From cooking three meals for a family of 8 to no ‘leaves’ in 20 years: ‘You get used to doing a job’
“A lot of work, everyday,” says Kajari Bhowmick, talking of what was expected of her as she moved into a large joint family as a 24-year-old. Now 45, not much has changed over the past two decades of her marriage.
Kajari and her sister-in-law manage a household of eight people in Dum Dum, the industrial suburb of Kolkata, without any domestic workers — a practice instituted the day the two women got married into the Bhowmick family — “since our in-laws are traditional”.
And the work is endless.
“We wake up at 5 am. By 5.30, we are cleaning the fish, cutting vegetables, and getting breakfast and tiffins ready for my husband and brother-in-law,” Kajari said.
After they leave for work at 8 am, the Bhowmick women start preparing breakfast for the others. “My in-laws are aged — my father-in-law is 102 years old. For breakfast, he has freshly prepared roti and torkari (vegetables cooked in gravy) or else he has digestive issues. It’s nearly noon by the time we wrap up breakfast, which gives us about an hour to clean up all the rooms. Then it’s back to the kitchen for lunch.”
Meals are an elaborate affair in the Bhowmick household, with rice, dal, vegetables and fish as staple. “We cook it and serve, and also put away lunch for those who will eat later,” said Kajari.
For two hours in the afternoon — after midday chores are done — Kajari and her sister-in-law rest. At dusk begins, another feverish round of cooking begins. This round includes making snacks and tea for the men as they return from work and preparations for dinner.
“We usually cook one dish in the afternoon so there is less work in the evening,” says Kajari, adding that by the time she and her sister-in-law make 30 rotis, serve dinner, wash utensils and clean the kitchen, it’s usually 11 pm.
“When you do a job, you get used to it. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a salaried employee or a homemaker. I didn’t have much difficulty doing all the household chores when I came to this house since I also helped at Baba’s house (in Halishahar, a small town in North 24 Parganas district). But we had domestic helps there,” says Kajari.
She insists she doesn’t resent her chores since she does them “out of love for her family”. Kajari, who has a Master’s degree in Bengali, says, “Many women today will not accept the lack of domestic workers, but doing all the household chores doesn’t bother my sister-in-law and me because of our background.”
In the past, even on days that she fell sick, Kajari would have to drag herself out of bed to help with the meals. But the mushrooming of home delivery services post Covid-19 has come as a blessing.
Kajari, however, does acknowledge that the labour she puts in daily to ensure that her house runs smoothly is often overlooked. “At times, my husband jokes how I have it easy since I don’t work in an office. During my resting hours in the afternoon, if I am talking to my mother on the phone and he is unable to get through, he says that I gossip all day long. Such comments are always hurtful. Unlike salaried people, we have no days off or leaves,” she said.
“I have never really had a break, mostly because my husband and brother-in-law don’t step into the kitchen. I don’t think my husband can even light the stove. He has never offered to help in the kitchen or with household chores,” Kajari adds.
She says that as soon as her son turned a teenager, she got him to help with cooking. “I taught him how to boil rice and vegetables, and make egg-toast, instant noodles, etc. He can cook several dishes now,” she says of her 19-year-old.
While patriarchal attitudes remain, Kajari has witnessed signs of change. “I have seen youngsters these days telling their homemaker wives to take weekends off from chores. In fact, my younger brother does this too.”
Despite the never-ending work and lack of appreciation, Kajari says, “I have never looked at a working woman with envy because a domestic help will never be able to look after my family and home as well as I do.”
IF SHE HAD AN EXTRA HOUR: “I want to start a cloud kitchen and… I feel like reading books and listening to music…”
‘In our managerial meetings, there would be just three women out of 100 participants’
“As a working woman, you can’t just get up in the morning and leave for work. Everyday, there are things to be done at home – before leaving for work and after coming back,” says Purva Chemburkar, a single mother in Navi Mumbai.
The 38-year-old corporate professional, who travels two hours daily each way by local trains to reach her Lower Parel office, says, “I have seen male colleagues waiting in office for the evening rush to subside. I can’t afford to do that. A small delay means that everything else will get delayed — reaching home, spending time with my son, finishing pending household chores and even going to bed.”
Purva, whose day starts at 5.30 am so that she can board the 7 am local, says, “For every woman hanging onto the small spot she can find on the door of a packed local, there is a long list of chores waiting at home.”
Purva, who has lived all her life in Mumbai, moved in with her parents, who are in their 60s, after she separated from her husband. “My son Yuvaan was still a toddler then,” she says. Yuvaan is now 9 and is on the autism spectrum. Having her parents around, she says, has made it easier for her to take care of Yuvaan.
