Google fb32x32 twitter linkedin feed-icon-32x32

A Laundry Bucket Of One's Own

A Laundry Bucket Of One's Own

January 31, 2013
Barnaby Haszard MorrisThe most subversive thing I ever did during three years living in Kerala was wash my girlfriend’s laundry.

The most subversive thing I ever did during three years living in Kerala was wash my girlfriend’s laundry.

I’ll never forget the look on my friend’s face when I told him that I had done this -- and not just once, in some desperate circumstance, but many times, too many to count. His face responded in two parts: first a freeze, with eyes fixed on me and breathing temporarily paused, as he processed this profoundly new and unfamiliar piece of information. Then he furrowed his brow and looked down, away from me, the corners of his mouth dropping a little in disgust.

“You shouldn’t do that,” he said.

I smiled, somewhat insensitively, at his shock. “Why not?”

He paused for a moment before responding. “It shouldn’t be that way,” was all he could say.

To me, his reaction seemed a little unfair. It isn't that there's anything inherently wrong with partners in a relationship or marriage taking on clearly defined roles, whether or not those roles are divided along traditional gender lines. If both adults knowingly consent and nobody is getting hurt, it generally isn’t anyone else’s business.

Likewise, though, I don’t really think it’s anyone else’s business if partners choose not to divide household tasks along gender lines. My girlfriend and I earned about the same amount of money, cooked dinner with similar frequency, and saw nothing wrong with equality in laundry duty. For two twentysomethings who had grown up with washing machines, it was a particularly arduous task: you had nothing more than a bucket and some soap with which to banish a day’s worth of accumulated sweat and red dust from tired, fraying garments. Splitting the job between us made sense.

“Who washes your clothes?” I asked my friend, trying to get a better understanding of the norm in Kerala.

“Honestly, I don’t know,” he replied, a little sheepishly. “Nowadays, it’s probably my wife.”

He is occasionally irksome, this friend, but I love him dearly. He listens well, and he tells you what he thinks without sugar-coating it. Being his first ‘saip’ (white man) friend, he took the opportunity to ask plenty of questions about my life in Kerala, and as such, he provided a lot of support whenever I was struggling to cope for one reason or another. He remains among my closest friends, one with whom I expect I’ll retain a bond for life even if we lose touch for years at a time.

However, it seems we don’t see eye to eye on the role of women in a relationship and in society at large. He was after all born and raised in Kerala, way down at the southwestern tip of the Indian mainland, which remains relatively conservative in regard to gender roles. Thiruvananthapuram district, the southernmost region of the state and my home for those three years, is particularly conservative even in Kerala. It is not so intensely patriarchal that girl children are routinely shunned or denigrated, as can often be the case in other parts of India, but if my experiences of two years ago remain current, you won’t see many women out in public in jeans or skirts there (as you might in the somewhat more cosmopolitan Kochi to the north). You also won’t hear of a husband washing his own clothes, let alone those of his wife. Ever.

A recent Manta Ray comic titled ‘New to the Night’ offered a fantastical possibility: an India in which men are under curfew from 11pm to 5am each night, giving women the freedom to walk dark streets without fear. The author, Parismita Singh, skilfully manipulates familiar words and phrases to subvert gender roles and create an unrecognisable, almost unimaginable atmosphere. One phrase stands out for its reflection of a progressive reality:

“All men are not rapists or molesters. Some even make tea for their wives, look after children. Times are changing...”

It’s true. Times are changing. Many women are having both kids and a career, while many men are increasingly happy to play an equal part in running a household. The children of some Indian homes, therefore, are growing up without the clear gender roles Indian society has built itself upon for so long.

I wonder, how broad is this shift towards gender equality in India? Could it extend as far as southern Kerala? Might it even extend beyond cups of tea, and child-rearing, to laundry duty?

My friend did not actively seek to subjugate women and would never condone violence against them, but the idea that anyone but a woman might do laundry was completely foreign and strange to him. Now, with a resurgence in feminism in India in the wake of one particularly shocking act of violence against a woman, I wonder whether scrubbing dhotis could become routine for all men and not merely the preserve of mothers, wives, and dhobiwallahs.


  • Rajpriya
    12.02.13 09:11 AM
    Ouch! That’s a TKO. Now wait, who’s Lady GAGA and what’s a C**k? Would a peep or going that deep down, improve my IQ? However, my idiotic guess is: It cannot be that long, because there is no known story or history that Lady GAGA’s p***k ever got that stiff to create babies. Hmm! If that’s the wrong answer I admit hitting the canvas some times. No laughing matter.
    12.02.13 02:03 AM
    @ Igirit

    LOL, What do you want to know? :)


    PS I think Raj seem to have answer to everything, but what I want to know is the size of Lady GAGAs C**k. LOL :)
  • Rajpriya
    08.02.13 12:11 PM

    Since you ask if some one knows I will give it good try. It is well known dogs can be trained to do extraordinary and astonishing things. I don’t know if dogs can ever be taught to make coffee and bring it to the bed, cook a meal, turn on a washing machine and whatever more.

