The Politics of Housework in Contemporary India

By Mandara Vishwanath |

This piece is a part of an ongoing series on housework.

While in most parts of the world, labour struggles follow class, gender, and race divisions, India in peculiar in that labor is further divided by caste. The four main castes are Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra. The first two are upper castes and the last two are lower castes. Further, Dalit – a community of people – find no place in the caste system and are considered the lowest in the social strata. The question of housework illuminates the ongoing political battles of caste, class, gender and race in contemporary India, and must be explored in two central domains. The first is one in which a lower class (and possibly lower caste) woman is employed by an upper class (and possibly upper caste) household. In the struggle against housework, the second situation entails the labor of a housewife within her upper class household. In examining these two situations we can gain insights into caste oppression and the modernization of the household in contemporary India. Investigating domestic labour in terms of employment, we see the ever widening gap of caste hierarchy in urban India; at the same time, the drudgery of maintaining the household and the gendered nature of housework are issues that deserve closer inspection to tease out any potential for transforming its seemingly mundane nature.

Politics in the Urban Domestic Sphere

In “Whose Imagined Community” Partha Chatterjee theorizes that there exists a quintessential inner spiritual domain, that is the private domain of culture and tradition, and that this cannot be touched by the British colonizer. (Chatterjee) In contrast lies the outer, ‘tangible’ domain of statecraft, politics, science and technology in which the West had seemingly proved its superiority (more so through colonial projects by European countries). He argues that while nationalism (as a visible, patriotic feeling) can be traced to the establishment of the Indian National Congress in 1885 it had already begun to develop in domestic spaces. The inner spiritual domain, also the realm of family as a microcosm of national culture, bore its essential cultural markers on the middle class woman. Of course, the position of women and that of the family underwent considerable changes through the freedom struggle and came to shape ideas of the modern Indian woman – one who is rooted in tradition, performs her duties for national interest and is progressive only as long as she is educated enough to balance between tradition and modernity. A large part of being a progressive modern Indian woman includes domestic duties such as cleaning, cooking and caring for the family while balancing it with her work outside the house. Hence, it is in this domain that the ideal woman of the house takes care, nurtures her children and does all that has to be done to maintain the living space of the house; to transform it into a home. Cleanliness, here, reflects the larger cultural values of being an educated Indian – one who is advanced in thinking, but also subscribes to traditional gender roles for the sake of organized living conditions. However, cleanliness in India is not only a matter of hygiene and organization but also one of caste, of a superior way of living that in a traditional way underscores the value of being educated and performing roles within a society.

‘Untouchability’ is an age old form of prejudice that entails people of upper castes (Brahmins and Kshatriyas) physically not touching people of lower castes (Shudras, and Dalits who fall outside the Varna system) and restricting the latter’s habitation to the periphery of villages and towns, or their ghettoization in slums. This is not an obsolete social evil; it is an ongoing phenomenon despite “modernization.” This is especially evident in private life. It is the inner, private, domestic domain which is the real testing ground of the morality of so called ‘secular,’ ‘progressive’ and ‘sovereign’ citizens of India. In the domestic sphere, one is no longer required to be a sovereign and egalitarian ‘citizen’ of the public sphere. Here, the moral superiority of Brahmins and their caste arrogance is played out in a subtle manner. This is where the individual, no longer a citizen or a teacher or a student or an employee or of any official position has finally peeled off all layers of procedural equality and can behave as his/her ‘genuine’ self.

Gopal Guru, in his ‘Archaeology of Untouchability,’ uses Foucault’s method of archaeology in the exegesis of caste arrogance and locates the domestic sphere in urban centres as the site of the most subtle manifestations of caste oppression which get hidden under the garments of modern democracy. As a method of analysis in social sciences, archaeology seeks to discover evidences within seemingly complex situations to make apparent existing social structures. “Archaeology for its definition requires a hidden context with opacity or anonymity… it does not become relevant in a transparent context.” The upper class and upper caste household in a city then provides the layered situation from which to unpack the social structure of caste as it exists in its seemingly harmless manner.

The urban domestic sphere is a stable but ambivalent context to analyze the anxiety of the ‘pure untouchable’ Brahmin, when in contact with what is still considered, despite the supposed abolition of caste hierarchy, the ‘despicable untouchable.’ This symbolic superiority manifests itself on a daily basis when the maid or the house-worker is made to occupy specific places – outside the kitchen, in the balcony, on the floor, near the foot wear rack or near the entrance door – always at the periphery of the inhabitable spaces of the home. The maid is given a separate plate and cup to eat her meals, leftover or stale food from the previous night, as a material and symbolic incentive to her work. This act is supposed to be a ‘generous’ gifting or dana, an act of kindness by the Brahmin family. The so called generous Brahmin man/woman might even go as far to offer old clothes, a torn blanket, faded sarees, torn bags as ‘gifts’ for which the maid must be grateful. This condescending gesture of “charity” or daana is a bhiksha or beggary of pre-owned items which may not be in their best functioning conditions.


