Updated: Jun 17, 2020
The early global developments of COVID-19 were followed by most Indians as a thing unfolding in the West. I was one of those people, who joked and said that maybe this might encourage more people to ditch using tissues and see the value of soap and water. A friend and I marveled at how the first world health systems were collapsing under the collective weight of people rushing to the hospitals. Over a plate of beetroot cutlets and lemonade, we consoled ourselves that the harsh Indian summers might not be a match for corona virus, and that it simply looks like a deadlier version of the common cold. We also took cognizance of the fact that how in a country like ours, regular access to water and soap were also a luxury. The two of us, much like the majority of the country, had no clue though how this pandemic was going to impact what it means to be “productive” for young middle-class women in India in times of crisis.
However, I found myself in a very different predicament. Possibly, for the first time in my life, I truly felt the import of the everyday reality of generations of young women. I was home, single-handedly taking care of my father, who had just had an angioplasty. My mother was and still is away, unable to fly back home. The lockdown coupled with my home quarantine made me viscerally thankful for every struggle that had been undertaken by the feminists of yesteryears. Yet, in the midst of never ending house work, care work, home confinement and the customary scrolling of social media, what struck me the most was this scramble to ensure one’s productivity. The new profession of overnight influencers, motivational speakers, writers and bloggers (academia included) were obsessed with staying useful. The lockdown in the beginning saw a flurry of activities on Facebook that ranged from people waxing eloquent about the benefits of working from home, how one had all the time in the world to bake banana breads, get a flat stomach, and invest in learning a skill. There was also a message doing the rounds on Whatsapp stating that if we didn’t emerge out of the lockdown having learnt a new skill, it will not be for the lack of time but in fact, absence of discipline.
In the visualscape of banana breads, where I was summoning all my creative energies to rustle up heart-friendly and tasty meals for my father, while keeping the house in order, I also learnt how benevolently patriarchy worked. It is not about pointing out your faults but, it is in the matter-of-fact expectation of being “the” superwoman. The one who will whip up a gourmet meal, maintain a clean house and would also devote some time towards her professional work/doctoral thesis (in my case!). Because, of course, the women before her had done it all and more. “How can a crisis hit you in the form of a writing block when women are so good at multi-tasking?”, I was pushed to think. I have lost count of the number of well-meaning neighbours and relatives who have called and expressed their great surprise at how I was efficiently managing house and care work amidst the lockdown. Some even went one step ahead with their hearty optimism that the lockdown had finally taught me how to manage the “shonghsar”/universe. No, I had not become the master of the universe but a domestic goddess, for shongshar in Bengali, by default means the domestic universe.
In the midst of all this, how does one become “productive?” It is no wonder that for my mother and women like her, work outside home was almost like a me-time. One could almost leave the drudgeries of domesticity the moment one got ready and left for work. My problem with the lockdown was not one of discipline but it was what I had been conditioned to think of as ‘Work’.
Despite having read a fair share of feminist literature on gender and labour, I was hearing myself despair to my partner, how I had not done any work the entire day, a euphemism for my writing the PhD. It left me slightly embarrassed, when my partner on one such occasion, gently reminded me that all the chores I was doing at home were indeed work and I was being productive. True as it might be, what is unfortunate is that we do not consider household labour to be ‘Work’ and neither is that going to be counted into my PhD. The tangible outcome of productivity is still measured in the form of conferences, published papers and announcements on social media. Thus, I have been working through the pandemic, just it is not that Work, for which I can show any tangible results. I feel a crisis and a poverty of imagination in my writing. The pandemic has been a saga of the personal and the political moving in and out, constantly intertwining leaving one with very little scope of disengagement.
A quick glance of the news reveals the crises that are raging in the country. The romantic idea of nature making us slow down is rendered vacuous when we see who have borne the actual brunt of the lockdown. If the virus has exposed our broken system, it means one is likely to think anew? On the contrary, India’s response to the pandemic, where it could have stayed ahead of the curve, has been a steadfast loyalty to our worst age-old tendencies. Muslim baiting in the form of corona jihad, casteism where brahmin patients have refused to eat food cooked by Dalits, classism towards migrant workers and domestic helps. A crisis is replete with multiple narratives criss-crossing and feeding into each other. The covid 19 set in motion a chain of events that revealed how public life in India is actually held together by a fragile thread that only bears a faint semblance of an operational system. Our health care system, public transport, education and democracy.
To a large extent the public-political fragility gets reflected on the personal. The crumbling economy, the shrinking opportunities, the gaping inequalities have made the youth a precarious class. On one hand, there is always a section of the millennials who are badgered for not being serious, for not able to hold onto a job/interest and on the other hand, there is an entire universe of millennials who are creating content by the minute. The availability of cheap data and a smart phone has enabled an enterprising digital and visual culture with minimal investment. But this avalanche of freelance influencer content possibly betrays a deeper sense of precarity, of appearing to be perennially engaged and useful with oneself. That is, none of the motivational content of keeping oneself productive is ever about collectivising or deliberating strategies on demanding accountability from the system but it is about individual self-care and bucket lists that must be checked off. Thus, the millennial or the youth culture is almost a fragile montage of precarity driven productivity that is easy on the eye.
The pandemic has brought out in sharper relief the unequal and gendered division of labour, leaving many young women knackered. However, a banana bread is not what we need.
Suchismita Chattopadhyay is currently attempting to complete her PhD from the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at the Graduate Institute of international and development studies, Geneva.