Opinion I When will the Indian male be truly ‘atmanirbhar’ at home?
Here’s a thought for men in the Indian upper middle classes this Independence Day: It’s time to end your daily dependence on spouses, cooks and the odd-job ‘chhotu’
A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new—when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance.
—Jawaharlal Nehru, 1947
In 1947, India became independent, stepping out from the old to the new. Over 70 years later, we are stepping out into another kind of new—the new normal. And something else, long suppressed, is finding utterance.
The Indian male has discovered housework, not wholly or in full measure, but substantially. It remains to be seen, though, whether he will awake to life and freedom.
When I went to America as a student, like countless other Indian men I knew nothing about taking care of myself. I had a little notebook in which my mother had written down recipes she hoped I would rustle up without burning the house down. I still remember the first one—Boiled Egg. I could recite Shakespeare with great flourish and knew the capitals of obscure Eastern European countries but I didn’t know how to cook dal and rice, sew a button or clean the toilet bowl. The irony is, everyone looked on my utter lack of basic life skills fondly, not as a failing but as something that was part of the charm of being the golden boy. There is an African proverb that says it takes a village to raise a child. In the case of the Indian man, the village’s work is never done.
I learnt home skills fast because there was no other option in a small Illinois town. “You can cook for yourself?" marvelled the aunts when I came back to visit a year later. I learnt to cook because there was only so long you could live on microwaveable frozen dinners and McDonald’s milkshakes, especially on a teaching assistant’s stipend. I did, however, once put out a personal ad looking for a mechanically-inclined partner who could change tyres and assemble DIY furniture. I didn’t learn to rewire the house and build a patio deck as a summer project, like some American friends could, but I survived. But, two decades later, the aunties still routinely cooed, “You do your own cooking?", shaking their heads in wonder.
Now I can understand why. Bengali soap operas tackle lofty social issues—sexism, divorce, the pressures on working women, domestic violence, widowhood. But I am yet to see one where a man, even the most woke one, makes himself a cup of tea. In one serial, a man recognizes his long-suffering, forsaken wife, who lives in their house disguised as a maid-with-a-ghunghat, not by her mannerisms or the touch of her hand, but by the cup of tea she makes for him.
The covid-19 pandemic and the accompanying lockdown seem to have managed finally to make some difference. Anupam Dutta, a corporate executive in Mumbai, says: “I have surprised myself with the chores I can perform—sweeping, mopping, cleaning toilets, cleaning utensils, keeping them back in their right places after cleaning them, making tea, sometimes getting dinner, washing clothes. Oh, did I miss saying grocery shopping?"
Thanks to this domestic chores home workout, he has even lost weight. His wife Sangita Pal, who runs Arteastic.in, a portal showcasing the handicrafts heritage of eastern India, says that until the lockdown, neither he nor their teenaged daughter had any clue about how the house was run, who ironed the clothes, where the fish and mutton came from. “They lived in the house almost like guests. Now Anupam knows which dish-washing liquid we use, how frequently Scotch-Brite should be changed in a month, and so on." According to Prof. Ashwini Deshpande of Ashoka University, Haryana, who analysed the data from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, men did an extra hour of housework per day in April, 2.5 hours compared to 1.5 hours in December. No surprises, women still did more than men (4.6 hours in April compared to 4 hours in December), but at least the gap narrowed.
The lockdown has been quite an eye-opener for Indian men, agrees Sonali Gupta, a Mumbai-based psychologist. Gupta, the author of Anxiety: Overcome It And Live Without Fear, says that while covid-19 anxiety is on the rise, it has also allowed some of her male clients to be more vulnerable and talk about difficult emotions openly.
In some relationships, male partners have had a light-bulb moment. They have begun to “see and understand how much work their women partners put in". Women, in turn, “feel far more understood and seen".
Anindo K. Chatterjee, a senior social development specialist with a multilateral donor agency, says that while he has always been relatively self-sufficient around the house, he does see among male friends “more appreciation of what it takes to keep the household chugging, and they are consequently more involved, if not taking on a greater share, in household duties". My sister’s colleague, a professor, says he’s not allowed into the kitchen but he can do “unskilled labour" like sweeping and mopping. A family friend says she’s now stressed out about her retired banker husband overdoing it with all the jhaadu-pocha. The husband of one of Pal’s friends has taken to sweeping with gusto. He says he feels like the king of Puri sweeping the ground before Lord Jagannath’s chariot during rath yatra.
Of course, this is not to say the pandemic has ushered in some utopia of gender equity in upper middle-class India. Hardly. Men are patting themselves on the back because they are finally doing a few of the things they had taken for granted for years.
On the Bengali reality show Didi No.1, television actors swapped stories about lockdown lessons. One actor bragged that he had gone to the market for the first time. He would video-call his wife to show her the fish he was about to buy. His wife rolled her eyes and said she had been hospitalized for a few days and came home to find the sink overflowing with dishes. After she nagged him for a few days, her husband decided he had had enough. He marched off to the bathroom with a big pan filled with dishes and turned on the taps full blast, washing more of the bathroom than the dishes. When he emerged, drenched and exhausted, he turned to her and gasped, “Give me a cold drink immediately." His friend, a comic actor, joked that he evaded all household chores during the lockdown by locking himself in his studio and “working from home". “But I listened to my wife," he protested. “I turned off the AC in the morning when she told me to."
It was all in good humour, except that if the gender roles had been reversed, it would not have been quite so funny any more. The real joke is men wanting credit for washing dishes or hanging clothes out to dry.
Sometimes old habits die hard. “In some households with the absence of staff, men are still expecting women to do all the work," says Gupta. “One client mentioned her husband would have three cups of tea at work and now he expects her to make it."
The fact is, it’s not just men. India encourages dependence on spouses, cooks, the odd-job chhotu. One well-to-do household in Kolkata even had someone to answer the landline. Returning to live in India almost a decade ago, I could just feel all my hard-won American independence dribbling away as I was sucked into the great web of interdependence. Food appeared magically on the table, coffee cups disappeared equally magically. Floors were swept and mopped, the laundry showed up neatly pressed.
Dependence is rather easy to get used to. The most fractious debates during lockdown were about when to allow the domestic help back in. Pal says she has had three domestic helps for the last 15 years so she would have a back-up if one went on leave. “The lockdown has helped in overcoming that fear," she says. “Now we know that life without maids is not the end of the world. We can still survive."
If any good comes out of the pandemic, she hopes that she won’t stress endlessly when she goes out of town and leaves her husband to fend for himself. And if the serials finally show a man stepping forward to make his own tea, we can proudly say, as Nehru once did, “A new star rises, the star of freedom in the east…. May the star never set and that hope never betrayed."
And India will truly be atmanirbhar where it really counts.
Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.