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She failed to understand why the men needed to be fed hot off the tawa, with the women standing – working – hungry... even when unwell.
‘Mummy is having a migraine it seems.’
‘How do you know?’ Shalu could feel the panic in her own voice. Today was Diwali and they had hordes of people coming in the evening. She would not be able to handle it on her own. This was her first Diwali in their matrimonial home and Punjab was different. In Gurgaon she’d have easily handled this – catered or ordered food. But here, she wasn’t so sure. Last time she had tried suggesting ordering in when Mummy was sick (Mummy’s migraines were legendary, and she was falling sick to them more often these days). It was a normal dinner night. No guests. Mummy herself was the one who had had a heart attack almost, her pain migrating from her head to her heart. ‘While I am alive I can’t let my bachas not eat my rotis. You can eat all the Chinese you want when in your own home. When here, I will make garam rotis….’
‘She was throwing up in the bathroom, and then she went to her room. I checked on her, she is lying with a towel on her forehead, eyes closed.’ Niraav’s tone, albeit less worried than her own, brought her back to reality.
‘What’s the menu this evening, do you know?’
Niraav looked puzzled. ‘What does the Diwali evening menu have to do with Mummy’s health?’ He inquired.
Shalu could feel the anger rising in her. This is what male privilege aka being the clueless boys of the house looked like. He doesn’t have to connect the dots. It will not affect him anyways. He can just show up at the dining table surrounded by his equally clueless happy-go-lucky cousins and expect home-cooked food to land. Shalu pushed against him and left the room. She needed to go check on her mother-in-law and figure out a backup.
The male guests were happily chattering at the table. The women of course were gathered in their tiny kitchen. Warming food, or merely standing awkwardly if not engaged in a chore. It’d be improper to go sit down even if the only purpose served by crowding the kitchen was making the main cook (mummy ji who was churning parantha after parantha at record speed) further flustered.
‘Are you feeling ok Pritam?’ Shalu’s father-in-law, aware of his wife’s sickness earlier, lifted himself from the table and walked towards the kitchen. Shalu was impressed. And surprised.
‘Go from here.’ Pritam, his wife of 30 years responded. ‘Men coming into the kitchen makes my blood boil.’
‘Absolutely ji,’ one of the wives chimed in, ‘did you see the joke Sunny sent in the family group this morning?’
‘The husband getting hit by the belan wala?’ Seema, Shalu’s sister-in-law giggled. Shalu was feeling a migraine oncoming herself. The family Whatsapp was filled with sexist jokes on how wives needed jewels and gifts and were there to beat up their husbands. In real life, the husbands were never chastised, let alone beaten. They were served hot parantha on the table and demanded hotter.
‘Mummy, let me help you.’ Shalu pressed herself inside through the narrow space between the door and Seema. Initially, she didn’t want to offer help, because though she cared for the plight of the woman fiercely rolling the pin, she was against this wholeheartedly. She failed to understand why the men needed to be fed hot off the tawa, with the women standing – working – hungry. If women could eat from the casserole – why did it need to be different for men?
‘Arrey no no. You go. I like doing this. I really enjoy feeding my family,’ Mummy-ji responded as Shalu had expected, panting.
‘Mummy, next one gobi, please.’ An order came from the table from Shalu’s brother-in-law. ‘Gobi for me too, please. Don’t want any more Aloo.’
‘OK ok, of course.’ Mummy ji responded making her voice as loud and jolly as possible. One of the wives pushed past Shalu to look for another cauliflower. A fresh one needed to be grated – the cauliflower filling had run out – which meant another 15-20 min at least of Mummy ji not getting to sit…
‘She is very sick today Shalu.’ Niraav slowly shook her awake.
‘What happened?’ Shalu jolted up. Last night, guests had left late – men’s laughter over whiskey glasses had reverberated well into the night. Shalu had forced her mother-in-law into bed, assuring her that she’d stay awake in case the men needed something. Pritam’s migraine had by then possibly reached a disastrous stage – but Pritam had denied being in any pain. ‘I am great now.’ she had conveyed. That of course meant nothing, for that was to make sure the guests don’t feel obliged to leave early.
Shalu hurried after her Niraav into Pritam’s room.
Pritam was barely conscious, grunting softly. Shalu’s father-in-law sat there helpless, flustered, and clueless – which was his most common state of being. He was a well-meaning man – and loved his wife dearly. In the way a homemaker is loved.
‘Maybe we need to take her to the doctor. Call Dr. Sood.’ Shalu instructed Niraav, who obliged.
The sirens had long stopped being audible, and the ambulance lights weren’t visible anymore either. Shalu held her father in laws hand firmly as the latter sobbed. Pritam was advised to be taken to the hospital from Dr. Sood’s clinic. The Dr. himself had arranged for the ambulance. Nirav went with his mother in it. It was still post-COVID, so given his age, it’d be best for her father-in-law to not be exposed. Therefore, Shalu stayed behind to drive him home.
‘Might not be anything serious.’ She voiced. Maybe mummy just needs an MRI and some checks done for precaution just like the doctor said.
‘She was perfectly fine last evening. He responded. Made hot parantha’s for the entire clan, she didn’t sit for a min…what could have happened just overnight?’
She was not fine papa. She was sick in the morning. She over-exerted herself – you all are just too blind. Shalu felt the words coming to her lips, and unlike other times, she voiced them.
‘No beta,’ he responded, ‘she enjoys doing that. That’s not exertion for her. Your mother-in-law would feel worse if she didn’t get to feed her children. It must have been the cold last night… make sure you don’t catch it. Put on the heater tonight if you need to. You have office work, so you need to be mindful of your health. You can’t fall sick.’
‘Let’s go papa.’ Shalu opened the car door for her rambling father-in-law. It was chilly indeed, and she did need to work the next day.
Image source: a still from the short film Juice
Tanushree Ghosh (Ph. D., Chemistry, Cornell, NY), is Director at Intel Corp., a social activist, and an author. She is a contributor (past and present) to several popular e-zines incl. The Huffington Post US ( read more...
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