“It was a learning experience for my parents since he started talking at the age of 5 years and sat on a swing for the first time when he was 7. But none of this makes him less smart. For instance, when my mother reads out his lesson, he looks like he is not paying attention, but he can answer all her questions.”
At the peak of her 18-year career in the hospitality sector, Purva quit to join the corporate sector. What forced her hand was when she was forced to stay away from her son for a month during Covid. “Until then, he had not slept a single night without holding my hand. So as soon as I got an opportunity in the corporate sector, I took it. Unlike a man, I have to think twice before saying yes to an outstation company trip. For me, Yuvaan always comes first. A lucrative career means nothing if I have to change my priorities for it. I am learning everything from scratch at my new job, but it gives me time to focus on Yuvaan,” says Purva.
She said her stint in the hospitality sector made her realise that women can’t have it all. Purva says, “In our managerial meetings, there would be just three women out of 100 participants. All the 97 men who were giving it their all had a woman looking after their household.”
IF SHE HAD AN EXTRA HOUR: “It’s like… you know, I get to steal some ‘we time’ and some ‘me time’. To let my heart pen down a new rhyme.”
Working 300 days a year: ‘Because I have no other choice’
Fifteen minutes — between dropping her son to his school cab near her house and boarding her cab. That’s exactly how long 34-year-old Divya Karanth has to get ready each day before work.
The single mother — who also acts in Kannada TV serials, directs plays, writes scripts and is currently working on a web series — starts her day at 5 am with exercise and household chores before leaving for her shoot, the venue for which changes frequently.
Divya Karanth is a single mother who also acts in Kannada TV serials, directs plays, writes scripts and is currently working on a web series. (Express photo by Jithendra M)
Divya’s day starts her day at 5 am with exercise and household chores before leaving for her shoot at 7.30 am. (Express photo by Jithendra M)
Sipping her hot coffee, Divya says, “This is my routine for 300 days a year. So I have perfected the art of doing my make-up in a moving vehicle. There is no concept of work from home or weekends in the television industry. I shoot for nearly 12 hours daily and return home by 8 pm. I also work on scripts and plays for a few hours at home.”
Though Divya’s daily schedule surpasses the “70 hours a week” recommendation by Infosys founder Narayana Murthy, she says she works as much as she does because she has little choice. On Murthy’s statement, she says, “Times have changed, so has the work culture. However, one needs to consider that a lot of work needs to get done before someone reports to work — and that mostly goes unrecognised, especially in the case of women.”
She adds, “Uncertainty has always been a part of my life. I don’t receive child support from my ex-husband. So I am completely dependent on my monthly income (around Rs 35,000) from serial and theatre projects. Thankfully, my father gets a pension because of his government job. It also helps that my parents are extremely supportive of me.”
Though Divya quit working in serials after she got married in 2012, she rejoined the industry after her divorce, nine months after her son’s birth in 2018. Born and raised in the coastal Karnataka town of Udupi, Divya started out as a radio jockey (RJ) in Mangaluru, before shifting to Bengaluru to pursue theatre. To make ends meet while she pursued her passion, she worked as an RJ and eventually bagged a role in a Kannada TV serial.
“After my divorce, my parents, who are in their 70s, shifted to Bengaluru from Chikkamagaluru district (350 km away) to support my son and me. Since they are aged, I need to take care of them too,” she said.
Taking care of her son while balancing her professional commitments is not easy, she says. “If my father is home, he picks him up from school at 1 pm. If my father is out of town, I either skip the shoot or request the director for a short break to pick him up from school,” she says.
No matter how long her day is, Divya spends at least an hour with her son each day before putting him to bed. She said, “It helps deal with the guilt of not being around the whole day.”
IF SHE HAD AN EXTRA HOUR: I would dance… I am a trained dancer. I want to dance my heart out. It makes me really happy”.
His sole contribution to household chores is getting milk and vegetables, says domestic worker
Most of Laxmi Devi’s day is spent doing household chores — either her employers’ or her own — and that too, without much of a break.
“I remember my mother doing the same for years,” says the 50-year-old domestic worker in the national capital.
Since both Laxmi and her husband are illiterate, she feels she has little choice but to continue the work her parents did. So, for seven days a week, around 7.30 am onwards, Laxmi cooks, washes utensils, sweeps, mops and dusts in nearly six flats in Delhi’s South Extension area.
Her husband, she says, is part of the cleaning staff at an office building. “He leaves home by 8.30 am and is back by 6 pm. When he returns, he gets milk and vegetables.”
