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Gradually, I realised that food was an effective tool for discrimination. Despite being the queen of the kitchen, it was the men who exercised the control. Food was cooked for men- whatever they loved.
It was my first meal as the new ‘boro bou’*. I sat eyeing the table laden with soft, fluffy Puris, potato curry and Rasgullas. Batches of men finished breakfast, while I sat, my stomach rumbling. By the time my turn came, food was over. A kind-hearted aunt managed to get some puffed rice and curd.
The same scenario was repeated during lunch and dinner. I was tired of my perpetual hunger. But every time I protested, I was immediately rebuffed. “Men eat first. Unless they have finished women can’t partake in food. Whatever is left will be consumed by the women.” I was also reminded that “a new bride should act coy.”
I discussed this with my husband who kept assuring me that my stay at his ancestral place was temporary.
One day during lunch, I was overjoyed to see a huge fish head on my plate. How did they find out that I loved it? I sunk my teeth into it when my mother-in-law mentioned that it was left on my husband’s plate. I looked up wide-eyed. “It’s customary to finish your husband’s leftovers. He left this piece behind. So, it’s yours now.”
Never have I felt so offended. Surviving on another’s left-overs, is that what my future is all about? I questioned myself. Is this how my parents would like to see me after trying their best to bring up their daughters? How can I forget the way they were condemned by society for bearing three daughters and not a son?
Gradually, I realised that food was an effective tool for discrimination. Despite being the queen of the kitchen, it was the men who exercised the control. Food was cooked for men – whatever they loved. What the women loved is secondary and insignificant. Meal timings were decided by men. Women ate last. Left-overs were meant for women. If nothing was left, the women starved. They considered themselves fortunate, for it was a certificate of their culinary skills.
Portion sizes were also different. Fish and meat were segregated in terms of size. Larger sizes were reserved for men. ‘Cos the man of the house deserved the best.
Women were not meant to occupy the place where the men sat. While the men occupied the tables and chair, the floor was for women. No fancy plates were taken out for women. Either they ate in the plate that was left behind by her man or they grabbed hold of any utensil that was lying around. “Men need to be pampered. Not women.”
It was customary for women to fast. For it invoked blessings for the men and the male children. Days were set aside for fasting. By giving up food for a day, the women paid obeisance to the ruling deity. They also pointed out that such intermittent fasting improves a woman’s health and speaks volumes about her devotion to her husband.
I remained a mute spectator for the first days. But most nights I went to bed on an empty stomach. My husband or my brother-in-law who is of my age did not have the guts to question the elderly family members.
It was time for me to challenge the unwritten rules.
I cancelled my month-long leave and went back to work. But that did not end my miseries. The relatives travelled back with us to settle us down in our new abode. It was time I raised my voice. If the rules were not rewritten from the very first day, they would never change.
But it had to be done amicably. That night, I joined the men during dinner. Plate laden with food, I sat down between my husband and brother-in-law. The women looked back with disdain while the men sat shocked. Later that night, I was hauled up for being disrespectful. But I remembered my mother’s words. “A mute never have any enemies.” I had my plan of action ready and I chose to accomplish it with fewer words.
It was now time to cook the food I loved and cook it the way I preferred. Evenings, after I returned from work, no mattered how exhausted I was, I tried my hand at cooking. At dinner, I sat down with a plate laden with food of my choice. I chose to ignore the barbs thrown my way. I remembered Baba’s words. “Act as if you can’t hear.”
One night when we had guests, food ran out. The men had finished their meal while the women decided to go hungry. I chose to order out food. The guests watched in horror as the new bride sat in front of everyone relishing food bought from outside.
My revolt was official. I was tagged the ‘boro bou’ who was ill-mannered and a nuisance. People kept away their ‘bahus’ away from me for fear of polluting their gullible minds. I became the ‘bahu’ who did not wait for permission from her in-laws to visit her parents. My parents did not have the privilege to visit me. I chose to hire a hotel and spend days with them. I bought gifts for my parents every time I got gifts for my in-laws. The verdict was clear. ‘Either you treat me as an equal, or you face this.”
Gradually the situation improved. My guts were recognised and I established my code of conduct.
It’s been a long way from there. What made me happy was that the age-old customs were no longer applied to the women who joined the household after me. My co-sisters had it easier. My daughter is the first girl child to be born in an army of brothers and uncles. The rules have changed now. She is the first to be fed. Food of her choice is prepared with great care. The elderly members dream not of her marriage but of her career.
Every action. Every revolt in every household counts. Only then can we dream of a society that is equal and fair.
Boro Bou: The eldest wife
This was shortlisted from among the many interesting entries we received for the IWD 2021 blogathon #IChooseToChallenge.
Image source: a still from the All Out ad on Youtube
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Sreemati Sen Karmakar holds a Masters in Social Work (MSW) From Visva Bharati, Shantiniketan. She
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