Cleaning & clutter

I enjoy cleaning my house. In India, this is not something that most people do themselves (there is a documentary called Lakshmi and Me that gives one a sense of this relationship). Most people hire others to clean their homes, sometimes cook their food, garden, wash their cars and any number of other daily household chores. This is something I’ve never been comfortable with. When I was teaching at Rishi Valley, I had a maid clean my house partly because she asked me if she could and partly because the work day of board school life was never ending and housework became something I’d otherwise put on the back burner, which is not something you can do when you live in such a dusty environment. But I remained uncomfortable with this arrangement and am happy to be back in my home where there is no longer a maid since my in-laws passed away.

Part of my discomfort with someone else cleaning my house comes from growing up in the U.S. where having daily household help is not the norm. Although I hated helping my mom clean as a child, I definitely appreciate–albeit in retrospect–the way that it taught me about working together, organising space, and having respect for a clean environment. But it was also reading Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Nickel and Dimed that really pushed me over the edge on the subject of maids (the chapter can be read here).

The pleasure of cleaning, for me, centres on the beauty of working hard at something for which you can see results rather quickly. Whether it’s scrubbing tiles on the bathroom floor or de-cluttering a messy desk (always my husband’s, never mine!), I enjoy seeing things neat. I love organising things so that I know where they are. I’ve tried to make sure my son has imbibed some of this, especially the concept that by keeping things neat every day and cleaning a little bit every day you don’t have to do big cleaning jobs later or search everywhere looking for something which had been in its place all along (graduate school means this is often falls on deaf ears, at least for now).

Once I started living alone, I began to take more interest in what I cleaned my home with as much as how I cleaned it. I became an easy target of advertisers who promised sparking clean and disinfected homes. I usually selected the strongest, chemically-laden products to scrub my home. I used to love using wet wipes because I felt somehow it was more hygienic to trap all the dust in a throw away cloth (now, of course, I use old towels and boxer shorts as rags and wash them so I can reuse them). I also lived by a motto: when in doubt, throw it out. I sometimes horrify myself by imagining how many of my perfectly good, working, useable items are in Cincinnati landfills.

But in the last few years some of this has changed for me. For one thing, I’m cleaning with products that are organic, and whenever possible locally made, such as Common Oxen’s Shine Shah.  Using such products are healthier for my family and the planet and still get the house as clean as can be. Those other bleach-laden products I used to use not only cause harm to humans and the planet, but also are excessive and prey on people’s (mine included!) fear of dirt.

The largest challenge for me is to not throw things away. Now that I have it indelibly printed in my mind that there is no place called away and now that I actively resist contributing to the Bengaluru landfills, I have to try to find use for and a home for (somewhere in my house) each and every item. For someone who loathes clutter this is a tremendous challenge. Having lost two members of our household in the last two years, there is a lot of excess clothing, books, music, and keepsakes that (at least from my perspective) add to the clutter even when it’s out of sight in the garage or in a cupboard. When the time is right, there are excellent organisations in India, like Goonj, that take used items and make them useful again for people who would otherwise not be able to afford such items.

In India, one of the things I admire most is the lifestyle that has been maintained for generations here: saving, reusing, remaking, reinventing. This has been out of necessity for the most part. It’s a cultural norm, that unfortunately, has been rapidly changing since the economy was opened up in the early 1990s. Historically, people don’t waste in this country. Interestingly, this has also been true of the U.S., but began to change quite radically in the 1950s in the post-war convenience society that became consumption driven. Susan Strasser’s book Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash is an excellent cultural history of this change. Images of Linda Loman darning stockings in Arthur Miller’s Death of Salesman certainly give a sense of how things used to be in the U.S. for most people.

Because of the rapidly changing economy in India and the rise of a new middle class and an increasingly aspirational society wanting to attain the same Indian dream, as it were, there is an intense pressure on the environment. This is where convenience becomes king and plastic drapes our society as a result. At Rishi Valley, I noticed that many of the maids refused to use the organic products I promoted because, even though they may have grown up using shikakai or reetha (soapnuts), they see using brand-name, chemical products as being associated with being upwardly mobile. Too, a culture of starting off the school year with a new stash of plastic buckets, brooms, dusting cloths has been created even when unnecessary and becomes a bone of contention between the maid and the akka.

All of this strikes me now because as I compare how things are between the U.S. and India and between the way I used to be and the way I am trying to be now, I see more and more that we need to return to how things were in India just a generation ago. I don’t mean the dependence on a maid culture and someone else doing work you’re unwilling to do yourself–I mean the fixing it culture, the saving culture, the buying less culture, the doing things with naturally made products culture. All of these methods and ways of being have a positive effect on human, animal, and planet health. But the further we get away from this the more we’ll see negative consequences on every realm of society. In the U.S. you can see people scrambling to create such a society again. But here in India, we are not too far removed from this way of life that we really need to try to hold on to.



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