It is perhaps entirely pointless to talk about work in Assam which ought to be taking place in our offices but doesn’t unless the right palms have been properly greased. Considering that due to a lack of any industrial development in three decades, when one talks about offices in Assam one is most often talking about government offices. And these happen to be places where employees drop in at their convenience well after the hour stipulated for the commencement of work and leave hours before closing time. Our offices are the places where excuses are traded for not being in office for as long as one is expected to. The excuse of having to pick up one’s progeny from school is no longer even an excuse. Everyone in government offices expects the time off for this duty to be regarded as official duty. Watching cricket matches on television too is almost official duty since even the boss does it. And that is what makes it so difficult for bosses to pull up their subordinate staff: they have been shown the wrong examples for far too long. Then there are aunts and uncles perpetually in hospitals who, poor things, have to be attended to because their children are abroad.
By contrast, household work is quite a different ballgame. Here, one has no scope of shirking duty at all. Children have to be dressed and fed and packed off to school in time. Then it is time for a late breakfast or an early lunch before one leaves to sign the register at the office. In fact, this is about the only task that no one fails to do very religiously lest there be pay deductions. Then there is shopping to be done for vegetables, fish, poultry, groceries and what not. Clothes have to be washed and ironed not only for the children but for the householders themselves. Bills have to be paid, weddings have to be attended and of course the kids have to be picked up from school every day. There are so many responsibilities for the family that there is hardly any time left for work at the office. And no one wants to talk about who is paying for which part of the working day. At the office, the visitor can be dodged with one excuse or the other. Nobody seems to find fault with this. If anything, the government employee who can think the most colourful reasons for not being able to do his duty to citizens, is regarded as a smart guy and not the one who is of the greatest help to citizens. There are even attempts to rationalize such an attitude with the Sanskrit phrase yugadharma—the dharma of the times.
Till about the middle of the last century, most of the domestic work was clearly demarcated on the basis of gender. There were certain limited tasks that were considered the exclusive domain of the male while there was a whole lot of unpleasant and monotonous work that was the exclusive preserve of women. During my secondary school days all outside work such as shopping for vegetables, grocery, meat and fish as well as getting the paddy dehusked in a rice mill or chopping firewood for the kitchen or carrying water from the pond or the well was all a man’s work. Women were expected to cook, wash dishes, keep the house tidy, knit, sew and what not. Theirs was all the repetitive and soul–killing work. It was deemed outrageous for a woman to be doing something like driving a car. It was only in the early 1960s that Guwahati had two or three women drivers on its streets. Today, women drivers in the city must be in their hundreds. What is perhaps even more significant is that women drivers rarely have car accidents.
It was perhaps the advent of modern gadgets and machines for homes that turned gender specificity of work on its head. If a woman was capable of looking after a refrigerator, a dishwasher, a washing machine or a microwave oven, she was also capable of using a whole lot of other machines and of driving a car. What did not get sorted out very clearly was that the mere ability to keep such consumer durables clean and to be able to press the right buttons to get one’s work done did not really cover the entire gamut of what could be called looking after them. The feminine disinclination to worry about the mechanical or electrical working of machines and gadgets was clearly manifest in the unwillingness of women to use a screwdriver or even to replace a light bulb at home. For most women that was a man’s job. Likewise, men were averse to entering the kitchen or washing dishes. It was towards the end of the 20th century that I encountered a fair number of men who were good at cooking and liked to cook now and then as a sort of hobby. In any case, it is difficult to ignore the fact that almost all the good chefs all over the world are men. But it was not until the 21st century that I encountered young men who considered cooking as a career on a par with medicine, engineering or management.
Even a brief period of stay abroad can cure the young Indian of his hidebound notions of what a man’s work is and what is a woman’s. As a postgraduate student in Britain who had expected to stay in a hostel but was forced to take up digs because the university had decided to keep hostel accommodation exclusively for undergraduates, yours truly discovered for the first time the folly of having estranged himself from the kitchen back home. For the first time he had to learn elementary cooking in order to survive. On subsequent visits abroad, I have seen the typical male Assamese Diaspora a far more subdued person helping spouse in the kitchen with apron around torso and arms immersed in soapy water in a sink full of crockery. He has evolved to the awareness that in a land where only the very rich can afford domestic help, he has to be less of a typical barmataa in order to survive.
Perhaps the abolishing of the gender difference in domestic work is all to the good. It started decades ago in countries like Sweden where the true empowerment of women showed up as women often earning more than their husbands. It was also the country that introduced the word househusband as a counterpart to the word housewife. Men who earned much less than their wives soon discovered that it made better economic sense to stay at home and look after the management of the house than to pay someone a higher salary to do the job. In many Swedish homes the business of providing the food is shared between the wife and the husband six days in the week and the family dining out on Sundays. One talks about providing the food rather than ooking because even on the days when the family eats at home the food generally comes from outside. It is just a matter of deciding whether it is Mummy’s turn to pay or Daddy’s.
So, all said and done, we are getting into a unisex world of work, like a unisex world of attire, where women have demonstrated that they can do any work that men can. The trend is catching up in Assam too. It is now the turn of the men to return the compliment. They must demonstrate that they too can do any work so far deemed to be the exclusive preserve of women—whether at home or outside it.