A group of parakeets was fluttering around the mango tree groaning with flowers. Our househelp was leaning on the balcony, watching them, enthralled. “Won’t you get late?”, I asked, conscious of the fact that the family where she goes after me had already called her three times.
“I get ‘sukoon’ here”, she replied. “Once I am out of here, the ‘had-bad’ starts again.”
‘Sukoon’. That ephemeral moment of tranquillity which she tried to seize whenever she could. The way she brews a cup of tea exactly the way she likes it, pours it into her cup with pink and maroon roses, and savours every sip. Those times when I would catch her watching the raindrops hit the windowpane while water from the open tap flowed over partially washed dishes.
In a life where she deals with an abusive husband, three rarely employed children, and crippling debt, she snatches ‘sukoon’ whenever she can.
I was reminded of her when I read an article on the “Women at Leisure” project on Instagram.
Leisure is any activity that provides happiness or pleasure in itself, and not because it leads to creating value. For women in India, leisure is almost always an afterthought, not something you consciously make time for.
One of the main reasons for this is the fact that the burden of housework, caregiving and child rearing is on the women, which leaves them very little time for relaxation. This ‘time-poverty’ of women has been quantified in many studies- in a week, men, on an average have eight hours more than women for sleep, leisure and recreation. More importantly, the nature of responsibilities shouldered by women is so unpredictable that, unlike men, they cannot count on routinised free time.
For example, men can and do watch cricket matches or movies on TV without interruption. However, even when a woman settles down to watch her favourite serial, she is also keeping an eye on the children, and multitasking by doing something useful like shelling peas or cutting vegetables.
Sociologically too, leisure for the sake of relaxation is almost frowned upon for women. Most of the activities that women categorise as leisure are almost always secondary activities combined with something useful. In traditional communities, women indulge in group activities where they gossip, exchange stories, sing songs and enjoy company while doing something useful. Many of our mothers and grandmothers have fond memories of sitting in the winter sun with their friends after lunch, knitting. While it certainly gave them pleasure, knitting at the end of the day is a productive activity, and cannot strictly be categorised as leisure.
Women have got used to snatching moments of leisure whenever they can. They, for instance, watch birds, hum to themselves or chat with a friend while washing clothes or hanging out the laundry. However they cannot depend on these moments of fragmented leisure- some other responsibility may call out to them and they will be forced to abandon the moments of relaxation. Since women are expected to be on call all the time, it leaves them little time to develop any interests that require a regular investment of time.
The movement of women is also more tightly controlled and their freedom is restricted, which leads to them snatching a few moments of relaxation on the rare occasions when they can go out. If you go any school (or school bus stop) around the time when school gets over, you will find groups of mothers engaged in animated conversation. Picking children up is less of a chore when you know it will give you a few minutes of mental relaxation. That is also the reason why women do not mind making multiple trips to the tailor to pick up clothes, or spend a long time on shopping- it is a chance to get out of the house, and not have to worry about their other responsibilities.
Women, in general, also lack the money to indulge in leisure. While men spend a not insignificant share of their income on sex, drink, food and other recreation, if women are able to save any money, they are more likely to spend it their children’s education or on treats for the entire family. Any recreation the woman indulges in is likely to be a family affair, where one part of her is consciously or subconsciously looking after the children or the elderly.
In a society where women are denied the time and space for leisure, even dressing up and going to work is sometimes deemed leisure. For those few hours, they escape their invisible prison, and indulge in some me-time. Even something as simple as going out with friends to have an ice-cream during the lunch break without feeling guilty about it is a huge freedom for many women.
Festivals are considered a major source of leisure in India- which of us has not written essays in schools extolling the virtues of festivals which provide a break from the monotony of daily life. However, festivals are certainly not a time of relaxation for the women. The build up to the festivals always involves a lot of cooking, cleaning and decorating, all of which is done by the women. While the men meet and greet, the women are stuck cooking the elaborate meals demanded by tradition. Behind the picture-perfect version of themselves that women present in their festive wear, are extremely tired individuals who want nothing more than to put their feet up and rest.
The Lockdown and subsequent WFH ate into most of the leisure time women had carved for themselves. After finishing their daily chores, women in nuclear families had a few minutes where they could put up their feet and do something absolutely unproductive till they started preparing for the children to come back home. Supervising online classes and having to make numerous cups of tea and coffee put an end to that. They also had to compete with the men for the TV remote. While men used the time productively to pick up hobbies or indulge in old passions, women lost out.
Maybe a day will come when women in India will claim the time for leisure as their right. But till them, they will continue to snatch fragmented moments of “sukoon”, because at the end of the day, it is those moments that make life bearable and meaningful.