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Calloused Palms…

March 26, 2016

Once we went on this road trip in Malaysia. Having stepped into my 30s and suddenly finding myself in the role of a housewife in a foreign soil, the breaks we took there were very interesting for me.

In Langkawi islands, we booked into a resort as family. For island hopping that the place was popular for, we opted for group tours. Then I noticed someone staring at me in the reception. It was a european man also probably in his 30s with his girlfriend. It so happened, the couple occupied our next cottage. We met them in the breakfast buffet and exchanged a polite smile. All the while the woman in me did not fail to pick up the man’s gaze – obviously my ethnicity was the reason. The girlfriend beside him looked tomboyish. Perhaps some of them liked the so-called shy Asian women I thought. Atleast in ’30s I still looked naive enough I guess.

Island hopping threw us five into the same boat for a whole day. We did a round in the day and we went for another one in the late noon. Throughout the man’s intent gaze was fixed on me that I found extremely disturbing. The woman made a conversation but it was proving to be difficult when the man couldn’t avert his glances. To the extent I even wondered whether anything was wrong with my clothes – like was it torn somewhere with a peeping tom inviting sly looks?!

Then by the end of the evening when we alighted at a coarse beach to trek inland, my husband took my son and stepped out the boat. To my surprise I saw the white man stop and extend his hand to help me out. I took it.

Getting down on the beach I found a funny expression on his face on releasing my hand. A surprised look. His gaze was still fixed on me but it was getting curious. And then it dawned me on : my calloused palms !!!

Whatever the man had been thinking of me, he was least prepared for the rough grip my hands gave him clasping his as I got out of the boat! Then I remembered, how soft for a man his own palms were. My husband has similar palms for a man: soft. Foot: soft thanks to years of boot-wearing!

Anyway, Malaysia taught me how unlike what we talk and conclude about racism, some men do love the exotics!

Starting my 30s in Malaysia, my first foreign residence abroad, I thus was making a lot of self-discoveries.

After nearly 30 years of non-stop excitement of life, good and bad, things were suddenly slowing down.

I have been cooking all my life, ever since I turned 9 or 10, but I am not much used to manual labour. Maids are cheap to hire in India and we have always had a part-time house help to take care of the daily chores.

In Malaysia, for the first time I faced the prospect of doing the dishes and washing the clothes – manually. Machines were expensive and the south east Asian Tigers had just crashed. It was a time of uncertainty that we thought it was not wise to invest heavily in anything – especially overheads. Getting a maid was also a legal process in Malaysia. The government would allot you one provided you undertook certain responsibilities. Most expats therefore never bothered with hiring help.

For spoilt Indian women bred on laziness and a host of paid services from part-time to full-time maids, drivers, cooks and gardeners, life in foreign countries could be a grueling experience.

In my teens as a Veena player, 2 fingers in each of my hands were already badly calloused. There were still mild rings in the fingers remaining years later I stopped playing the instrument once for all.

The manual labour in Malaysia had started roughening up my palms. Doing the dishes with strong detergents and scrubbing the floors, the bathroom tiles and even washing the jeans and bedspreads …. all this were starting to leave signs in my otherwise softer palm which had until then only held books and pen … besides ladles and tablespoons….

Physical work I have to say, was a great distraction from an otherwise boring lonely day life out there as a full-time housewife for the first time ever. The other great invigorating presence was that of my little son who did homeschooling under me for over 3 years.

I have forgotten the european man’s face but for days I could not put the image of his surprised look out of my mind!! My palms did not have boils or burns or open sores or cracks, but they had hardened in matter of months with the kind of unusual work they were getting to do. The soft skin of the palm was gone and in its place was a thick hide like the one under my foot! It was a shock to me as well …

Back in India after 4 years, I once again got myself a part=time maid to pitch in with domestic work. My househelp is with me for well over a 12 years now. She was in her 20s then and is now mother of 2 teenagers.

Very recently I met an Arab-American middle-aged man. More than once I noticed him eyeing me from the corner of the room. I got it. Indian ethnicity is a big drawer of attention with some guys. By now I am used to it. Whether it is our clothes or jewelry or skin or whatever I don’t know. I just know some men like our ‘type’ !

Finally I got introduced to the man who to my surprise took my hand without a moment’s hesitation. And there again, was the surprised look upon his face – the one I was reminded of from my Langkawi trip!!! The callused palms! The confused look in the man’s eyes was worth recording! This time I had no trouble guessing what got the man reacting!

Once again since last August I am doing menial work here in the middle-east. I am even scrubbing the bathtub that I did not have to do in Malaysia. But atleast I have a washing machine here.

