I like neatness. I enjoy seeing things in their proper places, and baking in a clean kitchen. Most NRIs I know are the same, house proud, well-groomed, and neat as the proverbial pin. Sometimes, though, cleanliness has to go.
It’s hard for me to put aside my need for tidiness. When my house is cluttered or dirty, I feel as if my mind is cluttered and dirty, and find it terribly hard to concentrate. And sometimes, not washing the dishes or not being able to get my avocado/sweet potato/dal makhni stained laundry done for a couple of days leaves me questioning my heritage--can I truly be an Indian, moreover a Muslim Indian, when my washing baskets are so heavy I can’t carry them on my own?
This past month has been particularly difficult, as work mounts up, baby cuts new teeth, and my darling other half ramps up his Ph.D efforts. But admitting I have a problem--particularly to my near-germophobic parents--is out of the question. Indians are proud of their clean homes and carefully swept floors, more proud even than a dadi with a secret family pickle recipe.
Surfing the internet this afternoon--while stuck beneath a snoring baby--only made things worse. India, I read, is dirty--dusty roads, people who spit in the street, and the Ganges is famed for its pollution. Forbes magazine even lists Mumbai as one of the dirtiest cities in the world; Kajal-Ijer writes in IBN Live that “8000 tonnes of garbage are produced everyday”. Delhi also made the Forbes list. But as Neetu Banga points out,
[Indian] culture is based on cleanliness. Even [the] poorest of Indians sweep the floors and keep their house clean, but we Indians have a faulty sense of national pride and no sense of ownership of civic amenities. We pay for them, but don’t care if they are clean or not.
So while I’m glad my city is clean--Cambridge was ranked as one of the healthiest cities to live in in a 2009 Self poll--I now feel worse about the pile of dishes littering my sink, the psychedelic coloured post-it notes fluttering off my work calendar, and the cracker-smeared baby toys scattered around my living room. And yet I’m also learning that cultural traits, like cleanliness, don’t define me. Cultural identity is still an individual identity; my Indianness does not need to be tied to the state of my apartment.
Armed with this knowledge, I eased baby into the bed, then set about sweeping up cheerios, happy and secure in my new-found unassailable Indian identity. Five minutes later, said identity was shot to pieces, baby busy decorating the floor with pureed apple. He, I suppose, is only a quarter Indian, less tied to a culture of cleanliness than me--insofar as a baby is tied to anything save milk, mummy, daddy, and sleep, that is. As he grows older, I know I’ll have to teach him the value of a scrubbed ‘til it reeks of Lemon Pledge home. And once he’s at daycare, I’ll have plenty of time to shine the silver and shampoo the rugs. But for now, I’m learning to let go--and learning how to make mango pickle from scratch, just to keep my hand in the Indian Culture Jar.