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The kitchen is made to be the battleground where women are pitted against each other like gladiatorial adversaries, by a patriarchy that benefits from it. Time for a change?
In these Covid times, I have stood in kitchen hours on end, to feed my family. I have inherited neither the skills that my mother possessed nor her pleasant disposition. It feels like a never ending ride on a hamster wheel.
Why did I do it? Well, no one else volunteered. It was just assumed that, have vagina, can cook. Like the many who came before me, our gender decided the roles we would adopt.
Growing up, I have memories of my paternal grandmother criticising my mother’s cooking, this was weird because my mother was otherwise renowned for her culinary skills. Reflecting upon that memory, I don’t think my grandmother really meant it as I have seen her eat the food my mother cooked with considerable relish. I now think it was my grandmother’s fading strength and her need to assert herself, as she was being replaced as the resident domestic goddess, that made her insecure.
Except for the grumblings of my grandmother, the shift in the management of the kitchen was seamless. One woman replaced another without a misstep, without the man of the house, my father noticing anything. And then from the moment my mother took over she could never stop. The endless drudgery through the post-emergency rationing era, through shortages in gas cylinders, through the vagaries in finances, through sickness and health, till death did her a favour. And in birthing three daughters she didn’t have the gift of a daughter-in-law, to hand the baton, pardon me, belan to.
“Even after so many feminist battles, the kitchen still remains the domain of the woman”, says 72 year old Kanika Lall*. She has held a high profile job and has been a lifelong career woman. “And yet, when I returned home from work, I was expected to cook for the family and wash the vessels after”.
Wouldn’t your husband help you, I ask her. “Yes he would try, but the second he would step into the kitchen, it would upset my mother-in-law and she would storm into the kitchen to take over”.
On the other hand 51 year old Kalyani Gore‘s* mother-in-law tried her damndest to keep her out of the kitchen. “There was an incredible amount of gaslighting. She would make a pretence of giving out family recipes, but she would keep out one key ingredient, so when I would make something and my husband would say, it’s nice, but it’s not the way Aai makes it. And there would be such satisfaction on my mother-in-law’s face. In the early days, she would dilute the idli batter with water when I was not looking and act disappointed in me when the idlis would turn out badly. They would finish dinner before I reached home from work, so many days I would be alone at the dining table trying not to cry while I swallowed dry, cold chapatis. There was no end to her pettiness, but more than that, it was a systematic othering, of isolating me in what was supposed to be my own home.”
How did this affect your relationship with your husband, I ask her. “I should have walked out,” says Kalyani thoughtfully, “But I never had the courage. I blame both my mother-in-law and my husband equally. One for all the wrong-doing and one for never accepting that his mother was capable of wrong-doing.”
Both Kalyani and Kanika are formidable, highly-accomplished women, leading voices in their respective careers to whom the world defers. Yet when they returned home, it was in great passivity, deferential to an age old trope. The expectations of the relationships- wife/daughter-in-law so internalized that neither challenged the conflict-ridden status quo.
It is a shocking contrast when I talk to the 70-year-old Dr. Sudeshna Dalvi who has nothing but praise for her mother-in-law, “My mother-in-law held me by my hand to show me the ropes of running the household. And when she felt sure she had finished teaching me how to run the kitchen, she stepped into the role of the sous chef and my assistant. Once I had cooked something which both my mother-in-law and father-in-law praised to the skies. One bite of it and I knew I had over-salted it, but they didn’t flinch. I don’t know what it was, perhaps they had spoken about it and come to a mutual decision that they would treat their daughter-in-law like their child and they did. But I know it isn’t the norm and I definitely know I was very lucky.”
This is the low bar we set for the way we are treated by our in-laws. Basic courtesy and consideration towards the newest member of the family seems to us as unexpected, or good fortune.
Kanika, who is also a mother-in-law to two daughters-in-law calls herself a detached mother-in-law. “My friends say that it isn’t fashionable anymore, nor cool to do the typical ‘daughter-in-law-bashing’. But it isn’t any easier to be a mother-in-law than it is to be a daughter-in-law even today. Living separately has eliminated the friction considerably, but if I were to stay with my daughter-in-law or vice versa for any length of time, I find we have to negotiate hidden landmines that dot the relationship, it is always going to remain tricky.”
73-year-old Karthika Rao* laughs, “I thought I was a super cool mother-in-law. I went when I was asked for help, like during the birth of my grand-daughter, and came away after three months thinking I shouldn’t overstay my welcome. And yet my daughter-in-law later accused me of not being around. Turns out, she’d wanted a traditional mother-in-law who’d stay at home looking after grandchild, while she got on with her career!”
Kanika articulates, “The mother-in-law-daughter-in-law relationship is so ridden with stereotypes that it informs our actions constantly and reinforces our biases, that mother-in-laws are evil, daughter-in-laws are scheming.”
It’s interesting that none of the women spoke about the system that engenders this competition, these stereotypes, that deem women as enemies of one another, Patriarchy.
The kitchen is made to be the battleground where women are pitted against each other like gladiatorial adversaries. And it’s a wonderful tactical manoeuvre, a self-feeding system- keep women fighting, generate the movies, the TV shows, the million memes and WhatsApp jokes to reinforce the stereotypes that make the women distrust each other, and so on in a continuous loop.
Most systems can only be broken and remade from the inside, the change must come from within.
I found great hope in the words of the newly married 31-year-old Soundarya*, “The kitchen is the one place my mother-in-law doesn’t feel dispossessed. She draws her power from being the one who feeds the family and thereby the one who safeguards the health of everyone. It’s tough to negotiate the space because the boundaries are invisible and I’d rather not transgress them. While I like cooking, I don’t want to turn it into a power struggle. I deeply value my mother-in-law and when we have left the kitchen at night, we do have long conversations about life, her journey and I am getting to know her and understand her. But for the time being, I am happy to be an assistant to my mother-in-law by helping her to clean and chop while she does the cooking.”
When my mother died of cancer many years ago, my father struggled to manage for a few years, until he who has never had to fend for himself a single day began deteriorating and he moved in with me. So ultimately my mother did pass the baton onto me.
My 19-year-old daughter Viveka watches me making hot dosais to order for my family of 7. I’m constantly ladling out dosais and people either saunter in to grab the dosai hot off the stove or I take it to them. By the time I’m done, that process has taken a couple of hours, I am drenched in sweat and my own dosais are ice-cold and rubbery.
Viveka offers to make all the dosais on the next dosai day. I can’t help peeking. I find that she has been making all the dosai at one go and keeping them in a casserole, something my mother would have found blasphemous. Viveka shrugs, “Yeah well, those who want it hot can make it for themselves.”
I retire quietly to my room and five minutes later she walks in with a plate filled with piping hot dosais and chutney. “You have earned it.”
I think it’s time we let the young women set the new, compassionate but decidedly firmer ground rules for gender roles.
Image source: a still from the film 2 States
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