And To Dust We Shall Return

Not even my best friends can accuse me of being a good housekeeper. Let’s put it this way, my one talent in life is for spotting spelling and grammar mistakes, not dust. That is why, if you come to my home, you can graffiti practically any surface that is not vertical. That is also why I have a prominent sticker on my refrigerator, which reads: “You can look at the dust, but not write in it.”

My apathy to dust began in my early childhood, when I was diagnosed by a doctor as being “allergic to dust”. Amma began a huge campaign to keep the house dust-free. Long after I had escaped to the dust of the school hostel, she was still up each morning with her duster. To be fair to her, maybe she was dusting well before my allergy surfaced. Maybe I was too young to have noticed. But then again, if she had been dusting, where did the dust that I was apparently allergic to, come from?

I, too, was taught to dust in the convent hostel where I spent the next ten years. In fact, Sister would conduct surprise checks. Swiftly she would swoop down on to my towel stand, run a finger along the wooden bar, and then hold a finger up for a critical examination. I soon learnt to choose the rooms that didn’t get direct sunlight in the mornings. The critical examination was more likely to fail that way.

But more often than not, in those years, I would dust. There were only the towel stand, my desk and the rack shelf where I kept my books, after all. But as I grew up, life became more complicated. Three surfaces yielded to a hundred more, and I gave up the battle soon enough. It seemed plain stupid to dust a surface that, three hours later, looked very “undusted”. It continues to seem stupid.

The fun began when I got married. I was back to the “just my room” formula. With a vital difference. While in school, I had been responsible only for my half of the room, here I was responsible for the other occupant’s half as well. A very messy other occupant, too, I must say. Also, no redressal systems were in place. Amma would look at me with a glare and accuse: “Your room looks like a pigsty. You must remember that you are married now.” As if marriage were a metamorphosis wherein housekeeping bloomed!

The mother-in-law was a mite more sympathetic, I guess because she had lived with my roommate for 25 years. The sympathy grew as she discovered me sneezing and choking after a valiant attempt at a Dust Free Zone. The husband was asked to take over. He did, for a couple of months. Whereupon, the mother-in-law took over. That was when she realised how much of the dust was due to my high esinophils count and how much to plain bone laziness. Needless to say, the sympathy vanished, and Amma and she joined forces against me.

But I must say a word in my defence here, well several, actually. Firstly, it’s no point dusting anything half-way up the wall. If you want to dust the whole length and breadth of a room, you have to be tall enough. That means that at five feet nine inches, the husband is more the dusting prototype than I who occupy space a good nine-and-a-half inches below him. If god had intended me to dust, he would have given me the requisite inches. The flip side of the argument is that the husband does not think his extra inches were intended to make him the perfect “duster”.

Secondly, the allergy does exist. Put me close to flying dust for more than two seconds, and I can break any record in the world for continuous sneezes. On a good day, I can go up to 80 sneezes in about three hours. The mothers point out that a strong anti-histamine tablet, coupled with a wet cloth around the nose and mouth, is all it would take to keep my house dust-free.

But look at it my way, do I really want to look like the Masked Ranger, stalking the Dust Monster around my own house? Why, a sudden glimpse of me might cause a deep wound in the son’s psyche. Maybe in that of his friends as well. Would it be worthwhile to cause such severe childhood trauma in the cause of a dust-free house? I would not want to beg guilty when, some 20 years later, one of them is hauled in for a series of gory murders.

Thirdly, I genuinely cannot spot dust. I can sit by the dustiest furniture and sew or watch TV or knit without the least inkling that there lurks all around me the Dust Monster. I can’t help it. Some people are colour blind, the husband is, and everybody forgives him. I have even been accused of being cruel when I asked him once how he knew when the traffic light was green, ha, ha! But the moment I tell someone I am dust blind, the expression changes to pure scoffing. Oh really?

However, the Dust Monster, the husband and I have reached a compromise over the years. When we have guests, we dust. That is, I dust all the places where I can spot dust, and then the husband takes over for a ruthless clean-or-die effort. Result: When we have expected guests, I am sneezing all over them, but the house looks pretty good. If you care to drop over without an invite, I figure you can’t complain.

Last month, I realised that a quick spruce up before the guest puts his finger on the doorbell was very much part of Indian tradition. Even while President Clinton stopped to lay down his bags and made a quick dash to Dhaka, the Delhi government was still painting the road dividers and removing cigarette stalls from the pavements so that everything could be spick and span for his stay. So there, mothers!

First published in The Financial Express in April 2000:


One thought on “And To Dust We Shall Return

  1. aahh this is so true ” You must remember that you are married now.” As if marriage were a metamorphosis wherein housekeeping bloomed!”
    oh i can hear my mother saying this to me everytime she comes home! thankfully, B is a “cleaner” and loves to dust away. But never enough… well not upto her standards….:)

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