The “janta curfew” that I wrote about a few days back was dress rehearsal. India is seeing a surge in COVID19 cases and a couple of days after the pans and pots being banged, we now have our officially declared lockdown – for all us 1.3 billion Indians and for 3 weeks as of now. Essential services remain open. But “essential” has turned out to be a rather confusing term. I could somehow order some sweets for my nephew off a food-delivery app (that now has a “no-contact” delivery offer). But the few hundreds of thousands of migrant workers who populate Indian cities do not seem to have access to any kind of transport to return to their homes. Most of them are most likely employed on “informal” terms. Informality is perhaps too formal a word for denoting a definite lack of statutorily stipulated securities by terms of the existing labour laws of the country, a condition affecting over 90% of India’s workers. Little wonder then that large bodies of such “informal” labourers possibly employed on daily wages, are leaving the sites of their work, as employers summarily shut down their activities after the lockdown. Having fallen through what seems to be large gaping holes in our current emergency policy, a lot of them are traveling back across sealed state borders, on foot, covering hundreds of kilometers.
One service my family no doubt is essentially missing is that of our household help Shefali. It is common for most middle-class urban Bengali families, like ours, to have one or more domestic workers who often commute to work on a daily basis from the outskirts of Kolkata. Domestic work is yet another category of informalized employment in India. It is sought by a sizeable population, which helps keep wages low and continue forms of servile labour quite typical of India’s caste society. The threat of COVID-19 has, however, made somewhat more liberal employers out of us, if only by instigating the fear of infection. Shefali was thus offered paid leave – yet since the lockdown involved a cancellation of trains coming into Kolkata without much of a notice period, she has not been able to reach us to collect her salary. Nor does she have a bank account to which a remote transfer could be made. We are a bit miffed at not being able to perform our liberal caring selves, despite best intentions. But it is difficult still to imagine how she and her family are managing. Meanwhile, reproducing the conditions of our familial existence is not proving to be very easy. We are a family of five. There are my parents (retired septuagenarians), my sister (working from home at her unyielding infotech job) and her son (my four year old nephew who is wondering why suddenly all his trips to the neighbourhood park and his play-school have been stopped), and myself (unemployed thesis-writer). We have a commonly agreed-upon division of labor. But somehow at the end of every day, it is not all adding up – everybody is exhausted. The threat of COVID-19 has surely made the domestic extraction of surplus work very palpable, now that we are not being able to buy it cheap.
I think one reason I might be a little more exhausted than I should be is because of all the extra washing and cleansing. I am, of course, our household’s main conduit to the outside world primarily because I do the shopping. Shopping is not proving too easy to do in bulk at the moment, so I go out at least once a day. Having swallowed the bitter fruit of COVID-19 awareness, I have made a set of rules in my head regarding how I am going to treat surfaces, plastic, cardboard, paper, etc. Since the virus seems to have greater longevity on plastic (or so I read) I usually try to throw away all of the plastic packaging. For cardboard and paper, I wipe them down with a sanitizing liquid. Mostly, I try to empty out the contents of my grocery shopping whenever I can, into different designated containers. Then I wipe down the sides of those containers, too, with sanitizer. I then wash my hands. And my clothes. And occasionally my face (I have not been able to procure a mask as of now; I would like an N95; they seem to be the iPhone of masks). My mother laughs at me. I try to explain that this is essential, except that I am not always convinced myself, because I really do not know or see what I am protecting myself against. But then I do it still. And tell her that she should be careful enough to stay a few feet away from me because she is immuno-compromised, and I could be a carrier. And then I wash some more, this time worrying about my parents.
When I find some time to get back to writing, I realize my fingernails have never been cleaner. I also realize that it is not easy to deal with imperceptibles, but it is essential nonetheless. As this pandemic rages on, we now know that certain important actors in positions of power have been unable to grasp the significance of imperceptibles. The tragedy unfolding in the USA would be a major case in point. But then has our collective species-existence, especially in its modern forms, ever been very good at dealing with imperceptibles? Perhaps there is something in that question for thinking the value and skills of housework. Alternatively, this could be a question of some significance for the historian of environmental transformations. For now, I will more conveniently take the second cue, and get back to my chapter on groundwater depletion in early twentieth century North India.
– 26 March 2020
Ritam Sengupta is finishing his Ph.D. in Social Sciences at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta. He is based out of Kolkata, India. His doctoral project deals with the history of electrification in colonial and postcolonial India over the twentieth century that attempts to foreground transitions in energy regimes as one key to thinking the political and economic transformations in the region in this period. One part of the project, developed while undertaking a fellowship at the MPIWG, concerns the history of the arrival of electricity to the northern Indian countryside as the energetic basis of irrigation from underground resources.
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The Teach311 + COVID-19 Collective began in 2011 as a joint project of the Forum for the History of Science in Asia and the Society for the History of Technology Asia Network and is currently expanded in collaboration with the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science(Artifacts, Action, Knowledge) and Nanyang Technological University-Singapore.