Unlike some women I don’t have the foot fetish or the hand obsession. I have never gotten my finger nails painted (even if I do my toe nails) because I cook daily. I don’t go for manicure or pedicure. And to top it all, now I am directly dealing with strong detergents, floor cleaning liquids etc. The effect is enormous in matter of months.

My palms have gotten worse – my fingers have hardened – just like they were in Malaysia. I can understand how the man who eagerly clasped my hands must have felt!!! Infact his was soft and moist – ultra feminine for the big man that he was!!! All along the evening he kept returning his stare – I wondered what must have been going on in his mind!

But all that gets me thinking about my maid back home, honestly. Even if I pay her just (by Indian standards) and I do try to help her out in whichever possible that I can, just imagine the girl doing this all her life.

As I spray the ‘Harpic’ (which is nothing but a coloured acid) into toilet bowls and the bleach into the floors for scrubbing, strong fumes engulf me thrice a week even if I switch on the exhaust. Clutching the short-handled brush, as I bend into the tub and the washstand to scour them clean, the pungent odour overwhelms me.

Doing the dishes in the winter cold (even if I have the heater running), still chills me to the bones. My maid does the dishes in cold water – i realised I never switched on the heater for her.

After a 1 month of doing dishes in winter I ended up with near sinus-like symptoms. My jawline had started aching and my face was swollen. I knew then it was time to take it slow.

Most of us women want to rest completely when it is our ‘time.’ Maids do not get free time even then. We merely close our Puja.

I am limiting my cooking here in middle-east. Back home, how many dishes for washing. How many clothes to rinse. Even if we have washing machine, most of my clothes are flimsy and need a manual wash.

Everyday I think of the girl – in her 30s now, a mother of 2 children who cooks, cleans her house, packs lunch for her family and then comes to work for me in Chennai. Two times a day – 1 hour each time. She is a great help without whom I would be lost.

I have also discovered how manual labour could be so fulfilling. As a housewife, I have harboured guilty feelings to be a stay-at-home mom, not bringing in my share of the bread. Even if we have always divided our familial duties along distinct lines of priorities delegating specific assignments to each other, I have sometimes felt bad about ‘not doing enough.’ It doesn’t suffice ‘being there’ round the clock. There was something left undone.

Doing the domestic chores does away with a lot of negative emotions. It gives you a sense of purpose. Makes you feel better. My self-worth, self-respect have just been restored.

As I step into my maid’s shoes now and then, I picture myself doing the scrubbing, scouring, cleaning, washing, rinsing with my calloused palms all 365 days of an year, year after year, with hardly any break (and definitely no fancy holidays). Trapped. Wings clipped.

I am glad, I get the girl atleast top-of-the-line detergents and dish-washing and floor cleaning agents that are supposedly least noxious and allergic to hands. Never went for cheaper brands.

A good change is, the too much exposure to chemical liquids has made me switch over to desi soaps like Margo (Neem), Chandrika and Mysore (Sandal) etc for personal use. Our own cosmetics are also least toxic and more herbal based. This time I came back from India armed with Gokul Sandal face cream. Changed over to gingely oil (Idhayam brand imported from India) and coconut oil. For handwash, India has a number of herbal alternatives. ‘Make in India’ starts at home!

I am also looking for herbal based cleansers and cleaning agents – but these are pretty expensive. We cannot buy them in large scale for everyday domestic use. I have heard of vinegar and baking soda as replacements for scouring clean the surfaces but I am not sure how well that works.

Please mems’abs – don’t go for cheap brands when you buy groceries and provisions for your homes. Go for mild chemicals that won’t harm your maid’s hands and health. This is the least we can do to the helpless.

I am inhaling strong acid smell thrice a week now – with the Harpic wash. We do not know the long term effects.

Carpenters, painters, automobile mechanics – think of the manual labourers in our daily life without whom world shall come to a grinding halt. We cannot go on without them – but let us make the quality of their life better in whichever miniscule way we can. Let us make their safety our top priority factoring in their occupational hazard. In a poor nation like India, these risky professions do not even carry insurance cover. Neither are our men/women alert on safety procedures. Safety boots, masks etc have no place in our scheme of things. I have had even Pest control guys do their job without  the protective gear in my home. Atleast they were in uniforms. Once I asked a man who came for service if he washed his hands before taking food. The pest control chemicals are very toxic even if they come in injection or capsule module these days. Sprays are diluted still the fumigants are extremely effective and offensive to our senses. How does one work or live with it for 7 days a week, 30 days a month?

Accidents happen because we let them. It is next to impossible to impose any stringent labour protection law in India. Awareness scores a pathetic low. The next big constraint is the careless attitude. There is an unwillingness to learn which none can help. Unless the people want to change, you cannot usher in a change.

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