Friday, January 14, 2011

A Case for Manual Labor

Last week a bunch of Manav Sadhna folks and co-workers of Iswardada piled into a bus and caravan of cars to the Narmada to scatter Dada's ashes (Asthi Visarjan). Friends who went came back with legendary stories about what happened. Inspired by Dada, Jayeshbhai led the group on an impromptu cleaning campaign at the riverbank where they scattered the ashes. While government officials had cosmetically cleaned the designated spot in anticipation of the group's arrival, Jayeshbhai spotted the mess moved over to another part of the riverbank, and so proceeded to get his hands dirty by cleaning up that spot. And by dirty hands I mean literally. Based on accounts from friends, it was a Shawshank tunnel escape-type situation, with Jayeshbhai and others literally cleaning raw sewage with bear hands. And if that didn't step it up enough, the group also cleaned dishes for 300+ people at the nearby temple where they had lunch. Another spontaneous act where the group wordlessly sprung into action, overwhelming the two frail women tasked with doing the job daily. The team set up a factory line for the dishes, ripping through them in 45 mins (which is testament to the two women who do a 10-person, 45-minute job everyday) as well as cleaning the dishwashing area itself which was again filthy. Priests from the temple urged them to stop, saying that this work was not for them. Jayeshbhai's reply to these so-called saints, "Don't let someone else do God's work for you".

The image of Jayeshbhai, Anarben, and team, all clad in white, after performing a solemn last rite for Dada, getting elbow-deep in filth to walk Dada's talk, is powerful and awe-inspiring. I was talking with Samir about it, who told me that even he was tip-toeing into the stinking mess on the riverbank while Jayeshbhai dove in with no hesitation, and could not be pulled away for the several hours that they worked there, even preferring to stay with his broom while being called to the boat to actually scatter the ashes. After the rest of the group left, Sam stayed back at the village near the riverbank and the entire place was still reverberating from what they had witnessed. The priests at the temple, the village people, were all talking about the incredible actions of these strangers. The ripples even continued on for Sam himself. Upon getting back home, he spontaneously decided to clean his house's water storage tank. Once he was doing that work, others in the house followed his lead and started cleaning the cupboards.

The stories from the Asthi Visarjan made me think about the value of manual labor. Through my work over the last few years I have developed a reverence for farming, gardening, raising plants. To me it is an ideal form of labor in that it both strengthens and directly feeds the body. But in the wake of Dada's passing I'm realizing that safai, cleaning or sanitation work, is also deeply spiritual. Working with the soil is spiritually deep in terms of developing a connection with nature. On the other hand safai, especially in mundane forms, allows one to develop the spiritual virtue of humility. Manual labor in general also instills gratitude and patience.

Absence of manual labor, life is hollow. Devoid of spirit, it is stripped of wisdom. If you never have planted a tree with your bare bands, nurtured it and watered it and gave it love continuously as it grows, then you won't have the proper level of gratitude for the spiral notebook in your backpack. Story of Stuff author Anne Leonard also alludes to this idea when she suggests that all teenagers should be required to visit a landfill before they are given their first credit card. My favorite example of this is washing your clothes by hand, which I have written about before. It is truly backbreaking work, in my mind the most physically difficult household chore. Having had that experience, I now fully appreciate the wonder of a washing machine. I also have a changed perspective on clothing: owning more clothes means more clothes to (hand) wash, and heavy processed clothes like jeans are a real luxury over simple, thin cotton that can be hand-washed more easily.

Use your hands, touch your heart, deepen your wisdom.


  1. Hi Neil, your writings continue to inspire me and are highlights of my day. Thanks so much for taking the time to share :) this is indeed like season 4 of the wire ;)