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I could hear grandmother mumbling in the background, “I’ve served my family throughout my life. Never turned away from responsibility like this. She isn’t even going to work like Kala or Malathi. Why can’t she cook then?”
The breeze bullied the reeds forcing them to swish and sway to its vagaries, forwards and backwards, this way and that. Everything was as it had been yesterday and the day before. The cuckoo bird continued its ‘coo-coo-once-is-not-enough-here’s-another’, coo-coo call, pleased with its own poetics, its rhythm unfaltering. So much had transpired, yet nothing had changed.
Nita looked at the bird sitting on the mango tree outside her kitchen window, and then at the clock. “Faster”, she muttered, stirring the onions in the pan harder. She would be late for office. Why does Mummy want the Okra fry made today itself when there was enough sabzi leftover from the previous day, she grumbled.
Absent-mindedly, she looked around at her kitchen. The bread was getting toasted in the toaster. The oven was heating the sabzi which she and Vivek were supposed to take for lunch. Nita was sure her mother-in-law would now want her to put Okra in Vivek’s lunchbox.
The oil sizzled as she added the Okra into it, as if mimicking her hissing at this extra work. She wasn’t fond of cooking. “Why do the women have to take care of the house and cook for everybody?” she had once asked her mother as a ten-year-old. Her mother had given her a stern, keep-your-mouth-shut lest your grandmother lecture us now look.
But alas, even after all these years she hadn’t got the answer to it. Why do most women, despite earning for themselves, have to spend a substantial part of their time at home in the kitchen while the men get to flip channels on the TV or go for a jog?
As a young girl, she’d been determined not to get entangled in this business of domestic affairs, especially cooking and waiting-on on the entire extended household. She especially resented how the women who cooked the food had to wait till the others had finished their meals to eat theirs.
But societal expectations had entangled her as she grew up. And once she got married, she found herself unwillingly being put into the kitchen for a lot more time than she would have liked to.
Ah! Finally, it’s done! She hurriedly put some of the fried Okras on a plate along with rotis for her mother-in-law while the rest she put in Vivek’s lunchbox.
Vivek and her mother-in-law were still sipping tea and discussing the latest happenings in the family when Nita said bye to them, rushing out to catch the cab.
“Do remember to come back on time today. Mrs. Sharma, her son and wife, and their children are coming over for dinner. Sita would need help in the kitchen,” her mother-in-law called out.
Nita silently cursed her. The conversation between the mother and the son changed to what the former had in plan for the evening’s menu.
Nita was still fuming as she took the cab. Even after all these years, it was the same expectations. Nothing’s changed, she murmured.
She vividly remembered that day, so many years ago, when her mother raised her first instance of protest that led to a revolution in how their household functioned.
Papa had returned from office, jubilant at his promotion to the post of the Director of manufacturing operations at the Tools and Dies company he worked with. “This would most likely be the last promotion that I get before retirement. Let’s celebrate it nicely,” he announced.
All of us – grandmother, mother, brother, and me – cheered. “Here, I’ve bought three kilos of chicken. Suma, you make chicken biriyani. I’ve invited Nikhil and Saroj and their families to join in too. Latha might be coming too. So, prepare accordingly,” he said as he relaxed on the sofa, with that day’s newspaper in hand.
I looked at my mother. For a moment I thought she would cry. I was grown up now and could sense that she resented always being the cook and the caregiver in the house. Not that she ever voiced any resentment, but it was just the vibes that I got as I grew older and turned an adult, and came nearer to being in a similar position.
Her face muscles tightened. I thought she would shout now.
After a brief moment, she said hesitantly yet with poise, “Raj, I don’t think I’ll be able to do it today. Please make some other arrangements for the food.” She then went to their bedroom and closed the door behind her.
“What does she mean?” my father looked at me with a quizzical expression. “Is she unwell?”
“She’s just acting up,” my grandmother started.
“I think she’s tired, papa. We can order biriyani today. I think you should give mother a break today. She’s been cooking all her life. This promotion is big, let’s order out and help her also enjoy the evening”, I replied, trying to sound sweet and polite, and hoping that dad would oblige.
I choose to ignore her. “Please, papa?” I needed to stand up for my mother.
And that day for the first time in my memory, we ordered food from the restaurant for a joint family dinner at home. Every other time such an event happened, and it happened often enough since we all stayed close by, I had seen mother slog behind the stove.
Dad’s brothers and sister and their families were surprised at this new move. “Is Suma unwell?”
Not everybody quite liked this change. There were comments passed about how my mother, being a housewife, shouldn’t have shrunk her cooking responsibilities like this. How they missed having her Lucknowi Biriyani and instead had to settle for the lowly one from the restaurant.
But it was the first time, I’d heard her say ‘no’, and I felt proud. I would have loved to hug her and tell her that you made the right choice by asking for food to be ordered, but I didn’t, fearing a lecture from her on why I shouldn’t follow this practice and instead should strive to be a worthy daughter-in-law with all the requisite cooking capabilities when I get married.
But at least from that point on, I saw my dad also chipping in to help her with some chores in the kitchen such as washing dishes or boiling milk, much to my grandmother’s annoyance.
Nita smiled as she finished recalling the incident and its outcome. She was at her desk now and felt confident that the incidents from the morning wouldn’t affect her productivity at work.
She had her plan ready.
At six o clock sharp, she received a call from her MIL, “Where are you? Why are you late? Sita is sick and called in saying she wouldn’t be able to come. You come soon and start with the dishes. I’ve had the neighbour’s maid chop some vegetables and boil the dal. You come and make the rotis and do the tadka.”
Nita smiled, swirling in her chair, catching the phone between her ear and shoulder, “It’s okay Mummy. You can keep the cut vegetables and the dal in the fridge. I’ve ordered food for the evening. The delivery boy will be arriving with it soon. I’ve an urgent meeting and can’t get back early.”
She cut the call. All the buts and ifs could wait.
Despite all the changes that had happened in the world of cooking and eating, including the use of jazzy kitchen equipment and food-on-delivery, what we really need is an attitudinal change, she thought.
She smiled, thinking of the storm it would raise in the house. But she was braced up for it.
This story was shortlisted for our September 2021 Muse of the Month short fiction contest.
Image source: a still from the film The Great Indian Kitchen
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