OFFICE UPKEEP: A woman’s work is never done

OFFICE UPKEEP: A WOMAN"S WORK IS NEVER DONE

Souvenir 2006

How does one begin to record the most underexposed aspect of Saheli’s day-to-day existence? How does one do it justice? Twenty five years of discussions on accounts, too-frequent doggy-doo and the price of tea are not the stuff of great women’s movement literature. One cannot fill space by printing protest slogans (‘Housework Zindabaad’ does not, unfortunately, have the same ring to it). And still, stories of the nitty gritties of everyday life in Saheli, as in any organisation, seem to run through its history in the form of small notes to people in Daily Diaries, anecdotes people still tell each other, and sometimes long political discussions about what seem like usual, everyday things. The prospect of coming to Saheli and having to do ‘housework’ is not, unsurprisingly, one that is greeted with much enthusiasm. After all, that’s not why we come to Saheli. Not to mention the fact that as a bunch of feminists, the traditional idea of housework as women’s work has sparked endless debates! Of course, the tasks that must be taken on to maintain an organisation such as Saheli aren’t restricted to just housework. Things like accounts, repair work and filing (or the lack of it) also play a large part in the life of Saheli (and Sahelis). And so it happens that the physical maintenance of a space causes one to feel responsible for it, to think of it more as one’s own, and develop attachments that may befuddle most. Take a certain ‘Red File’ for instance, which is now in tatters because it’s been around from the early days of Saheli, as have a couple of battered cane chairs… any attempt to throw these away will incur the wrath of all Sahelis!

Saheli has always been a very inclusive space and, as a result, often attracts rather unexpected guests. Some years ago, it wouldn’t have been a rare event to walk into the Saheli office to find certain female creatures taking refuge there, or rather trying desperately to get out! No, this was not a Saheli member - it was, in fact, a feline creature who felt she belonged in the office. And when that particular problem was fixed, then there was an influx of rats (presumably because of the lack of cats).

Hisaab-Kitaab Behisaab

Accounts in Saheli are another dreaded aspect. If you think that the office under the flyover can’t quake any more than it already does, you should see it a few months before the end of the financial year. For Sahelis who believe that 1+1=11, this is a particularly difficult time of the year. For weeks on end, frazzled and unfortunate Sahelis remain buried under mounds of receipt books, frantically decoding notes, and making the figures tally (and that’s of course Tally, with a capital T). This is mostly achieved, it is believed, by getting irritable with each other, but this method has not proven to be successful so far. It is at this time that we grapple with deep philosophical questions like, “Does cooler repair go under office maintenance or furniture and fixtures?” But, like all nightmares, this too comes to an end.

Once the signed accounts are delivered by the auditor, everyone heaves a sigh of relief, congratulates each other for having survived this yet another time and orders for another round of chai – peace reigns in Saheli once again, at least until the next year.

But that’s if you don’t count the fight against time to deposit cheques in the bank, pay various bills, make endless rounds of the electricity and water offices to rectify faulty bills… in the midst of full working days at another end of town!

Twenty five years of dirt and the struggle for cleanliness

It must be said that Saheli has always done its very best to provide the proper ‘infrastructure’ for its members. For almost a decade the office had no toilet of its own, but all Sahelis had access to the holy key… to the nearby public toilet, which of course meant that every once in a while, menstruating or pregnant women, or women with little children would be rushing down the stairs and the alley below to the bathroom only to end up waiting in a queue down there… until we discovered that a hole in the roof was offering men a view to the the goings-on inside! So eventually, a toilet was built inside the Saheli office (unfortunately too late for all the original pregnant women and mothers, whose children had already been born and brought up by then), amidst discussions on who would have the ‘honour of the first pee’ .

Comfortable or uncomfortable as it may be, our ‘space’ is also happily a space that several other collectives and forums have made their own. From meetings, to discussions, to events... many things happen here, but sorry, no overflowing ashtrays and open taps please!

The Collective binge

Maintenance of the office is definitely of great importance, but when it comes to the maintenance of the Saheli women, it doesn’t take much to do the trick. No document on Saheli can be complete without mention of one of the most important aspects of life under the flyover: food. At Saturday meetings, lunch is always the first thing on the agenda and the most important (we do believe in consistency). Democratic decision making set aside, first-time volunteers to Saheli are often coerced into eating pudina paranthas and dal makhni from Temptations, but a longer stay tends to make it a lifelong habit. When you begin to smell tandoori roti everywhere and crave mixed raita on Saturday afternoons, you know there’s no turning back – that office under flyover has you in its clutches. Soon, a perfectly normal Saturday is one with at least 11 rounds of chai… that life-giving substance, offered to us by the never-tiring Babaji (in the early days), Harish (till recently) and now Ramu. And thanks to Sardarji’s shop downstairs, we happily munch our way through weekly meetings, lengthy annual meetings, through good times and bad. And if that’s not enough to satiate our desire (for activism, of course), we often meet each other over breakfast, lunch, dinner, tea, coffee and sometimes beer (shhhh..).

When returning from distant places, Sahelis have been known to bring offerings of food in order to placate the Collective. Any unsuspecting Saheli who fails to do so is inevitably greeted with a rude welcome - "how come you didn't bring any chocolates this time?" or "what happened to the bakravadi... did you eat it on your way back?"

In the midst of this, some Sahelis do complain about their ever-expanding waistlines but these are countered with a charming, "Oh come on!" and other such comments and offerings of more food. Activism is all very nice but one thing that will always bring women under the flyover is that tantalising smell emanating from Deez biryani (though surpringly hardly anyone in saheli eats buryani) and hopefully, they will climb the steps up to the office, stick around for many more meals together and work in solidarity!