It’s strange to talk about this, and I feel slightly uncomfortable writing about it, but it’s an important part of my experience as a woman, as a person of privilege, and as a human moving through the world, in India, so it would be remiss for me to ignore it in my writing.
I started my period this week; last night, I soiled my bed sheets with menstrual blood.
Here are strands of my thinking:
- The washerman won’t wash my underthings at all, because I’m a woman, but he definitely wouldn’t wash anything with menstrual blood
- I have higher status than the washerman because I am Western, but he has higher status than be in terms of cleanliness (I am a woman; I menstruate)
- I should not enter temples or recite mantras when I’m on my period
- It is weird having servants and definitely disconcerting having a woman wash the floor by hand under my feet as I work
Here is what happened. I woke up, saw that I had made a stain on the undersheet, and was immediately ashamed, and wondered what I could do. In a hotel, I’d just ball up the sheet and put it with the towels. A faceless, nameless person would come without my seeing and replace it.
The cleaning woman came in, as she usually does. I gestured for her to come to my bed, and shame-facedly showed her my sheet. She said something in a reassuring voice, gesturing as if to say, “I work in the girls’ hostel at a university, I know about this, I can handle this.” At least, that’s what I felt she was saying to me; I felt reassured.
She smiled at me, she waved me away. She ended up washing the sheet by hand; she will remake my bed when she finishes; I won’t see her again until tomorrow, when she will greet me again warmly.
In Delhi, the woman who cleaned my room was named Gyanmanti. One morning, as I was writing out the day’s agenda, she came and showed me that she could sight-read most of the English words I was writing, in my teacher-perfect printing. She did not know all of the words, but she read them proudly. She also wrote, in English, “My name is Gyanmati.” She told me she had finished grade 5, and has three children, a girl and two boys.
Soni, the other cleaning woman at that residence, has two children, a girl and a boy. The girl is older, and speaks good English, because she has gone to a good school. Earlier this summer, Soni had to remove her daughter from that school because she cannot afford tuition. Her son remains in his good school. I saw Soni’s daughter last week, in a different school’s uniform. I said, “Oh, you are in a new school—do they have English?”
She said, “No, no English.” Her brother’s English will get better; maybe hers will diminish as she stops using it.
I think of Soni’s daughter, going to school past grade 5, and of the sons of the cleaning women, going to good schools where they will learn English, and marry women (maybe?) that don’t clean floors for Westerners.
The cleaning woman here speaks to me in Hindi, and I understand enough to move my things, show her the bucket, turn off the fan. Some conversation. Yes, I am married. No, I do not have children.
I showed Gyanmati photos of my family: here is my father, my grandmother, my mother in law. Here is my nephew (son of brother in law.) Here is my wedding photo (everyone loves that wedding photo.)
I was so grateful that the woman today cleaned my sheet, matter-of-factly, smiling at me. Does she begrudge me this extra task? Does she care if I make the bed myself, saving her the time? Am I like every other wealthy woman whose sheets she has cleaned?
Why do I want her to like me, to know I don’t take her for granted? And actually, I do take her for granted—I don’t even know her name, and would have been shocked if she’d refused to clean my sheet.
It’s all mixed up—feeling cared for, feeling relieved that someone else can handle my mess, feeling entitled to clean sheets, anger that I have to wash my own underwear, guilt that other people are taking care of me, a desire to pay for Soni’s daughter’s tuition, despair that there are dozens of other children in this web of servants and staff for whom I cannot pay.
Gratitude, and then a resolve not to dwell on feeling too grateful, because I cannot reciprocate.
Some people try to pre-clean their hotel rooms, or their houses, before the “cleaning lady” comes. I never felt that way, I never felt much shame at my position in terms of their position.
I think: Sometimes I am more powerful (you are the scout [cleaning person] for my room, I am a student here at Oxford) and sometimes I am less powerful (I am a lowly retail worker, you treat me like an imbecile while I wash your hands with our new body scrub.)
Of course, my ability to switch back and forth between experiencing power is itself a mark of privilege.
I want it to make me a better person that I am grateful for these women and their work. I want to somehow be absolved for my privilege—I want this woman’s smile and reassurance (I am happy to clean your mess) to be real, so that my guilt is diminished.
It’s like wanting a black friend to say, “You, you are different. You are not racist. You can’t help your privilege.” And in that desire, I put one more thing onto my friend, trying to rid myself of a burden that is not hers.
Also—I put my self into this woman’s existence. Like she’s going about her day, thinking about how nice I am. Like she’s thinking about me at all. She is not. She has her work, her worries, her life. Why do I think I am such a part of it?
It’s like when people say, about being at a nail salon, for example, “I hate it when they’re talking the whole time [in Korean]. I just know they’re talking about me.”
Well, no, they’re not. They’re really not talking about you. No more than we’re talking about the inconsequential, impersonal encounters of our days while they scrub our feet. It’s a seductive kind of egocentrism, that whenever we hear a language we don’t understand, to think we star in the conversation.
But here it is again—I imagine because the woman who cleans my room smiles at me, and admires my photos, that she likes me. That she knows I mean well. That she knows I appreciate her as a person, and will go about her day holding no grudge against me, or my stained sheets.
In the end, it’s all about me. It’s as boring and self-centered as endlessly recounting one’s own dream at a dinner party. Our own dreams are only fascinating to us.
So, this reflection is about being self-centered, feeling guilt, recognizing privilege and the ways I try to shirk it off, wanting recognition for noticing that guilt and privilege, and finally understanding that’s another form of selfishness.
Further strands on my mind: what is “women’s work,” caste, clean/unclean, imago dei, responding Gracefully to others’ work and help, humility, entitlement, gratitude.
What assumptions do I make about those who clean up after me, seen and unseen? Why is it so easy to start to feel entitled? Is it possible to have a conversation with Soni, or Gyanmati, that is removed from our relationship of servant/served? If I try for that, aren’t I just forcing one more task onto them, another chore?
When caretakers work for strangers, much of that work is emotional (smiling, responding warmly, offering reassurances)—what is my responsibility as the one being cared for, to avoid unintentionally taking advantage of this?