Abject: An Aesthetic of the Private

A Brahmin household looks for house help, not only as necessary “help” or labour but also in order to reconfirm a higher social standing. The superiority is in terms of both class and caste as the two often overlap. It confirms the casteist notion that lower caste help (such as a Dalit or Shudra) is symbolically unclean and impure by birth, and is characterized by the practice of cleaning public toilets, picking garbage from the streets and keeping distance from the central “clean” areas of the town or the village well.

This logic is complicated further by the nature of work done by the lower caste domestic worker. For instance, in many Brahmin houses the same housekeeper does not wash dishes and the toilet bowl. If a maid is employed to clean the kitchen sink, she will most probably not clean the toilet bowl. Further, a maid who might work in other households where meat is cooked is not employed to wash the kitchen dishes in a vegetarian household. The implication of mixing toilet hygiene and kitchen hygiene is crucial: the belief is that the Brahmin bathroom with all its cockroaches, germs and excretions is purer than the lower caste woman who carries the filth of bathrooms from other houses who might be non-Brahmins. This vehement fear of mixing purity with so-called contamination is not just a matter of personal hygiene but a social stratification that leads to hierarchization of domestic labour. A different maid is employed to dust and wipe the floors, a second helper may be employed as a cook while a third person takes out the garbage from the individual houses to the dumping ground.[2]


Everyday life in an Indian household is characterized, in this sense, by abjection – an impurity that is part of the self but is necessarily denied and refused. A Brahmin household maintains its purity not only physically through cleanliness but also symbolically by employing help that will discard waste for its members, enabling them to be defined as ‘proper’ brahmins. Here we see that abjection is manifested in the inner materials of the body – grime, dust, mould, dirt and bodily fluids –  that are associated with the private realm. My use of the word “abject” is in line with Julia Kristeva’s theorization of abject material – that which is neither subject nor object but in its expulsion comes to define the subject. (Kristeva) Even in public places, the kitchen and toilets which mark the private territory are the ones associated with sweat, toil, dirt, etc., through an excess of the above mentioned negative properties.

If there is scope for emancipation from a material and symbolic basis, it has to start from an acceptance of cleaning as a human condition. How do we see cleaning as a practice of grounded reality that is necessary for the day to day proceedings when it comes with the paradoxical experience of mixed fluids, rotten food or toilet stains? What I mean to ask is that if we were to assume an ontological equality, in terms of the substances our bodies are made up of and those that we clean as part of housework, would we be able to approach the abolition of caste discrimination?


‘The Young Housewife’

The politics change in relation to the urban middle class housewife in India. As continues to be the case in most parts of the world, women do more domestic work. Even today, with the regendering of work in the BPO and corporate sectors; in banks and private offices where women work as clerks more often than bosses, as well as small scale industries like factories where women have entered the workforce, they remain the housekeepers of their own homes. In fact, a crucial observation is that even the domestic worker in an upper class household is a housewife in her own home. This overlapping of paid labour outside her house and unpaid labour of cooking and cleaning in her own house is a peculiar position of the lower class female domestic worker. This overlap cements her dilemma as one caught in the intersection of employable work time, unemployable work time at home and almost a non existent leisure. It is here that the deadening, slow and non-stimulating nature of housework is even more prominent.

On the other hand, while abjection and caste oppression characterize the relationship between employer and employee in employed domestic labour, ambiguity about when work begins and when it ends or how well the work is performed are important concerns of an urban housewife in a relatively affluent household. In such an amorphous routine it is difficult to demarcate the work time of a housewife and her leisure time. Is she relaxing when she watches soap operas in the afternoon? Or is she rather waiting for the clothes to be washed in the washing machine so that she can hang them to dry during the commercial break? Does that mean she never feels relaxed and is constantly stressed about work? Maybe. However, with the increase in domestic technology, a rather extensive field of research in itself, she has bought (not really) a lot more time for leisure. While domestic technology has certainly made her work easier and efficient, it has also made her a sort of domestic operator who does not necessarily do physical work but presses buttons and turns knobs – much like the factory units.