Does he help her with domestic chores? Laxmi pauses, makes a face and laughs, “He gets milk and vegetables, that’s all.”
After cleaning 3-4 flats, Laxmi works for an hour each morning from Monday to Saturday at the local post office, located a few hundred metres away.
“Around 9.30 am, I reach the post office, where I refill water filters, sweep, mop and dust the place,” she says, adding that she gets done in an hour, after which she cleans some more flats.
Laxmi lives in a small attached quarter accompanying one of the flats she works in, walking to her places of work, all located minutes apart. Her husband, younger daughter, 18, and a son, 14, also live with her. Her elder daughter, 21, who lives nearby, is married and has a toddler.
“When I am too tired to work, my elder one takes over,” she said.
While she appreciates help from her children, particularly her daughters, she believes her own contributions cannot be replicated. “My daughters can’t do things like washing clothes, so I end up getting involved,” Laxmi said.
And her son? “He does nothing too. His sisters scold him at times, but he usually doesn’t listen. He helps out when he feels like it. It’s usually things like settling accounts at a local shop or getting some things from the market. If his sister asks him to sweep the floor, he does that as well. He taught me how to receive a call, but I still don’t know how to make one. I try to call one person, but always end up calling someone else,” Laxmi said.
At times, she gets worried about how much longer she can continue to work. Often, in an attempt to finish all her work on time, she ends up eating lunch around 4-5 pm.
“I don’t have a fixed lunch hour because I am not a permanent employee (at the post office). You get an hour-long lunch break only if you are a regular employee,” she says.
On working at the post office, she says, “I have been working at the post office for 15 years, but I am still not a permanent employee. They told me they don’t have papers to prove my date of appointment. My family keeps telling me to quit, but I am hopeful of becoming permanent.”
Having cooked and cleaned all her life, she wishes for a less difficult future for her children. “I hope they get government jobs. Otherwise, I just want them to get married in good households so that they have some stability after us.”
IF SHE HAD AN EXTRA HOUR: “I would do the same work then, too… I would find another house to work at… that’s all.
‘In a meeting with 12 men and a woman, it is challenging to get your idea through’
As someone who juggles several roles — as the team leader at work; the chief “orchestrator” at home; and a primary caregiver to her children, aged parents and in-laws — Sudakshina Laha, 50, knows what it is to be weighed down by expectations.
“If you are a daughter, you are expected to take care of your ageing parents; if you are a daughter-in-law, the same expectations fall on your shoulders. Whereas, a son-in-law or a son can escape that…,” she says at her Gurgaon home, taking a break from her work-from-home schedule at telecommunications firm Ericsson, where she heads the services department.
Sudakshina, who graduated from Jadavpur University in Kolkata and did her MTech from IIT Delhi in 2000, worked for various MNCs before taking up an executive position with the telecommunications firm. “I graduated at a time when engineering courses had two women in a class of 50 and moved on to be part of a workforce which subconsciously looks past women employees. So we women have to go the extra mile to prove ourselves. In a meeting with 12 men and a woman, it is challenging to get your idea through. You have to be vocal about your aspirations because no one comes asking women if we need an opportunity,” says the mother of two – Sudakshina’s daughter Urjashi Laha, 21, is a University of Toronto student while her son Rian Laha is in Class 7 in a private school in Gurgaon.
At home, though the family has domestic workers to pitch in, the responsibility of managing them falls on her. “When a help does not come in, while my son and husband will make the bed and do the chores, I have to be the orchestrator,” she says, adding, “There is no way you can track the hours you spend working and managing affairs at home.”
Dividing her time between work and family, Sudakshina also manages the affairs of her residential society, of which she is the RWA general secretary.
Over 20 years ago, when she rejoined work after the 89-day maternity leave, Sudakshina had to leave her new-born daughter behind in the care of a nanny and her in-laws. “There were no good crèches then. In fact, the infrastructure is lacking even now. I have had days when I would work till 9 pm, and reach home to feel guilty about leaving my children behind. Though the initial years were daunting and came with their share of physical and emotional baggage, I feel accomplished when my daughter says she is proud of me and my son looks up to me,” she says.
Sudakshina has passed on several overseas opportunities as it meant staying away from her family. “Though no one asked me to give it up, I could never muster the courage to leave my children behind,” she says, adding that her husband, her classmate from college and later her colleague, had “no such qualms when his turn came”.
IF SHE HAD AN EXTRA HOUR: “I would give it to my son… I help him with his studies and we spend time together, but sometimes I do feel guilty and wish I could give him a little more time. Now that my children have grown up, I want to time out for myself.”
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