to Pooja recently, some older ways of living have reemerged. As we celebrate some of the changes, it is also important to note that the new domestic (dis)order has placed several ‘extra’ indulgences aside. The sky is clearer, and it helps not having to prepare for office schedules and school time-tables, but reading, writing, the occasional sketching, solving the daily crossword, even day-dreaming, have become a luxury for many of us.

The buffer role

Is it possible that the reliance on regular help also provides us with a cushion for domestic difficulties? Think about it, if we had to do all the work ourselves, especially in larger households with many members where there are hidden cracks in the system, outsourcing can help in discounting contentious issues for the sake of domestic harmony. Whether on grounds of imagined age or gender related privileges, setting aside discussions (arguments?) about division of labour can be quite functional, albeit escapist. Children can pursue their studies, work for long spells in preparation for exams and avoid domestic participation, office-goers can leave for work on time armed with freshly prepared packed lunch-boxes, each of the three+ meals can be prepared at home, babies can be cared for, and the elderly can be kept entertained without pressure. The hundreds of little things we do in our homes like dusting off the daily deposits, wiping hand-washed dishes, sun-drying spices, processing delicate leafy vegetables, chopping up coarse brittle foods, finely dicing onions, garlic and ginger, preparing fresh masalas, pickling seasonal foods, preparing home-made snacks, washing clothes after a single wear, starching our lengthy saris, ironing shirts….each of these tasks have been questioned in the absence of assistants. Our colleague Shalini Grover (London School of Economics) has written about domestic work in Indian households, highlighting some of these issues. Another scholar whose work comes to mind is Sanna Schliewe (Aalborg University, Denmark), who wrote about Danish expats in Delhi, raiding aspects of domestic dynamics with and without the availability of helpers that make interesting reading. Links to publications are provided in the Notes section.

Will this period of quarantine alter the Indian family? While urban families find themselves without a precious resource, much of the rural household remains largely unaffected. For the urban middle-class, perhaps this unique situation will result in the diagnosis of some underlying injustices and facilitate the renewal of family life. Will the Indian middle class emerge refreshed and reorganised, more respectful of the hidden scaffolding of our lives, whether these are internal or external to the household? As I look around, my optimism is supported by what I can see around me. I see young men feeding street dogs, older men drying out clothes on their balconies, women out for daily exercises, young children participating actively in household routines.

One can only hope that this will provide us with a fresh perspective on our relationships and work distribution to face the future, better prepared to handle our domestic responsibilities on our own, and lead lives that are more manageable within our own physical resources. For that, several changes must be made. In ‘Person Behind the Family’ (Link in Notes Section), Margaret Trawick alludes to the extra burden of domestic responsibilities on women, and ends the chapter with a question about how Indian families will survive anticipated changes in the social order, although pandemic-like situations were not really what she had in mind.

Thanks for your visit. Until next week, stay safe and stay home.

Notes:

Several of our earlier posts have addressed the issue of large families in India and we invite you to revisit these:

  1. https://masalachaimusings.com/2018/11/23/love-in-the-time-of-family-a-review-of-the-film-badhai-ho-congratulations/
  2. https://masalachaimusings.com/2018/06/15/life-can-only-be-understood-backwards/
  3. https://masalachaimusings.com/2018/06/01/love-lust-and-family-life-beyond-singular-stories/
  4. https://masalachaimusings.com/2018/06/29/life-can-only-be-understood-backwards-2/

Census of India: Household size: http://censusindia.gov.in/2011census/Hlo-series/HH04.html

http://censusindia.gov.in/2011census/hh-series/hh01.html

Documentaries about carers:

  1. https://onbeing.org/programs/ai-jen-poo-this-is-our-caring-revolution/
  2. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-52188820

Sanna Schliewe:

https://vbn.aau.dk/en/publications/resisting-inequality-but-loving-those-cheap-ironed-shirts

Shalini Grover: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/12259276.2017.1279892?needAccess=true&journalCode=rajw20

https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0973174118788008

Margaret Trawick: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/236019689_The_person_beyond_the_family

2 Comments

  1. This resonates so much with me – the weary morning full of household tasks, the tired limbs and inability to write (something I used to do effortlessly), a challenge to concentrate on serious reading. Equally, the part about growing up in a large family… I learnt so much. Running away to an aunt’s house in the afternoon was a welcome escape from home where we had a grandmother who disliked all girls in the family – and there sitting and watching my aunt give sewing classes, I learn to run the sewing machine, cut cloth, stitch and so much more… when will this lockdown end?

    Like

    1. Vimala, you can imagine how much of an effort it has been to squeeze out this essay. I can happily do without going out and eating in fancy restaurants, what I miss most is the possibility of concentrating on one thing for extended periods of time. In this one, I must have scrubbed the first paragraph about 25 times because each time left the screen, it was back to the opening!
      I just heard Mumbai may not open till end May 😟

      Like

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