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It was a matter of shame for a woman to eat publicly or be fanned while she ate. Women ate the leftovers, with no question of a second helping.
My maternal grandmother passed away in 2013. Being one of her favorites, I was handed over some of the items that she cherished. One of them was a small thaali (plate) in which she ate. It was anomalous for she was the daughter of a rich, titled man, who later got married into a progressive family. She was also liberal and independent.
Why would she eat in this plate? The question hounded me till I remembered few incidents from my childhood.
My paternal grandparents lived in Burdwan, a small town in West Bengal. Baba made it a point to visit them every month and ensured that we tagged along.
Ours was a joint family comprising almost forty heads. The kitchen had a main hall and an enclosed space for cooking. While the washing, chopping and grinding happened outside, the actual cooking happened inside. The aroma would waft around announcing that meal was ready.
Every day, a minimum of sixty people sat down for lunch. Distant relatives would keep flitting in and out. My great grandmother, the matriarch, refused to let anyone leave without a proper meal.
The men would finish first and then the women and the helpers sat down.
Each one of them sat in a pre-designated space. The matriarch sat in the center, commanding obedience and attention. My grandmother would sit next to her, while my mother and my aunts spread out in a semi-circle. We, the children, had the liberty to sit wherever we wished.
The matriarch had an air of authority around her and no one dared to interfere in her affairs. She was fair to all and saw to it that everyone ate to their hearts content. A widow at eighteen, she would have a frugal meal and retire to her room. Next in command was my grandmother. Short and plump, she had a shrill voice. Her head would always remain covered with the pallu and she would take over when the matriarch left.
Both were headstrong women who had control over money and exercised control over the household.
What baffled me was the ‘thaali’ (plate) they ate in. It was a small plate which had no room for all the dishes cooked that day. Some rice, dal and a vegetable was all that they had. No second helping. My grandmother would always choose the tiniest portion of fish, even though there were larger ones.
The arrangements for the men were regal. Huge plates and innumerable small vessels were offered to them. The plate would be in the middle while the smaller vessels would be arranged around it in a semi-circle.
It bothered me that despite being bold and fearless, the women compromised with the size of their plate and the portion.
And then one day I noticed a similar plate in my mother’s kitchen.
“Why?” I asked her. “Why is it that every family has such a plate? While we eat in bigger plates, why do you have to use this?”
My mother explained the significance of these plates.
“You see, only rice, green chili and slices of lemon were served on the big plate. The accompaniments were in those smaller vessels. The men would pick up the smaller vessels, empty it into the plate and have it one by one. The older women sat beside the men and fanned them, while the younger ones would go around serving second helping. After they finished, the women would sit down with the leftovers.
A fat woman cannot work much. Their efficiency is always compromised by their weight. To ensure that they ate within limits, small plates were allotted to the womenfolk. Smaller portions were served to them. And they ate less. Thus, the women did not put on unnecessary weight and remained competent.
The other purpose was to teach them the basic tenet of self-restraint or what we call ‘sanyam’.
While the men ate in style, the women ate in neglect. They would shy away from public glare and find a private corner to partake food. A woman caught eating publicly was a disgrace. It was unheard of. There was no one to fan her. The stuffy kitchens were all they had. Whatever was left was heaped on their plates. There was no question of a second helping.
It was an established rule in those days that women would eat less. Eating more suited a man, not a woman. The men worked outdoors and needed to eat better to keep healthy and bring in money. Indoor work was less strenuous and did not require a heavy diet.
Very few women have been able to protest against these customs. The matriarch of every household ensured that these traditions were adhered to. She would keep a hawk’s eyes on the women. An uncontrolled woman was a shame. What began as a tool for oppression was later carried on willingly.”
“Was it forced upon you, Ma?”
She gave me a smile. A sad one.
“I was always plump and would put on weight easily. No matter how much I walked or worked, the weight would show. So ‘sanyam’ was a part of it.”
“But why do you still have these plates, Ma?”
“To remember the hard times that our women went through. To see how it hurts to eat less.”
This Mother’s Day, I couldn’t meet Ma. But I ordered her favorite food. Pizza. Garlic bread and a cheesy dip. I sensed her excitement when she called me to inform that she had received the order.
Today, while cleaning the kitchen, I took out the plates. I have two with me. One belongs to my mother-in-law and another to my maternal grandmother. I tried hard to picture how it would have been to eat in these plates. I tried having lunch in them. Three tablespoons of rice, some dal and a serving of vegetable was all that fit in. I remained hungry and took another helping. After a while, I gave up. I washed the plates, wiped them dry and put them away. Let these plates remain. Someday I will tell my children the story behind them.
These plates will always bear testimony to the hard times our women endured.
Image source: YouTube
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Sreemati Sen Karmakar holds a Masters in Social Work (MSW) From Visva Bharati, Shantiniketan. She
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