Emotional Work and Affective Time

Housework is entwined with emotional labour and has a largely neglected affective component. Caring for the family, cooking for one’s children or husband or guests is done to ensure emotional as well as physical wellness. Because this work is carried out by the housewife alone and because of its ephemerality – a clean room becomes dirty, meals cooked are eaten and in no time more meals have to be cooked, clothes and dishes are washed clean to be used again – it is anxiety producing. As an example of this, Ben Highmore cites a housewife who feels guilty and anxious about her husband picking up their children from school:

“Feelings of guilt because I have to ask Matt to collect Rachel from the birthday party. I was in the middle of preparing dinner so if I had gone he would have had to take over that. I felt guilty because I know he hates chasing about in the car after the kids, but I also felt cross with him because I also hate collecting them but usually end up doing it and I think that’s the sort of job we should share when possible. ” [Highmore, Doing work-time, pg 97]

As illustrated in this particular instance,emotional work occupies a person mentally even if it does not involve any material labour. In fact, housework and the house worker’s amorphousness are defined by the immateriality (or ephemerality) of labour. For the housewife, work and time are made up of emotional as well as material components. A housewife’s experiential time does not follow the standardised time of clocks or even the Fordist assembly line of industrial time. The way a housewife experiences time is in fact intricately tied to her emotions of anxiety, guilt, frustration and joy — all of which make housework an affective labor of care, concern and organisation. Discussing  ‘Housework and emotion time’ Highmore refers to Rita Felski’s heuristic division of time into every day time, life-time and large scale time.

Everyday time is a combination of one’s biological rhythms – eating, sleeping, excreting and one’s sense of daily routines – procrastinating, breaking with work routine and time as experienced by the watching of television serials, films and listening to the radio en route to work. Life-time is an autobiographical, reflective perception of experiential time that is stored in the form of memories – childhood, adolescence, summer spent in the mountains or a ‘phase’ in life when one is trying to settle down. Large scale time is a collective of experiential time shared by populations that are then able to articulate it through history (large scale memories). It “allows us to fashion larger narratives around group identities around nation, religion, or ethnicity.” [Felski 2000:18, Highmore 93]

The housewife’s narrative is a congruence of the above categories. Her biological rhythm of feeling hungry or tired intersects with her life-time work regime of cleaning and tidying the kitchen before it can be used again. Similarly, her sense of self as a woman housekeeper, as a person who cares for the other members of the family, clashes with her unpleasant obligations: this is an overlap between her life-time and large scale time of the society or nation that reflects on women’s and citizens’ conditions. Often, the housewife’s struggle has been against the normalization of gender roles and is further highlighted by her discomfort with accepting these obligations. In such situations, time cannot be separated from affect. This can be seen in such phenomena as waiting: for a family member to buy the groceries, for someone to pick up the kids from school or for them to return home themselves, or for relatives to come home for dinner while performing household duties. Waiting is not just a temporal task but anxiety-producing emotional work that exists in the interstice of every day time and life-time, thus creating perpetual ambiguity. As Highmore puts it:

“The amorphousness and endlessness of housework is evident here, as too is the sense that housework involves not just the maintenance of a physical ecosystem but also the primary emotional maintenance of care and concern of the household.”

The amorphousness of housework brings up the question of leisure for the housewife. Since the housewife’s schedule is unwaged and unquantifiable we must ask, how then is her leisure time constituted? The television becomes an emblem of this problem, bringing the public media into the private realm of the house, connecting the two worlds in a seamless manner. In most urban middle class homes the television runs in the background as events continue to happen. It becomes a source of contention and distraction, as the housewife is accused of not paying enough attention to the milk that has boiled and spilt over, to the iron box that has become too hot and to the clothes in the washing machine that have been abandoned once they are washed. The free time bought with domestic technology is filled with soap operas and television drama usually in the afternoon in the gaps of a heterogenous work day. However, this might not necessarily be a gap in the typical sense, as the television or radio may be on while performing simpler tasks such as folding the laundry or ironing. These gaps are consolations for the fact that there is no such thing as “off the clock” time.

