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My mother has cooked every day for her family and sometimes for others, for most of her life, without almost a single day of break.
Every time I write about my mother coming to Bangalore to stay with us, someone or the other says things like this…
“Wow, this means you’ll get to eat amazing food back-to-back.”
“Great news, you’ll get ma ke haath ka khana again. There’s nothing quite like it.”
“What special dish is aunty making for you?”
“Oh, you must be relieved to have her. She can take charge of the kitchen while she’s here.”
I know these are all well-meaning comments, meant to celebrate the mater’s arrival. But it is also hilarious (and deeply disturbing) to see how immensely we have internalized and normalized the role of the mother as a cook. It’s a given. It’s almost universal in its appeal. It makes one feel joyous and tender to think of “Ma ke haath ka khana” instead of pondering over whether it’s always joyous for the mother for real, if we strip her of her conditioning.
Because you know what?
My mother is an almost sixty-five years old tiny, frail woman, with weak, arthritic knees. Even so, she still takes care of her own kitchen when she is in Kolkata, without much rest. She has cooked every day for her family and sometimes for others, for most of her life without almost a single day of break.
Why on earth will she come here to cook for me, to cook for us, in her old age?
If the spouse and I need help to make food, I’m sure we’ll figure out ways other than exploiting the free labor of my aging mother by romanticizing it. Doesn’t she cook at all? No, of course she does. This is her home too. She cooks for two reasons: either because she really wants to, or because due to some unforeseeable circumstances, she needs to, both of which we are immensely grateful for.
Given how Ma was raised, initially when she’d come to Bangalore, she’d feel it’s her “duty” to cook for us too in order to make herself “useful”, while she was here. Ideal mothers must serve some indispensable purpose in the household, shouldn’t they? She’d pressure herself to think of our favorites and then get us to buy her the ingredients which she’d then painstakingly wash, chop, grind, sauté and simmer, day after day.
Thankfully, those days have now become a thing of the past. Ma has become so much more of a badass than I could have ever imagined growing up. Now, not only does she feel no obligation to provide the proverbial “ma ke haath ka khana”, in fact, she sometimes demands my husband (who is a son to her now) and I cook different delicacies that SHE likes, instead. I love that! I mean how many times do we ask mothers what they want to eat and then cook that for them? Negligible, compared to the number of times most mothers do that for us.
When I nag to my mother these days to make my favorite egg curry (which is truly out of this world), she turns to me and says, “Hello, I’m not your cook! I’ve spent enough time teaching you how to make it. Now you make it for me, and I’ll tell you what you’re doing wrong so that next time, you can make it better.”
It fills me with limitless pride and joy to see that after so many years, Ma now finally knows her place.
The world sure didn’t make it easy for her.
And yet, she persisted.
Sanchari Bhattacharya is a writer and a relatively new artist with an M.Phil in English Literature from Jadavpur University, Calcutta. Her interest in feminist literature, coupled with her experience of being raised by a read more...
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