BREAD LABOUR, ANYONE?

gandhi

Now that we are all doing our own cooking, cleaning, dishwashing and washing clothes, I thought I would introduce a concept called Bread Labor that Gandhiji was very fond of talking about. It might help us to derive more meaning from our activity.

In developing this concept Gandhiji was inspired by Tolstoy and even more so by John Ruskin, whose book, Unto This Last, so profoundly impacted Gandhiji that after reading it on a journey from Johannesburg to Durban, he decided overnight to change his life according to the values it recommended. Giving up his urban life, Gandhiji forthwith set up Phoenix Settlement for his family and friends where they would lead a life of labor.

Incidentally, the princely Tolstoy, who lived a privileged life in Moscow, withdrew from all his privileges soon after a powerful spiritual awakening. Even though the decision caused friction between him and his wife, he retired to his country estate, enjoyed cutting grass and other forms of physical labor with his hundreds of serfs, and eventually gave them their freedom.

By bread labor, Gandhiji proposed the rather radical plan that each person should earn his living by working physically for it, regardless of their qualifications and capacities. He maintained that this alone would reduce inequity and enable people to appreciate the dignity of labor. Says he, “The economics of bread labor are the living way of life. It means that every man has to labor with his body for his food and clothing. If I can convince the people of the value and necessity of bread labor, there never will be any want of bread and cloth.”

He continues: “I cannot imagine anything nobler or more national than that for, say, one hour in the day, we should all do the labor that the poor must do, and thus identify ourselves with them and through them with all mankind. I cannot imagine better worship of God than that in His name I should labor for the poor even as they do.”

He adds, “The great Nature has intended us to earn our bread in the sweat of our brow. Every one, therefore, who idles away a single minute becomes to that extent a burden upon his neighbors, and to do so is to commit a breach of the very first lesson of ahimsa. Ahimsa is nothing if not a well-balanced, exquisite consideration for one’s neighbor, and an idle man is wanting in that elementary consideration.”

Thus, artists, engineers, doctors and scientists would do physical labor in order to pay for necessities such as food, clothing and shelter, and offer their services in their respective fields free of charge. I am assuming that by physical labor, Gandhiji was referring to growing crops for food and spinning for cloth. Surely that makes sense! I do buy Gandhiji’s argument that only when we take on the work of the poor will we truly identify with them and become sensitive to their plight. I have often noticed while travelling in local trains in Mumbai that those who gave the most alms to the beggars in the compartment were the poor, not the middle class.

Well, let me tell you a little about my own experiments with housecleaning during the lockdown period, which began for us in Mumbai a few days before the national lockdown on March 24th. Like millions of middle class Indians, I had never been without a house help to wash my dishes, do my dusting, sweep and swab my house, and wash my clothes. Housework did not appeal to me, so on the days my helper did not show up, everything was left as is, except for washing a few essential dishes. The rest was stacked in the sink.

Now, however, this strategy could no longer be applied. The first day after washing dishes, sweeping and swabbing the house and washing the clothes, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I could do it. Gandhiji’s “sweat of the brow’ was trickling liberally, but I could do it. And a nascent sense of independence filled me. I was capable of coping with the present situation.

Over the next few weeks. I also began to recognize exactly how hard this housework could be, and how I had blithely allowed my helper to do all this work while I allegedly did more important work. Deep gratitude filled me for her services, and I began to consider how I would make her work easier. For instance, get her to wash clothes in warm water in winter or when down with a cold as I was doing to avoid a flare-up of my arthritis.

I became much, much more careful about the number of dishes I was using. What I cooked no longer only depended on the ease of the dish. It also depended on how many vessels I would have to use.

I was a sloppy cook and the peels of vegetables often vended their way down to the floor. I am now being super careful and conscious about keeping the cooking area clean and neat, and to not litter the floor, because I only will have to clean it.

I have also become much more houseproud, because all that cleaning has come from me. I take a duster and fussily wipe off the dust on the dining table every now and then, or wipe down the kitchen counter each time some water splashes on it, activities which I would earlier have turned a blind eye to, because, of course, the maid would come the next day so why need I sweat it?

I am freshly becoming aware of the exploitation rife in getting someone to do my tasks for me. It is unfair to expect them to put in the hard work that rightly belongs to me. I am pretty sure I will not dispense with the services of my helper. Besides, she needs a job. However, I will most definitely not take her for granted and I will surely feel less complacent about having her than I earlier did.

So yes, I may not sign up for bread labor yet, but I think Gandhiji makes a great point. Only if we do their work will we be able to put ourselves in their shoes. 

Suma Varughese is the founder facilitator of the Zen of Good Writing course and former editor of Life Positive and Society magazines. A passionate visionary, her focus is on helping to bring about a holistic way of life. 

Over the last few weeks. I began to recognize exactly how hard this housework could be, and how I had blithely allowed my helper to do all this work while I allegedly did more important work. Deep gratitude filled me for her services, and I began to consider how I would make her work easier. For instance, get her to wash clothes in warm water in winter or when down with a cold as I was doing to avoid a flare-up of my arthritis.

Image courtesy of thesatimes |

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