The Dignity Lens – All Labor Has Dignity

  • A few weeks later, after settling down in Waukesha, Wisconsin along with my family my hubby told me it was my turn to clean the toilet.
  • It is not uncommon for middle class and rich folks to talk about "dignity" but they wouldn’t touch a toilet brush.
  • Work itself is a dignity and every kind of work is dignified.

I had to catch my first international flight in April, 2005 all alone! Those who came to see me off were large in number. At last I was left alone. I took my luggage to weigh to the scales and see whether it fulfilled 50 pounds per suitcase. Never had I lifted anything more than 5 lbs in my life. Every time I boarded a train or a bus a porter would help me out. In India, we rely on porters, servants, and “others” such as electricians, plumbers, who assist with a minimum “fee.”

“All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.” -MLK

It was in April 2005, I learnt that one must do things for oneself; no one will assist you. A few weeks later, after settling down in Waukesha, Wisconsin along with my family my hubby told me it was my turn to clean the toilet. I was flabbergasted. I have never cleaned a toilet! In India, toilet cleaning is a menial job. There, cleaning up after ourselves is “dirty.” There is a separate class of people to get their hands dirty instead of us. Why is it that despite all our efforts to emulate the West, Indians ignore some of their best traits. Why is it okay for an Indian youth to work at a gas station or at McDonald’s in the U.S but not at a petrol pump or a hotel in India? We brush these questions off and blame it on our “backward” or “developing” society, but there’s probably much more than what meets the eye.

It is not uncommon for middle class and rich folks to talk about “dignity” but they wouldn’t touch a toilet brush even if it meant they have to remain in ‘unhygienic’ condition, because it is below their dignity to do the chore. If the drainage gets clogged in India, a worker from the water works department would come to do the messy job; the housewife would pay the fee, cautious not to touch those unholy hands. The Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, proudly proclaimed himself in 2014 as the humble, lower-caste son of a chaiwallah (tea salesman) and made vikas (development) a centerpiece of his election campaign.

What is Dignity of labor?  The Bible says, “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread.” In the movie Gandhi when Gandhi asked his wife Kasturbai why she hadn’t cleaned the toilet, she retorted, “I don’t want to clean the latrines, it is the work of the ‘untouchables.’” Gandhi told her, “All work in this community is sacred, and none is more sacred than to devote ourselves to make the ashram pure by cleaning the latrines, it is an act of worship.” He was referring to the cleaning in the Ashram he had set up in South Africa. He told her if she refused, he would clean. She realized her folly then. In May 1925, Gandhi wrote in Navajivan, “I learnt 35 years ago that a lavatory must be as clean as a drawing-room. I learnt this in the West.”

Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen Abdul Kalam (15 October 1931 – 27 July 2015) was an aerospace scientist who served as the 11th President of India from 2002 to 2007. He was born and raised in Rameswaram, Tamil Nadu and studied physics and aerospace engineering.

A graduate would prefer to remain unemployed rather than underemployed in India for fear of the “dignity of labor.” The dignity lens magnifies and belittles anyone who dares take up a lowly job. The joint family system helps the doted son to remain unemployed as the parents almost religiously feel it is their duty to support him.

I had the fortune to meet A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, the former President of India in Lexington, Kentucky. A banquet was arranged for him and he gave away scholarships to students. He refused to take photos with any of us, instead he posed for a photo with a 12 year old girl who drew his portrait.

He spoke of Abraham Lincoln, whose father was a shoemaker. When a member of the upper class in the US scoffed and said, “Mr.Lincoln, you should not forget that your father used to make shoes for my family,” the whole legislature laughed. They thought that they had made a fool of Abraham Lincoln. But Lincoln, made of totally different mettle, looked at the man and said, “Sir, I know that my father used to make shoes in your house for your family, and there will be many others here…because the way he made shoes, nobody else can. He was a creator, a genius, and I am proud of my father!”

Kalam himself told us that as a child he would watch his father, a boatman, shape long pieces of wood into a boat. “I (later) learned how to make rockets and missiles,” he wrote in his book, My Journey. His speech was mesmerizing as he quoted eloquently from the Hindu scriptures and marked his inspirational and motivational oration with anecdotes.

In a world of poverty and injustice, who are the undignified? Is it the poor or the rich? Is it the victim of injustice or the perpetrator?  Dignity is a word that overturns traditional assumptions about developed and developing countries. While charity is bestowed by the haves to the have-nots, dignity doesn’t work like that at all. Work is work. Work itself is a dignity and every kind of work is dignified. If I fail to treat someone with dignity, it is me not them who is undignified.

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Madhavi Vudayagiri

Writing and reading has always been my hobby. I write articles and blogs. I choose content and subject that is contemporary and diverse. I strive to write good prose. Having been in the field of teaching, studying people is what I do best. Creative writing is my forte, in order to hone my creative gene, I acquired a diploma in creative writing. I love to probe people's minds and try and understand their thought process. This website seems to be just what I am looking for!

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