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The Dignity of Manual Labor

Rajesh Oza Email Rajesh Oza
September 2009
The Dignity of Manual Labor

Dear PMG:

My back aches just writing this note to you. I grew up in India where there was plenty of help available for laborious tasks like dishes, laundry, and gardening. My husband, on the other hand, grew up in America believing that “no labor is beneath any person.”

In my decade in this country, I’ve learned to appreciate my husband’s philosophy. But even after all these years, I do have a complaint about his unwillingness to bend his thinking even a bit. He has recurring back trouble, which flares up after intense work in the yard. I tell him that he must hire help instead of digging trenches for irrigation lines, chopping down trees, or hauling topsoil. He just smiles and says the garden is his gymnasium. And then he complains about his back. I believe that he’s too cheap to hire someone to do the heavy lifting. Your thoughts?

Dear Friend,

“It is a sad thing that our schoolboys look upon manual labour with disfavour, if not contempt.” (M. K. Gandhi)   

Like your husband, I too grew up in the States. Although I was born in Bombay, most of my childhood was in Chicago. I recall that as a teenager returning to India, I could not tolerate the idea of a “coolie.” These railway porters, many who were half my size, carried two or three pieces of luggage on their heads, with only a small cloth cushioning the weight. I insisted on carrying my own suitcases until a kindly uncle explained to me that my act of solidarity with the labor class was actually taking away someone’s livelihood. Now, after three decades of travel on Indian Railways, I would not be at all surprised if (1) coolies have no qualms with being called coolies (indeed Amitabh Bachchan glorified this role in a movie titled Coolie), and (2) if these men (for it is still exclusively a male trade) thought I was naively being paisa-wise and rupee-foolish in carrying my own luggage.

I trust your family can make the connection between my story and your predicament. While it is commendable that your husband enjoys gardening, both of you should consider more fully his unwillingness to hire assistants. If, as you suggest, he is unwilling to pay another person a fair wage for fair labor, then his frugality is depriving a fellow being of work and income. If, instead, your husband gets his exercise with a hoe and a rake, then he might consider the benefit of hiring a helper so that he can sustain his healthy lifestyle into old age. Unless you address the root cause, you will unnecessarily be creating conflict (perhaps you remember the violent scene in the film Gandhi, when Gandhiji insisted that his wife, Kasturba, clean toilets).

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