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June 27, 2023

Why Doing the Right Thing is Not Always the Right Thing to Do.

Just when we think we’ve seen it all, heard it all, experienced it all, and are starting to feel smug—maybe a little too full of ourselves—something happens and we take a step back and reflect on everything we know and have learned.

A quick flashback first:

I grew up like any other urban, middle-class Indian person, although more lower-middle than actual middle-class. Despite my family’s relatively modest financial background, we still had domestic aides. And I never really thought much of it.

Then I moved stateside for a long period, and there were no domestic aides there. You had to do all the work yourself.

Soon, not only did I do all the work—cleaning utensils, sweeping the floors, dusting, washing clothes (all of the things you take for granted in India because you have domestic aides to do them for you)—but I started to like it. I realized that I was actually an extremely finicky person (think Monica from Friends), and I was only satisfied when I did the work.

Eventually, circumstances decreed that I return to India, so I came back to look after my aging parents and have domestic aides around our home again. What would be complete and utter bliss for many Indian expats returning home was a veritable nightmare for me.

Apart from the fact that I learned to look after myself and actually preferred to do my own housework, I also hated that I had to adjust my entire schedule around when our main domestic aide, Yamuna mausi, would come over to clean the house. Also, my heart ached at the unfairness of one’s birth that decides who lives in a palace, who lives in a four-bedroom house or a one-bedroom house, or who lives in a mud tenement that gets washed out with every monsoon. I hated sitting on my couch or bed as Yamuna mausi, a dynamic woman in her 50s, went around mopping our floors, washing our clothes, and cleaning our utensils.

I also hated the fact that the domestic aides in India have not been able to form a labor union, which means they work seven days a week without even one Sunday off. I raged at the injustice of it all. But as long as my parents were around, so was Yamuna mausi.

After my big tragedy in December 2020, I no longer needed a domestic aide so I reverted to how I lived in America and started doing all of my daily domestic chores myself. I felt like I was one step closer to Mother Teresa.

Cut to today.

I went to the local mall to do some shopping and then dropped by the food court for lunch. After I finished, I gathered everything together—empty ketchup packets, soiled paper napkins, remnants of my lunch—and started to make my way with the tray to the trash bin.

Suddenly, a young woman in a uniform stood in front of me and said, “Ma’am, I’ll take it.”

I fussed. I hated that a beautiful young girl in her late 20s had to go through the ignominy of cleaning the aftermath of my lunch. I demurred and shook my head and said no. “I can handle it! It’s okay, I’m just taking it to the trash can,” I said with a smile and a deep sense of pride about my own behavior. People can learn from my graciousness, I praised myself.

The young lady refused to get out of my way and just stared at me.

I reiterated again, “I can handle it. Don’t worry. You go ahead.”

She didn’t move. She didn’t say anything either. She just continued staring at me. It then struck me that perhaps she wanted to talk to me.

“Do you want to say something to me?” I asked gently.

“Can I?” she requested.

I nodded. “Of course! Go ahead.”

She said, “Ma’am…I appreciate your grace and kindness. But the fact is by not allowing me to clean your table and take your trash…you’re putting me out of my job.”

I was aghast. “What?” I shrilled. “I was just trying to be…”

“Helpful. But you aren’t though,” she said strongly.

I sat down and asked her to sit next to me. “Explain,” I said.

She said, “Ma’am, I know you’re being helpful and kind. But when you clean up after yourself and more people start to do the same, that means the company that hired me to be a cleaner at this food court will consider my job redundant and do away with it. This job allows me to feed my kids. When more of you think you’re doing the right thing, you’re making me useless. And even this job is one I found only after months of trying. I can’t afford to lose my job because you feel like making a social statement.”

I can’t afford to lose my job because you feel like making a social statement.

Wow! To say I was stunned is an understatement. I had never thought of it that way. I have a Ph.D. and had just gotten schooled by this young woman. I immediately threw my hands up and asked her to “do her job,” which she gladly did with a smile.

As I said goodbye to the young woman, she said, “Please pray that our country progresses enough that I don’t have to clean after other people. Till that happens…mere pet pe lathi mat maaro (don’t kick my stomach).”

As I walked back home, I remembered our domestic aide, Yamuna mausi. By doing all the work in my house myself, I thought I was playing my part by not reducing a smart and dynamic woman to doing a menial job. I thought I was taking a stand. I thought I was doing the world a favor. But what I actually ended up doing was ensuring that Yamuna mausi lost a job she had done in my home for over a decade. That she lost the salary she probably counted on and needed only because I (who could afford to pay her) chose to make a social statement without understanding the implications of my action.

I had paid Yamuna mausi a three-month severance pay when I let her go. And I still love the freedom of taking care of my house the way I want. But until our world levels the playing field, I realized I need to pause and understand any situation from the perspective of every player involved.

I also realized that my taking a stand for what appears to be an important, socially relevant statement can sometimes end up hurting the very people for whom I was taking a stand for.

And I finally realized that I need to make things right with Yamuna mausi. I am not sure what that will look like. When I figure it out, I’ll let you know. I would love to hear from you if you have any suggestions for me.

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