    I know many dogs watch TV and sleep in the couch and some do jump into the bed. I know they have been taught to cross the road meant for pedestrians any many other things. One great quality anyone would love in a dog is, it don’t talk back or argue, needs no clothes or jewelry and damned faithful and shows its never ending love by licking your face and wagging the tail.

    Try to guess the one that thing remains that you can’t do with a dog? If your guess is right then you may have your answer.
  • Igirit
    08.02.13 11:35 AM
    I really enjoy reading about your perspective on the Malayalee ways!

    Also, will someone kindly explain to me what Harry meant by "what is the point in having a dog if you have to fetch your own paper from the door"?

    Just so I can be sure that I have every reason to be as outraged as I am.
  • Rajpriya
    04.02.13 12:46 PM
    Leave alone couples who live-in partnerships here is a really sad story that appeared yesterday that tells of couples living in secret refuge afraid of honor killings because they chose to marry a partner of a different caste, religion or other reasons.

    Young and educated these people are being denied the fundamental rights to a life of freedom.

    Will India ever come out of primitive thinking and jungle laws?

    We need to be determined to spread this news in known circles to provide whatever help possible. I hope many will come forward to provide even in the smallest possible way to make them happy.
    01.02.13 03:43 PM
    @ Barns

    Well done you, for doing which most men wouldn't do. I am believer in equality too. :)

    To this day I don't know where my domestic appliances are located in the house. I don't know how my washing machine works either and this is not a lie. I never had to do my laundry even tho I live in the UK. I guess I'm lucky I have a very good wife.

    I do have one point, what is the point in having a dog if you have to fetch your own paper from the door. :)

  • Rajpriya
    31.01.13 08:05 PM

    May be you are right I may be ignorant of this trend because I do not live in India. Having said that, I like to draw your attention to the following aspects of such relationships that should be of concern to any Indian woman.

    Like in all countries and in all cultures all new trends start in urban areas. I live in a country that living-in is absolutely no taboo and even protected by law. In India such a relationship would cause different kinds of problems that include legal nightmares especially for women. Therefore a woman needs to exercise extra caution in live-in relationships if you care to admit.

    Firstly it would give a married man a chance to enter such a relationship without getting divorced. If you read Angela Carson’s post about “Why do so many Indian Men Cheat? You would know how true this is. If a man does not admit that he is already married it would not be illegal to live with another woman with out marrying her. It won’t be bigamy but only adultery.

    Secondly if children were born they would suffer being termed as illegitimate kids. In Germany it it’s a very common practice to get married when a woman is at very late stages of her pregnancy to afford legitimacy to a child about to be born.

    When he decides to end the relationship and the woman is solely dependent financially on the man then not only would she would suffer untold misery the children too. In India a woman is known as a concubine when she is in an unmarried relationship or a keep. These are social stigmas that may not disappear overnight.

    Here is a link that discusses many legal complications arising out of live-in relationships in India if you want to be informed.
  • Jyoti
    31.01.13 04:00 PM
    It is truth that a major part of Indian society believes in clearly defining the roles of gender. However, time is changing and now I can see my husband as well as many husbands in my surroundings, who are equally involved in household chores just like there female counterpart.

    @Rajpriya - I think you need to refresh your gathering of information regarding India. In most of Indian metros, now you can easily find couples living together without marriage. Although it is still a taboo for large section of society, youth have take a step further and are widely adapting this practice.
  • Rajpriya
    31.01.13 09:30 AM
    OH! I almost forget to mention one important factor until now that has not caught on in India. Living together unmarried is in itself taboo in India though it may become a trend in the future.

    It may happen in rich class who may be least bothered about gossip and people ignore them because they are rich.
  • Rajpriya
    31.01.13 08:57 AM
    An Indian man may wash his girlfriend’s clothes but he may never wash his wife’s. At any stage of an Indian woman being an Indian man’s girlfriend the rules are slightly different.

    The girlfriend’s stage is one in which a man tries to do everything that would lead to marriage and soon after his cultural beliefs creep in. Worst gossip in India would get him into a suicidal frenzy. Even his parents, brothers and sisters (not to forget the meddling aunties making jokes) might disapprove of such things.

    However it may depend who wears the pants after marriage. May be many Indian men may be doing that secretly to keep the home fires burning.

    A girlfriend being pampered is more often seen in western culture. That’s the bait. I just wonder how I would ever learn or get used to washing a sari six or seven meters long in a small bucket in the backyard if my girlfriend wore saris. If she had a collection then I am dead.

    May be you were lucky you girlfriend was not a sari clad Indian woman and your girlfriend may never find another man that would wash her clothes. She might miss you for rest of her life.
  • Qwerty
    31.01.13 07:02 AM
    A very valid question.
    Sharing my observation. in most cases prospective groom's parents make sure that the bride in question knows how to manage household chores. Seldom I have seen girls parents checking with the guy if he will be okay in helping their daughter out with routinal tasks.

Leave a comment