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Her home was the world she had built. She did not want me to infringe upon her territory, while she also expected me to manage all the household responsibilities.
Jeo Baby’s movie The Great Indian Kitchen taught me the greatest lesson of conscious living that so many sermons and books had failed to.
Every time I do the dishes after supper, while even the owls are probably sleeping, I become conscious of what I am going through, what my mother has gone through all her life, and why my mother in law wants me to go through the same ritual of dishwashing, sweeping, mopping, cooking all my life.
When I was unmarried and at my mother’s place, I was blind to the drudgery that my mother underwent everyday and night. All I was concerned was about my books, ambitions, yoga, social media, dresses and jewellery and such other stuff that a youngster is usually interested in.
While my mother cooked for us, meaning father, brother and I, three meals a day, and worked a job at her school – she’s a teacher – all I did to help her out was to sweep the floor. Although she was able to afford a maid for doing the laundry, cleaning etc. she chose to do it all herself. That was one out of many ways in which she saved whatever little money she could for her children’s future.
She never asked me to help her out with the chores. She only made me read and read all the time. She wanted me to get a good job and live independently. Economic independence was the first thing she wanted me to acquire, before I stepped into ‘the larger world’, she used to say.
I often realised the immensity of the work she had taken upon her shoulders only when she went out on election duties or other training programs that her work necessitated her to. Even then, she saw to it that all the clothes were washed and ironed and the food cooked and refrigerated. Since we did not have any pets, it was one less thing in her list of tasks to be done.
At my in-laws’ place however, they adore dogs. When I went to my in-laws’ place in the initial days of marriage I found it very annoying watching two spotted dogs standing beside me, wagging tails and tongues drooling, while I had my food at the dining table. Sometimes the dogs jumped up all over the bed, when they came to wake my husband in the morning. The dogs went strolling out on the road and came back indoors and slept on the carpets.
Every morning and evening my mother in law brushed the carpets, sofas, washed all the bedspreads of all the bedrooms, swept and mopped the floor to get rid of the dog hairs that lay abundantly on almost every surface of the house. In addition to this work, she worked outdoors on her garden that comprises of around more than a hundred varieties of flowers, a few herbs, fruit trees and vegetables. There were also the meals to be cooked, dishes washed and dried, bio degradable waste to be spread in the flower pots, water from the dishes to be collected to be poured to the vegetable patch everyday.
Besides all this my mother in law is a very devout woman and spends at least an hour in the pooja room – washing, cleaning the silver paraphernalia and chanting mantras.
She was proud of her beautiful garden, her homegrown vegetables, her dogs whom she bathed, fed and looked after like kids, her devoutness, her cooking skills and most important of all her ability to keep the whole house sparkling clean. It was her world. Nobody could fail to appreciate the immensity of work she undertook everyday. She never once hired a maid, not because she couldn’t afford one but because she felt it was a waste of money.
To me however this much of housework was overwhelming. I could never do it day in and day out all my life. I neither had the skills nor the interest in stepping into her role. I had other things in mind.
I had a job that I had newly acquired, with its own responsibilities and challenges. I wanted to read, travel and write. I am good at sketching and wanted to continue the same. I also knew I could not take upon me so much of the household responsibilities if I had a child.
Although my mother in law never asked me outright to do any of those things, I could understand from her manner that she expected me to share some of the work. During lunch hours for instance she refused to come out of the pooja room and I was left hungry, confused and worried about what to cook. I had very few cooking skills and took a long time to prepare what she could prepare in a giffy. I was also new to the kitchen and had to search what was were, because she refused to speak during prayers. When I managed to cook something good, she failed to appreciate it.
She never let me keep any of my belongings or any utensil that had been given as a wedding present anywhere outside the bedroom that was my husband’s. Even the ornamental pottery that had been given as a wedding gift by my mother was taken off the showcase and kept inside a cupboard in my bedroom. I found that she would also not accept fruits and vegetables brought by my parents during visits. She asked me to have them.
She was marking her territory. She was probably ill at ease with an ‘outsider’ in the house. Her home was the world she had built. She did not want me to infringe upon her territory, while she also expected me to manage all the household responsibilities.
She was a good, devout woman and all this was probably happening unconsciously. She had always been the important person in her home and she did not want anyone else to take on that role and gain the attention/importance that had always been her due.
She probably wanted me to take on that role of hers and fail in it. For, one day, she announced that she would be going to some sacred place with her daughter who lived in a different city and left the next-day. She was full of advice the previous night, about how to do what in the household. She came back to find fault with what I had done. Maybe it satisfied her to find that I could not successfully manage what she could.
She also came back with her daughter, whom I saw sharing almost none of the major household chores at home. She was found reading, writing and playing with the dogs most of the time, and there seemed to be not much of an expectation from my mother in law to make her daughter work. She wanted the daughter in law to take charge of the great Indian kitchen next, but not her daughter. It was very frustrating to take upon the roles, without simultaneously causing a sense of infringement of her territory.
After I was with child, I found it difficult to commute to work everyday by bus and decided to rent a house near my workplace. I had to face a lot of hostility from my husband and inlaws for the decision I had taken to move to a separate house. After childbirth, I hired a maid and got some respite from the monotonous housework that I was afraid would gobble my life.
Unlike the heroine of the movie The Great Indian Kitchen who chose to walk out of it once and for good, unlike me who could find a way out of the great Indian kitchen of my in-laws, most of the women in India may not have the means and the space to do so. Most of my friends who quit working after childbirth, regret having done so because of the loss of alternative space they could have had outside the kitchen.The women who are not economically independent and who have kids to support may not be able to take strong decisions in order to avoid being subject to daily household drudgery.
Most elderly women like my mother in law will have made the great indian kitchen their worlds and are representatives of patriarchy in expecting the daughters in law to conform and take on the household drudgery that they had suffered all their lives.
The only way out for the women in the great Indian kitchens is to raise our sons and daughters in such a way that they don’t either shirk or overburden themselves with responsibilities but share them. We can do that only by setting an example, and it begins with us.
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Charitha is a storyteller from Madikeri, Karnataka. For more stories, follow her on instagram @charithamadikeri
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