The tears came suddenly and as large droplets from my firmly shut and already moist eyes at the end of the morning meditation session; about midway through I had ceded any semblance of trying to get my mind’s thought pattern to calm down as the thoughts had somehow drifted to thinking about privilege by birth, and how much of it I enjoyed growing up in a middle class family in India.
The tears came as I thought of the one who probably saved my life when I was ten, as I lay bleeding and unconscious on a concrete floor, having fallen from about 20 feet high onto my left side from the first floor window. I had broken the raised bone in my left arm where it meets the wrist and bridge of my plastic glasses had embedded into my nose on impact, which was miraculously not broken, but was bleeding like the river Yamuna. She was the only adult in the house with all of us kids — the very dark-skinned South-Indian lady named Chalma who would wash dishes twice a day for three families of at least eight to ten people each who lives in a three-story home in a wealthy New Delhi neighborhood.
Her tools were used lemon rinds, and wood ashes that she brought from the remnants of the cooking fires from her home, and the husks of used coconuts that she used as a cleaning ‘sponge’. The family sized pots and pans of cast iron and copper were heavy; plates, spoons, glasses, knives were all stainless steel. One eight foot section of the granite kitchen counter top would be filled with the washed dishes after she was done. She wasn’t allowed to stand and wash in the marble sink next to the counter because the ashes would cause damage to the fine surface.
So, on the floor she sat cross legged on a small flat stool, with her frail frame bent over her kingdom of dirty dishes, coconut fiber in one hand, dipping it ever so often in the ashes sitting in an earthen bowl by her. In the morning, she did the dishes from last nights dinner. In the afternoon, she did the dishes from breakfast and lunch. Once or twice every day, she was chided by the lady of the home, not to let the tap of fresh water run so freely. Her job was particularly difficult in the summer when running water only came for an hour, twice a day — during the early hours of the morning and the late afternoon. If she missed that running water window because she was ‘late to work’, she would have to use water that we would have filled in heavy aluminum buckets the night before, and lined her workspace with in a quarter circle — water that she would treat like molten gold as she used it sparingly, and wash out thoroughly for the next day, after she had washed all the dishes…
And then there was the lady who would come and sweep all the finely crafted and smoothed concrete floors of our family’s 1500 sq ft home on the middle floor of the three story home. The ‘dry sweeping’ with the traditional broom was the relatively easy part. What was much tougher was the mopping that followed. It was done with a heavy cotton-roped cloth about two feet square, sitting on her haunches as she dipped the cloth with her bare hands in the water doused with phenylaline as a disinfectant, moving slowly, a few square feet at a time.
Her task was to remove the dust that is endemic in the oppressive summer heat of Delhi when the hot breeze called loo from neighboring Rajasthan brings hot sand with it and coats everything in its path — whether it be a shining, three story home in a wealthy neighborhood or the ramshackle tenement of the dish-washing lady who tries to feed her family every night with just enough money earned by washing dishes all day so that she can buy just enough wheat or rice filled with stones and dirt from the ration shop every week or so.
I have to admit that while all this was happening around me in middle-school, high-school and under-grad, I didn’t think about it much because it was considered “normal” for most middle-class families to employ multiple, task-specific maids. The maids and their families needed to work to live, and we were supposedly providing work, wages, an occasional cup of tea when they were done working — even a saree or some clothes for the kids on major holidays. It was a sort of unwritten societal labor contract — it was also a social network of ladies of the homes and the maids who worked through multiple homes every day.
For some reason, lately, I’ve been made aware of the privilege enjoyed by me in that contract, in painstaking detail. For me, the way out of that contract happened to be in coming to the USA for graduate studies. For them, the only way out of that contract, was perhaps death. For death does finally destroy all privilege accorded by birth, or does it?
I do remember talking to a teenage son of one particular lady who used to do the daily trash pickup and clean the bathrooms — the dish washing lady, the floor cleaning lady, laundry washing and clothes ironing lady, and bathroom washing lady were all separate — if he had ever considered going to school. I don’t know that he ever answered me directly except by saying with his brilliant smile and impish grin with slightly downcast eyes — bhaiya (brother), this is my life, and I am happy doing the work given me.
So, that is why all the tears came. His statement, which I never forgot, was such a simple reminder that “it isn’t the task that makes the person high or low — it is the manner in which it is done, that makes the person so.” The tears also served as a reminder of what I have read so often in two of my favorite essays delivered in London in 1896 — “Vedanta and Privilege”, and “Privilege” — both by Swami Vivekananda.
A quick recap may be useful. The Advaita (Oneness) philosophy of Vedanta says that for Oneness to be our truth, one needs to believe in Universal equality, in the fact that we are all manifestation of the One divine. Without that central belief and practice, our inner world is fragmented and we dwell in anger, hate, jealousy and all that which divides us. If we hold that central belief that we all have the same One light of higher embodiment, our inner world is united through an ever-flowing current of higher love.
So, what is it that destroys Oneness, ethics and equality?
“Everyone is the embodiment of Knowledge, of eternal Bliss, and eternal Existence.
The ethical effect is just the same, with regard to equality.
And yet, there is privilege – the bane of human existence. The privilege of the strong over the weak, of the wealthy over the poor, the subtle privilege of those who claim higher intellect, and the worst of all, because it is the most tyrannical, is the privilege of (birth and) spirituality – those who think of themselves as more (due to birth), or those who think they know more of spirituality (than others).” – Vivekananda
And so arise the questions in my heart-mind complex. What privilege(s) do I assert? Which privilege(s) have I inherited? What privilege(s) am I passing on in my legacy? How does privilege manifest in my actions and practices, my goals, my dreams and my aspirations? And perhaps most importantly, how do I break down the bondage of all these privileges that entangle me in the web woven by all my desires?
I don’t know. Perhaps I can begin by washing my own dishes, keeping my personal (office) space clean, and maybe doing (or at least folding) my own laundry. Or all of the above…
P.S. Join our weekly chat, Sunday June 14 at 9amET/ 630pm India in #SpiritChat on Twitter. All are welcome. No privilege necessary to attend, to share some love with all. I will bring some questions, some tea and cookies to share, for that is the small loving privilege granted me by the community for that hour. Namaste – @AjmaniK