Over two weeks ago, I received a message on the WhatsApp group of my aerobics class. It was before the nationwide lockdown was enforced to contain the spread of coronavirus. Gymnasiums and other fitness centres in Delhi-NCR were already closed by then.
The message was in response to our trainer’s plan to launch online classes through the Zoom video app. It read: “Hi, I won’t be in for the online classes. I started desi workout… Jhadu pocha. Trust me, I lost 3 kg in two weeks.”
Several residential societies in Noida, where I stay, had prohibited the entry of domestic helps much before, forcing my aerobics classmate to take up all the household chores.
Desi workout! The term rang a bell. It took me back to my growing up days at my home town in Kerala, when day-to-day life involved a lot of workout, especially for women.
We used to draw water from well till the late 1990s for all our daily needs: toilets, washing clothes, the kitchen and even washing our cows, which meant buckets of water drawn from 20 to 30 feet below the ground. All of us divided the task among ourselves, multiple times every day, with children’s share being much less. Everyone washed their own clothes at home; my brother and I were taught to do it since we were in Class 5.
So was Amma’s task of grinding idli batter in the grinding stone. Mixer-grinder came to our kitchen only when I was in upper primary school.
Coconut, an unavoidable item on Kerala’s dining tables, had to be ground, too, but in a different kind of stone. I used to try my hand on it only to grind henna leaves, much before mehndi cones reached our part of the town. All the girls in the area would gather to apply the not-so-fine paste, with the fibre of the leaves still in it, on our hands carefully with the fine tip of coconut palm veins.
The plucking of coconuts every one-and-a-half months was a day-long affair then. We had over a hundred coconut trees on over an acre of land. The person who used to pluck the coconuts for us — Janardhanan — had a peculiar body. It seemed just peculiar to my eyes then.
As a child I had seen my father and uncles with huge paunches of varying sizes — resting on their lap as they sat down or walking ahead of them when they moved around! Janardhanan ‘maman’ (uncle) had none. His body looked cast in iron without a pinch of fat.
He used to start work around 7 am and finish climbing all the trees by noon. All he would have in between was a pitcher of water around 9 am and rice gruel an hour later or after work. The eager eyes of my brother and I, meanwhile, used to be on the tender coconuts he would cut for us.
Later, our work would begin — of picking the coconuts from under each tree and gathering them while arranging the leaves and other dried parts pulled down from the trees for firewood. Amma would shoulder a major part of the work of picking over 1,000 coconuts in months of good yield.
After we started helping our mother with minor chores, I was designated the role of sweeping the inside of the house as well as the front and back yards. With several trees shedding leaves through the day, the task would last for 45 minutes to an hour. I used to do it three-four days a week.
My mother still doesn’t have a domestic help and shares all household work with my sister-in-law. My brother chips in whenever he is around. The only difference is that the grinding stones have been replaced by machines. She also tends to around 100 plantain trees herself, often insisting that my brother wouldn’t do a good job.
During summer, around 100 coconuts are used to make oil. The task involves dehusking the coconuts, cutting them open, drying them, removing the dried coconut from its shell, cutting the copra into pieces and drying it in the sun again for over a week before it is taken to the oil mill.
Other outdoor chores during summer also include plucking tamarind — mostly by shaking the branches to make the ripe ones fall — shelling them, deseeding them and drying them to preserve them with rock salt. All such works are shared by all at home, with a majority of it being done by my mother.
Amma, now 69, was diagnosed with diabetes only a few months ago. Till then, she would have consulted a doctor about four-five times in over three decades — a hereditary trouble of arthritis haunts her, though.
My grandmother, who never had any machines in her kitchen till she was over 70 years old, had additional work at the farm, too, during her early years. She helped with household chores till her 80s and was healthy — with a sharp memory, — till three months before her death at the age of 89.
Now all we have to clean are a couple of rooms and maybe the balcony. Our daily needs arrive in packets, and machines have taken over all difficult tasks. Still, families or bachelors (men and women) pay for a domestic help, a cook and, of course, the gym.
It may not be easy to do it all and manage work in office as well, but this may be the right time to test our stamina and perhaps improve it. With those desi workouts, along with a daily dose of yoga, walking or other fitness measures. By the time lockdown ends, men and women would still be able to fit into their pre-work-from-home trousers.
Most importantly, you may be able to sweep or mop away those long lockdown blues.
This article first appeared in the print edition of April 12, 2020, under the name ‘Chores as desi lockdown workout’. National Editor Shalini Langer curates the ‘She Said’ column.
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