by Divina Ann Philipose
noun: retirement; plural noun: retirements
The withdrawal from one's position or occupation or from active working life.
“You can write whatever you want, just ask me what you don’t know,” says my mother from the kitchen as she washes the dishes. I nod and sit at the kitchen door with my laptop as the smell of soap slowly replaces the smell of dinner in the kitchen. “Would you consider yourself retired?” I ask; “Does a housewife ever retire?” she asks me as she finishes up.
A potent question really. It made me think of all the women in my family and the labour they engage in. It’s a question that made me think of all the women who work in the informal sector, labour that goes unseen, labour that isn’t glorified, labour that isn’t seen as worthy of nostalgia. “Being an Indian, a woman never retires from housework,” she observes as she walks out of the kitchen and proceeds to turn off the lights in the house one by one. She settles down on her chair nearby, feet curled under her legs as the warm yellow light floods the room. Her 'work day' has ended. It’s 9 in the night. It’s just the two of us.
My mother and I lived together for a good part of my childhood. My father worked a frequently transferable job and lived in other cities while my mother managed two jobs and our home. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in physics and has completed her articleship for accountancy, but couldn’t complete her exams due to a medical condition in her knee. “What did you do after your articleship?” I ask. “I got married” she says with a laugh, the sides of her eyes crinkling with mirth. After this, she worked in several firms, shifting as her husband got transferred.
“I worked for a while at the civil supplies, but quit because I couldn’t stand taking bribes and there was no way to stop it either” she says squinting her eyes as she recollects. “I had to sit at the desk, and I was told to leave the drawer open. People would drop money there so that their work would get done quicker”, she adds. After I was born, she quit her job so that she could take care of me. Once I hit teenage she restarted her studies. In 2014, she graduated with a Masters in Business Administration with a specialisation in Human Resources. She officially had a higher level of education than my father and yet when she re-entered the workforce she earned 1/4th of what he earned. This was because of many reasons.
Since my mother had to raise me alone, she couldn’t take up full-time roles, but to say that she wasn’t underpaid for the work she did in a “professional space” would be a crime on my part. “When I left the freelance job I had managing accounts, another firm took over. They were given approximately three times what I was given. I didn’t really ask for more at that time because in my mind it was something I did as charity for the organisation since we were just starting out back then.”
When we moved to Bangalore to live with my father, my mother fell ill again and with that she was forced to stop working as her medical conditions wouldn’t permit her to work in formal office spaces. While we do have a cook at home, she still does most of the housework, a result of habit and familial expectations. While in the conventional sense of the word, she has retired; she still works.
The spaces women work in, both formally and informally, are often undefined. The roles they play and are expected to play are multiple and the work is often continuous. For both the retired men who talk about achieving their dreams, and the retired men who talk about their glory days, there are women who prepare tea for the guests in the kitchen. Retirement remains, like a lot of different things, a privilege, offered to men alone. The stories we archive and the labour we glorify will almost always contain stories of labour that come from spaces built and dominated by men. Stories of retirement will never come from the kitchen.
Photographs 1, 2 and 3 by Divina Ann Philipose; Photograph 4 by her father, Philipose Philip.
Divina is an amateur photographer, graphic designer, and full-time couch potato. When not complaining about the terrible weather in Bangalore, She's yelling at the upstairs neighbours for being too loud.