Here, I find intriguing Benjamin’s and Kracauer’s theorisation of distraction as misdirected attention. In the 1920s and 1930s both Walter Benjamin and Siegfried Kracuer theorized about a new kind of reception that forms of modern media like television, cinema, radio and billboard advertisements generates, they call this kind of fleeting reception as Distraction or Zerstrueuung. It is distraction not because the doer is not doing what he/she is supposed to but because he/she is doing something other than what is meant to be done at the moment. Of course, this way of looking at “doing” involves productivity as the lens through which to analyze how useful (or not) distraction is. Both authors write about distraction in a way as to reclaim the term as a potentially emancipatory form of viewing and receiving information. I would like to rephrase their arguments in terms of activity and passivity. Active time is defined as that in which a person’s concentration corresponds to the task at hand. Passive time is that in which a person’s concentration wanders from a task and focuses on another, seemingly unrelated subject of higher priority, almost unconsciously. It is not uncommon for our housewife to be humming a tune while folding laundry. She is active in her own world of trying to remember the lyrics to a particular song or getting the tune right while she is passive in the physical task of folding clothes. The housewife is a figure that illustrates such ambiguous relations between a performer and the task, illuminating contemporary notions of work, leisure, boredom, activity and passivity. It is a common misperception that one is absent minded and is not really paying attention to what the muscle memory of the body is doing while watching television or surfing the internet. The person is seen to be escaping work, and her thoughts are trivialized as reverie and fantasy. Such misperceptions contribute to the idea that housework is not productive and unworthy of monetary compensation.

Just as housework is affective, so too are its rewards and incentives. The satisfaction of maintaining a clean and organized ‘home,’ the joy of receiving pleasure from family members satiating their hunger with satisfactory meals, the happiness of a family event are rewards even though they must contest with the drudgery of housework. Of course, a family gathering  means more work for the housewife, more pressure in maintaining and decorating the house, more anxiety about getting these tasks done on time. However, these tasks are rewarded with making memories for everyone present, the opportunity of seeing a loved one after a long time and the experience of empathy and collectivity. Often, at family get-togethers in India, other relatives – cousins, aunts and sisters – help in the kitchen and in fact take up massive responsibilities in preparing food and cleaning afterwards. Housework, on this special occasion, becomes a collective task of all the women in the family.

The gendered nature of housework and the designation of ‘housewife’ show how patriarchal housework is. Most often men are excluded nonchalantly from these discussions and a confrontation is always uncomfortable because it is seen as transgressing gender roles. What I’d like to point out, however, is that such work cannot be evaluated solely by its lack of wages, endless working hours, and individual drudgery.  In fact, even on a daily basis, some of this work is distributed among husbands and children: men cook as a habit, men buy daily groceries such as milk, curd, vegetables when out for a stroll and children of the house are given the responsibility of keeping their own rooms clean, of cleaning under the table, over the shelves and in other places where they can make a game out of cleaning. In my own house, it has become almost customary for my father to wake up before my mother and prepare the first coffee of the day. If the required utensils are not washed, then my father washes them. Later on, once my mother wakes up and tells him what she needs for the day he goes on a little joy ride to the local market to buy curd, lemons, chili and any urgent food items for breakfast. If I am awake and studying at 5:30 AM he makes a cup of coffee for me without any hint of resentment. This is not to justify or trivialize the burden of housework on women but a suggestion that complexities of everyday life must be taken into account when reckoning with the fraught problems of domestic labor. An understanding of India’s caste relations, and that takes into account the register of care and collectivity, is a vital step in politicizing housework.



[1] Note that in the blurring divisions between private and public, public is the domain of commodities, service, exchange and money while private is the domain of domestic work that cannot have monetary value. In fact because these tasks are performed in the private, they are rendered as unproductive.

[2]  Note that the maid or the cook will not agree to touch the garbage from the household, it is beneath their dignity; caste arrogance is seen not only between the employer and employee but also amongst the employees themselves.

[3]  Examples include shit, vomit, urine, pus, blood, sweat, phlegm and other bodily fluids.


Works Cited

Chatterjee, Partha. “Whose Imagined Community?” Mapping the Nation. Ed. Gopal Balkrishnan. London, New York: Verso, New Left Review, 1996. 214-224.

Giard, Luce. “Doing Cooking.” Highmore, Ben. The Everyday Life Reader. New York: Routledge, 2002. 319-324.

Guru, Gopal. “Archaeology of Untouchability.” Economic and Political Weekly (2009): 49-56.

—. “The Idea of India: Derivative, Desi and Beyond.” Economic and Political Weekly (2011): 36-42.

Highmore, Ben. “Doing Time: work-life.” Highmore, Ben. Ordinary Lives: Studies in the Everyday. New York: Routledge, 2001. 86-99.

Kracauer, Siegfried. “Boredom.” Highmore, Ben. The Everyday Life Reader. London: Routledge, 2002. 301-305. Print.

Kristeva, Julia. “Approaching Abjection.” Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror. New york: Columbia University Press, 1982. 1-6.

Lefebvre, Henry. “Work and Leisure in Everyday Life.” Highmore, Ben. The Everyday Life Reader. London: Routledge, 2002. 225-236. Print.

Rodriguez, Valerian. “Untouchability, Filth and the Public Domain.” Guru, Edited by Gopal. Humiliation. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2009. 108-123.



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