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I struggled to establish a rhythm of cooking and eating. I felt compelled to cook fresh food three times a day, just as my mother did, but this exhausted me. Likewise, I also had to learn how to cook from scratch.
It’s been just a year since I finally threw away the mantle of the outlier, the deviant woman who couldn’t cook well. And I find that this is the single most empowering thing I could have done for myself.
It was never easy for me to slip into the role of an idealized version of a woman in my home, family, school, college or even the workplace. I have always been excluded from the bond of cosy womanhood.
Firstly, I am not and never have been a womanly woman. I am the quintessential boyish girl. I used to look like a pre-pubescent boy until my early twenties.
As I was thin, short and had a boy’s haircut. I also wore jeans, sneakers, tee shirts or tops; these were my staples. I just lived in this look till I completed my post-graduation from Delhi University.
When I shifted to New Delhi from a relatively small town in Madhya Pradesh as a 20-year-old, the one thing I can still remember vividly is visiting a parlour for a haircut.
I hated myself even as I asked for a boy’s cut for the nth time, when I was dying to get a glorious perm like the other women there.
I lived with the same haircut for the longest possible time while continuing to imagine looking like the girly, feminine women — the soignée, beautifully coiffed and confident girls!
Not only that, but I wanted to be like them secretly and passionately. Because I wasn’t like them, it made me feel like a lesser woman.
I was also an interloper in my family. I remember hovering on the outskirts of family life like a butterfly in a glass box — looking at the domestic wheels turning from afar.
At home, rules were strictly enforced. You ate at regular hours, always wore clean, pressed clothes, behaved in a certain way, or else you were not accepted. Somehow, I never made the cut, even though I tried.
When I think back to my childhood, an incident that leaps out at me is — me rolling dough to make rotis at age 6 in the kitchen under the steely eyes of our maid.
My parents sitting at the table and waiting, and my father happy as punch to see his only daughter perfecting her natural skills as a woman.
But what happened next was to be expected. My rotis were less than round. But what was unexpected was my father’s reaction. He swept my misshapen rotis aside and shouted angrily, “You will never be a good woman.”
For as long as I remember, my father wanted me to become a perfect cook. But, the 6-year-old girl who made funny-looking rotis hasn’t changed much over the years.
And it isn’t just the darned rotis, my curries taste different too. I use the wrong spices or just do something wrong, and the taste never does match my dad’s expectations.
I lived with the not-good-enough tag for more than 25 years in my home.
Then one day, I got married. But this fundamental shift in my identity did not make the above tag go away. It somehow made it stronger.
My parents are Punjabis and Hindus and my in-laws are Andhraiites and Christians, but the domestic codes of taste remain the same.
The men of the house have very strict standards about the food they eat, and these have to be appeased at all costs. And only they have the right to be particular.
By the time I got married, I had convinced myself that not being able to cook didn’t matter too much. But boy was I wrong!
There is a deep equalization between being able to cook well and femininity in Indian society. True women love to cook. As a woman who did not excel at cooking, I was naturally a lesser woman than a woman who loved the domestic and excelled in it.
The whole not a good cook script ruled my life in insidious ways. It affected my entire life — my confidence, self-image, career, sexuality and thoughts about getting married and becoming a mother.
I had internalized this script and was acting on it in all areas of my life.
This made me hold myself back in typical womanly activities before and after marriage. I stayed away from wearing pretty clothes or enjoying silly, emotional things like facials.
I didn’t have boyfriends. A few crushes that I had never progressed because I thought I would be rejected. I never had overtly feminine friends and hung out with girls like me — the interlopers.
This insidious rejection continued into my life post-marriage. My in-laws made it clear that they were disappointed by their eldest son’s choice.
I was a North-Indian and, last but not least, I didn’t wear sarees and look womanly enough. Plus, I couldn’t cook South-Indian food!
I was prepared for the rebuff, but underestimated its sheer force. Strict conditions were laid down. There was to be a temple marriage when I wanted a quiet, registered marriage.
