Humans and their many labours

Updated: 14 August, 2020 04:15 IST | Rosalyn D'mello | Mumbai

In a new land that is teaching me new ways of living and working, I am discovering how no task, whether mental or physical, is too menial

Portrait of the writer as a harvest helper. Pic/Rosalyn D'mello
Portrait of the writer as a harvest helper. Pic/Rosalyn D'mello

picAs I began composing this week's column, it dawned upon me that it's been exactly a week since I was last at my writing desk. Last Thursday, after having finished a 2000-word essay I had begun on Monday, and after having dispatched my column from a bus, I began a part-time job as an archivist at a private collector's library.

Besides cataloguing books, my work involved some heavy lifting, a good amount of sweeping, and sometimes ended with my colleagues and I unwinding in a swimming pool. Last Saturday, I also put in four hours as a farm hand, helping out a friend with the first harvest of Gala apples.

I decided to unwind on Sunday, and cooked a veal biryani that turned out to be enough for ten people. My column was delayed today because I spent the morning babysitting a friend's child so she could get on top of her colossal chores. It's been a crazy week spent commuting on public buses, eating what are termed here as 'worker's lunches', going up and down a mountain, knitting in my free time, and waking up between 6.15 am and 7 am because I've been assigned plant-watering duties in the absence of my in-laws.

You would think that all this in-betweenness, this to-and-fro, this constant shifting of work profiles, between intellectual labour, physical, and emotional, would have tampered with one's ability to access one's consciousness; a prerequisite when one regards oneself as a writer. And yet, it's possible I've written much more than I had in the weeks before.

I carried my new Moleskine, and the pages have been filling up. I have written in the pauses between intense living. I have been documenting how I have been inhabiting time, how I have been labouring away in order to earn a living that translates to something more substantial. When I did the Math, it turned out that what I had been earning in India was sufficient for the standard of life there. It wasn't much, but because I could easily keep my costs low, it was enough. Here, the same amount is insubstantial. It must be supplemented.

However, in the absence of my command over either German or Italian, my options are limited. But I'm not complaining. I'm genuinely excited to be doing all kinds of work, and it excites me to know that I live in a region where people respect work and are not afraid of it.

No one sees particular kinds of labour as being beneath them, for example. People who may work in an office will also work in a field if they need to. While the pay is obviously not equal, there is still value for all kinds of work, and in general, you are less prone to being exploited by people. If you are asked to help out with something, you are generally compensated for your time.

It's a new feeling for me. It's new to work also with people who are extremely rich but who have no qualms in doing laborious work that is physically demanding. They don't have minions around to give orders to, because people are not treated like slaves. That to me, is already a sign that there is dignity to labour. Also, because I have a stronger sense of self, I also know better than to allow myself to be defined by what I do. I see my body as capable of doing many things. I exercise regularly so that my body cooperates with me better. And I treat all work I am given as grace.

When I return to my desk, I bring with me all that I have learned from the various roles I have been performing. I don't ever resent that I didn't marry rich. In fact I love that I partnered with someone who also has no compunctions working with his hands, who respects my capacity to perform different kinds of labour, and who does what he can to make my life easier.

It's been a week that has been punctuated by moments of sheer rapture.

I was nourished by many small things; the way I was guided by both my partner and his employer in terms of how to pick Gala apples, how to understand what the desired colour must be, and how to harvest them respectfully, and most significantly, what the act of 'looking' while harvesting means; or suddenly encountering a brilliant work by Louise Bourgeois while cataloguing art books, and learning about her earliest attempts at sculpture; or understanding, through babysitting, how remarkable it is for young children to evolve their own vocabulary, a set of words they invent, linguistically, to denote either desire or direction, and what it means to be an immigrant body in a foreign land.

Deliberating on the life and times of Everywoman, Rosalyn D'Mello is a reputable art critic and the author of A Handbook For My Lover. She tweets @RosaParx
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First Published: 14 August, 2020 04:15 IST

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