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Why Do Women Voluntarily Give Up The Food They Love For Their Families?

Over the years, I learnt of several other things she had offered to the Gods so our dreams and wishes would come true. I never saw my father doing something like that for me or anyone in his family.

Sundays at a Bengali household translate into a pot of spicy mutton curry to be relished with a perfectly cooked bowl of steamed rice.

My home is no different, and the longing intensified when I moved for a year to Chennai to finish my post graduation. Summer breaks became receptacles for mouthwatering memories.

I still remember one such Sunday when I was home during a break and we all sat around the table, ogling the hot, steaming red meat cooked to perfection.

Everyone had their fill, except my mother.

“Why wouldn’t you eat it?” I asked.

“I don’t like mutton,” she replied—something I knew to be untrue because my mother loved having mutton curry since childhood. I had heard the stories a million times.

I let it slide that day, though I wish I hadn’t. More such days followed when every time, my mother had a different excuse lined up to justify her abstinence of a dish she so loved.

Then one day, when I couldn’t reel in my curiosity any longer, I forced her to divulge the actual reason behind shunning mutton. Turned out that my mother gave it up, more like ‘sacrificed’ it so I could get a good job during campus recruitments.

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Over the years, I learnt of several other things she had offered to the Gods so our dreams and wishes would come true. I never saw my father doing something like that for me or anyone in his family. But mothers, yes, in plural, consider it their duty as a birth giver, to sacrifice everything for their kids. You cannot argue or rationalize with them, or make them see that giving up what you love isn’t a sure shot way to get your prayers answered.

“My mother did the same thing. She gave up fish and meat, after my father died for the welfare of her children,” ma retorted one day when I tried to question her theory.

“And… how did it turn out for her?” I asked on purpose, knowing that my maternal grandmother had lost two young sons.

“Don’t be snarky, Runi,” my mother seemed shocked at my audacity to question their beliefs. “She had to break her vow a few years later because she had tuberculosis. The doctor had asked her to eat protein, fish and meat.”

To eat nonvegetarian food, my grandmother had to seek the permission of her brother-in-law first.

“It was the norm in those days. You girls have it easy. Be grateful.”

These ‘sacrifices’ have taken a toll on her health!

I wanted to tell her that day that giving up every source of nourishment, and protein-rich food had caused grandmother’s tuberculosis. But that would have incensed her further and led to another argument. So I kept quiet and promised myself that I will not make such unnecessary oblations when I reach that stage in life.

Now my mother is inching towards seventies and she has several health issues. Her kidneys are partially damaged. Her once robust physique has weakened. I can’t help but feel responsible. Gratefulness, yes, I thank God every day for having a mother who cares to such depths for me. But it pains me when I see what her tributes to God have done to her body.

It’s not just about offerings made under religious pretexts, but also a general inclination to give things up for their family that mothers are guilty of.

Giving away the larger fish piece for me or papa, giving away the last morsel of a sweetmeat I love even if she hadn’t had a taste of it; offering her share of food to the maid because the latter works several homes and needs food in her belly to work.

But what about our mothers? Have we ever tried to give away anything for them? I am not proud to say this, but I haven’t. Yes, this spirit of unbroken fidelity a mother has towards her children and family is moving. There is no question about that. In India, traditionally, a mother’s place is above God. But if one peeks into a typical middle-class household, you will find an alarming pattern of self-deprivation.

This is so deeply ingrained that it has become a part of faith

It’s been so for decades. In our grandmother’s era, women weren’t allowed to dine with the menfolk. Men were guaranteed the prime cuts from the dishes their mothers, sisters or wives toiled for hours to prepare. Joint families were dominant back then and this concept of women staying up late till everyone else had dined was taken for granted. In fact, the thought was entrenched in their minds that they should wait for their husbands to return from work and only eat after they had eaten.

Part of me wonders if those rituals have been carried over as this forced abandonment of things that many of our mothers love to eat.

Or, has this belief been ingrained deep in their minds that they should sacrifice everything they desire or love for their family’s welfare?

Some of our festivals are rooted in this concept where the mistress of the home and hearth should fast or deny oneself the tastier fare that is easily available to the male members of the family. The reasons vary from time to time, from ritual to ritual.

Karva Chauth, Neel Shasti in Bengal, Teej, Shivratri are only some of the well-known occasions where women avoid consuming grains, pulses, or any spice. Of course, there are things they can eat. Fruits, water, and tapioca pearls. But nothing satiating.

It’s not just the question of patriarchal submission and social edicts that are flowing through our bloodstream through ages. It has, over the centuries, turned into a faith, a belief system of sorts. An ironic comparative might be some of the occult rituals which stress that in order to get what you desire, you must offer a worthy sacrifice. The same fervid motivation drove dacoits or thugs in pre and postcolonial India. Many regions have legends of how they offered human sacrifices to please Goddess Kali, the Goddess of death, before performing a dacoity.

But stories apart, the faith runs deep into the sinews of the female gene in India—you should give up to attain what you wish. And it has to be something you love and cannot live without.

“My wishes have been fulfilled. It’s a matter of belief. You will see when you become a mother,” my mother had often tried to support her theory by saying so.

Well, I am a mom now, and I love my son. But will I ever be able to give up something I love for him? Maybe. Maybe not. Does that make me selfish? I don’t know. Without an intention to justify my stance, I will just say… it makes me human.

Image source: a still from the film Uttarayan

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About the Author

Amrita Sarkar

Amrita Sarkar is an aspiring writer based in India. Her short stories have been selected winning entries for The Times of India Write India Contest (Season 3) and The Hive Publishers anthology #Love. Her self- read more...

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