I had to live at their house for a couple of months, learning how to cook and learn to dress up as a typical Telugu married woman.
I was expected to eat whatever was cooked by my husband’s mother, even though I couldn’t stand the chillies. Furthermore, I was also barred from cooking north-Indian food which is more vegetable and wheat-based as opposed to the standard rice-lentils and chicken-based food at my in-law’s house.
I did cook a few times and everyone hated my curries, especially the men of the house. I didn’t use red chillies or tamarind, or too much oil while cooking. My dishes once again failed the taste test. Ah, Déjà vu!
After a month or two of agony, we moved into a rented flat in a bigger city and I started cooking for the first time. I was finally the head cook, but I didn’t like my own culinary creations.
Truth be told, I couldn’t make sense of cooking at all. I was adding spices and vegetables at random and hoping they would start tasting good.
It was confusing and there was no one I could turn to. My mother and my mother-in-law had removed themselves forever from the circle of help in my culinary life.
This brought me in touch with a side of myself that I had suppressed for the longest time possible, i.e. a valuable woman.
I taught myself to cook food that I liked to eat. This was the first time that I was cooking to please no one else’s taste buds, but my own. I was on a culinary adventure to discover what I liked eating, and this liberated me in so many ways.
This freed me to fully experience myself as a sensual woman, too. I found that I like slow-cooked food and self-ground spices, and that I hate using the cooker.
My curries taste different from what my mother or my mother-in-law makes, but they tasted delicious. I loved the food cooked by me. Yay!
I also started taking better care of my body, my health and the way I looked. I combed my hair more often and took a course in Neurolinguistic programming to help me repair my self-talk.
It was a kind of late blossoming for me, but an exuberant and vibrant experience. I also gave up audiovisual media and turned to writing as a career. I worked with a newspaper, online sites and social media agencies.
Professionally, I became more confident in my abilities. Cooking made me discover more about myself—my likes and dislikes, and what made me tick while earlier.
I used to spend most of my time guessing what people wanted and trying desperately to mould myself accordingly.
This led me to start valuing my uniqueness and finally stick my neck out for what I believed in and needed. I was finally able to read the not-good-in- the-kitchen script for what it was.
It was not about my cooking style or about how my dishes tasted at all, but was centred on a rejection of me.
My cooking was problematized because I was not accepted by both my birth family and my in-laws. No wonder they found my cooking unpalatable. No amount of learning to cook like my mom or my mom-in-law would have made my dishes pass the taste test ever.
When my in-laws came to visit us for the first time, I cooked sambar in the south–Indian style. I spent a lot of time — frying, and sautéing, but predictably my whole effort came to nought.
My poor sambar didn’t pass the taste challenge and most of it had to be thrown away.
The second time around, I just ordered in food —Hyderabadi biryani and chicken curry. Everyone was happy! And I was spared of hurt.
The third time they visited, I was ready with my upgrade. I decided to cook sambar the way I enjoyed eating it— with lots of vegetables, dalchini, hand-ground spices, garlic, ginger, curry leaves, green chillies, and slow-cooked in an earthen pot.
My mom-in-law marched into the kitchen to check the food. My sambar smelled and looked too different and was set to lose the taste challenge once again.
She offered to cook something for my father-in-law. But, this time instead of acquiescing silently or ordering in food, I told her firmly I had put in a lot of labour into cooking lunch, and it would please me if they ate it. My mom-in-law looked taken aback but kept quiet.
My in-laws barely ate the sambar. I enjoyed eating it, and this was enough, for the first time in my life.
I felt that I had been able to gain a small step on the road to reclaiming myself as a valuable adult and a woman.
This helped me challenge and change the tag of the outlier from my self-talk, and I began to accept myself as a valuable, creative person who cooked as well as did other things. I feel free for the first time and I feel I can achieve whatever I want just like everybody else.
Image Source: Elena Yeryomenko via Getty Image, free on Canva Pro
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