Long back when I was new to this industrial town I was amused to observe an obsession for cleanliness in some of my neighbors. Now who doesn’t like a well kept house with everything in perfect order? But it is one thing to strive to keep things in order and quite another to drive everyone crazy due to the obsession. S was one such person. Her house could be easily mistaken for a well maintained hospital ward such was her obsession for cleanliness. I once went to her place to make an emergency phone call. I did not have the courage to step in lest I dirty her drawing room. Every thing stating from bed-linen to sofa covers were sparkling white. She had finished cooking, the gas stove had been wiped clean and covered with a white towel and every corner of her house looked well maintained. The children had gone to school. Their slippers had been washed and lined up in the balcony to dry. I was all praise for her house-keeping skills. We had tea together in her balcony and I took leave and returned home. From my own balcony I could see hers and to my surprise I saw the within minutes of my departure she had washed the sofa cover that I had sat on and was quickly wiping the floor having swept it soon after I stepped out of her house. I was annoyed and amused at the same time. Stories related to her obsession for cleanliness were whispered by my neighbors. Her children were scared to use the toilet after they finished their morning routine and left for school. She would wash the bath – room cum toilet once in the morning and again before an evening bath. The children normally relieved themselves at school before coming home or found excuses to use a neighbor’s bathroom. She was however kind enough to let them use it on their return from play in the evening before she washed it. It was a common sight to see her husband open his shoes in the landing and walk into the house carrying it in his hand to be placed in the shoe rack. I often wondered if it made sense to have a sparkling house at the expense of torturing children in their pre-teens.
Another neighbor D would detain her servant till seven in the evening. Every item in the house had to be dusted and ever corner of her house would be wiped over and over again. Her children aged six and two would be seen playing in the verandah in all weather conditions. They would be denied entry out of fear that they would mess up the house. Oh yes, she loved them a lot but her obsession for cleanliness far outweighed her love for them. We would often see her escort the servant home. She’d be dressed in a petticoat and a loose shirt hardly befitting a woman of her status. Her excuse would be that she hadn’t yet cooked for the family and would change after finishing her cooking and had a bath perhaps at nine or ten in the night. Through out the day one could see her peculiarly dressed, hair uncombed and duster in hand. I often wondered if she cooked breakfast and lunch for her children (her husband had his meals in his office canteen) or treated them to readymade snacks and cold milk if at all.
My own mother in law had a fetish for cleanliness. But hers was within normal limits and the routine of the house certainly did not suffer. While my sister in law and I relaxed with a book in the afternoon she would tidy the kitchen and clean up stuff. She would never be satisfied with the way we arranged things. To her credit I must admit that her organization was better than ours – so what if she kept changing the order every now and then. And she certainly would not start sweeping and swabbing the house after every visitor left.
I wonder how common or uncommon this trait is in society. Wanting to have a well kept house with everything in perfect order and working towards it should be okay. Like in the case of S, she worked hard and maintained a high standard of cleanliness. But the fact that she was always well dressed and her family was well cared for is indicative of the fact that she did not let her obsession interfere with her role as wife and mother. She also had time for social visits, shopping etc. But not letting a child use the toilet in their own house was taking things too far.
D on the other hand was obsessed with her desire to have a sparkling house but her obsession was such that her children were neglected and her work was never over in time. I later heard that she was taken to a counselor for psychiatric assistance. When does an obsession become abnormal I wonder. Long back I read a short story titled ‘araikuraigal’ by the Tamil writer Jayakanthan. It was amusing as well as thought provoking. It points out that the line dividing sanity from insanity is very thin. I suppose it would be wise to set limits to one’s obsession/ambition and stick to them. Excess of any trait however appealing can only be harmful not only to the person but to others who are in association with him or her.