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Food was never special for them. It was a means of sustenance. Delicacies were always cooked for men. Women learnt to survive on leftovers.
Her family boasted of women who were strong and no way inferior to their male counterparts. And the credit had always gone to the matriarch, her maternal grandmother, who paved the way by creating a generation of strong-willed women.
But nothing prepared Radha for the shock awaiting her when she married and moved in with her husband. During the wedding ceremonies, she was treated like royalty. The moment the celebrations died down and everyone was back to their usual lifestyle, she realised how her life had undergone a drastic change.
Always an early bird, Radha woke up and made tea for everyone in the family. She poured it in a flask before retiring to the balcony for a leisurely moment with her chai.
Some of the relatives had stayed back. As she sipped tea, she was aware of the curious glances of the relatives. Later, an aunt took her aside and told her that, it was her duty to wake up her parents-in-law with tea.
Once they had finished theirs. she was free to sit down and have hers. Curious, she asked the logic behind it. And all she got were scornful looks and reminded that it was all about showing respect.
Evenings followed the same routine. To her utter dismay, she had to come back from work, serve everyone first and then have her cup of tea.
Radha’s mother-in-law (MIL) was a fantastic cook. She did all the cooking and refused to give entry to her daughter-in-law. So the girl had to be content with what her MIL cooked and served. Radha had no control either over the menu or the quantity. And the menu was always chosen by her father-in-law (FIL) and his sons.
He bought the groceries and instructed the women. The sons decided the menu every day which the parents lovingly obliged with. Though Radha and her brother-in-law were roughly the same age, she was never asked about her food preferences.
The will of the majority, the choice of the men was all that they cared for. And she was expected to follow suit. And the only way she could satisfy her cravings was to eat at work.
The first time, when she came home from work and asked, “What’s for dinner, ma?” her MIL turned around and gave her a list. This was a long list of all the items her children wished to eat that day.
She did get a few moments of freedom but those were few and far in between, only when her in-laws were away on trips.
It was a normal working day after her wedding. Radha was still on leave trying to work out the details of her marriage. Her MIL was cooking that day and the aroma of the food was overpowering.
The older lady took immense pride in telling her about the ideal way of cutting and dicing the vegetables, the spices that she had added. And the result that would follow soon. The end result was absolutely mouth-watering.
Soon it was time to serve dinner. Plates were laid out. Her FIL, husband and his brother sat down. She joined them. But her MIL took away two of the plates, informing her of the norm that women always ate later, men first!
Radha lost count of the number of helpings the men took. She could see the diminishing quantity in the serving bowls. Finally they finished. To her disappointment, rice and dal were the only items that were left. The girl remembered how her mother would keep away equal portions for all of them in case they ate later. That night she slept with a heavy heart and yes, on a sodden pillow.
Fish and meat once bought from the market were carefully segregated as per the preferences of the family members. The best and the bigger ones went to the men and what was left were for the women. Women had to be lucky to get a bigger size.
Once during an invitation to an uncle-in-laws place, they all sat down to eat together since it was pretty late. Radha had just helped herself with fish when her MIL whispered, “A daughter-in-law cannot have the same portion size as that of her brother-in-law!”
Most Sundays were a ‘no kitchen day’. Their mother deserved a day off from her gruelling routine, the sons had decided. Radha had tried to volunteer in the kitchen. But the offer stood rejected. Her freedom was restricted to tea. So, they stepped out for lunch.
The menu was handed to them- one to her MIL and other to the FIL. Orders were placed and food was served. Well, this time the parents had the liberty to choose as the entire week the sons ruled the roost. Radha ate what they ordered and came home. The weekend eat-outs became a routine.
Meal times are bonding sessions for every family. It was the same with theirs. The sons came home after a day’s work and poured their hearts out as the parents listened to them, offering advice and suggestions. But no one asked their new family member how her day went. She listened to them as they chatted, waited for them to finish their meal, and then managed with the leftovers.
Radha is a close friend of mine. She is educated and independent. This was the scenario a decade ago and sadly remains so in most households. It took her a long time to change these norms. To explain and make them acknowledge her existence- who is an equal member of the family and deserves the same amount of respect!
The shock and anger she felt all those years was gradually replaced with sadness. Radha realised much later that the mindset was firmly embedded in their psyche.
Women, by birth, are caregivers. Their job was to keep the family and the household running, while the men went out to earn money. As a result, women were accorded an inferior status. Treated as lesser beings, they were deprived of the privilege to eat meals with the men on the same table. Food was never special for them. It was a means of sustenance. Delicacies were always cooked for men. Women learnt to survive on leftovers.
A woman by virtue of her marriage was expected to relinquish everything she had attained biologically and move in to a new home as a different entity. Change of name, gotra, residence and even change of food habits followed. She was expected to change herself and give in completely to the new setup unquestioning. Marriage was, thus, the creation of a new identity for the woman.
Despite education and more and more women stepping out to work and becoming financially independent, the norms, attitude and the expectations haven’t changed.
Isn’t it time that more and more Radhas put down their foot firmly and challenge these?
A version of this was first published here.
Picture credits: YouTube
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Sreemati Sen Karmakar holds a Masters in Social Work (MSW) From Visva Bharati, Shantiniketan. She
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