Bread or roti in some form or the other is staple food to almost the entire human population. The Lord’s Prayer in Christianity includes ‘Give us this day our daily bread’. Millions the world over have to leave their homes to earn their ‘rozi roti’ or livelihood. Bread or roti is such an integral part of our existence that it is part of our vocabulary and the idioms we use in our speech. ‘Break bread’, ‘bread and butter’, ‘bread always falls on the buttered side’, or in Hindi expressions like ‘mehnat ki roti’, or ‘do joone ki roti’.
However, the politics of who ‘earns’ the roti and who rolls it out can tell a lot about family dynamics and the position of woman in society. In western societies, bread is mostly bought from stores or bakers but in India and all of Southeast Asia, rolling out rotis for a family meal is pretty much a woman’s everyday task. So does ‘Ma ke haath ki roti’ or bread made so lovingly by the mother have a lingering taste of oppression? If yes, do we see or acknowledge it?
Recently, a friend based in the US shared photographs of light airy phulkas she had made for herself and then narrated a tale from a time before she was born. Yes, memory, like the aroma of food, has the power to float into our thoughts, long after a meal is savoured. More than forty years ago, her mother heavily pregnant with her, had to live with her paternal grandparents in a joint family set-up, while her father was posted in another part of the country.
The family comprised an elderly couple, their seven sons, all bachelors and an unmarried daughter. So, the onerous task of preparing rotis every night fell on the pregnant young daughter-in-law in her early twenties. Her task had to be accomplished just before dinner time, so around 8, she would start kneading a mountain of dough and quickly roll out balls to flatten into chapatis in a dark kitchen with hardly any ventilation and the searing heat of a Kolkata summer.
The young men were ravenous and keeping pace with their appetite and their calls for ‘one more’ was just impossible. By the time the family had been fed and sated, she was left with no energy to make one for herself and would often be too glad to retreat into her room and fall asleep having some dry murmura or a banana perhaps. Yet, as is often the case, her plight was invisible.
‘Maybe this memory stayed somewhere in my subconscious mind, and I avoided making roti,’ said my friend half jocularly. Years later, as a schoolgirl, she remembers the taste of two feather-light phulkas her mother would make for her when she returned from school each afternoon and serve them with fried eggplant, begun bhaja, a popular Bengali side-dish. My very bright friend, a single woman, who later went on to make a successful career for herself as an engineer in the US, carries within scars of being abused at home. As punishment for what her mother found precocious, she had once forcibly placed her little hand on a hot griddle! The cycle of abuse and domestic violence passes till on, and spirals as mental health professionals have pointed out.
Many middle-class homes, especially if the woman is working outside her home, employ a cook or a domestic help to help with the chores or the cooking. Yet, there are homes across the country where it is the woman’s lot to cook, and the domestic help is not permitted to touch any food or step inside the kitchen. Caste, and untouchability are still cardinal rules that are followed even homes in that could easily afford to engage a cook.
‘Do you think I will eat food cooked by a sweeper?’ a neighbour had thundered, preferring to make his own chapatis everyday till Parkinson’s diluted all caste and ‘ritual purity’ norms.
Across India, a woman rises at the crack of dawn, prepares paranthas or idlis, depending on the region, for the family breakfast, then packs lunch boxes for school going children and adult working members of the family before dashing off for work herself. Does she have time for breakfast herself beyond a cup of tea getting cold on the kitchen sink? Your guess is as good as mine. And this my friend, is just the morning ritual. There is a long shift to pull after ‘work’ too.
For part-time domestic helps working across the city, the routine is killing. Preparing a meal for the family before heading to work in other people’s homes, and then returning to their own homes to cook lunch, and finally dinner after an evening spent working across multiple homes. ‘I don’t make rotis Madam. For my children, it is either rice or Maggi as an occasional treat. Who has the energy to make rotis?’ asks my domestic help.
“When I got married, the first thing my mother-in-law did was to fire the cook. Why? She said finally the family will get authentic ghar ka khana and rotis made by the lady of the house,” says a close friend busy with her preparations for dinner. Of course, she will eat last, the cold chappatis after everyone has had their fill. No, she will not go hungry. Maybe a slice of bread, if she runs out of chappatis, or a glass of milk, healthier right? And she is a post graduate and an artist who chose not to monetise her skills or her education.
Around construction sites, under flyovers one can often see vagrants, migrants, workers setting up a makeshift kitchen with bricks, a few twigs and lighting a fire. Then a griddle is placed and a woman tending the fire then rolls out thick rotis to feed her children gathered around her in expectation of what would probably be their only meal of the day. Will she even manage to get one? Or will she also like the pregnant woman go to bed hungry?
Soumi Das is a former journalist. She worked with The Hindustan Times and The Indian Express New Delhi till 2010, before moving to teaching. She was the recipient of the National Media Fellowship from the National Foundation for India (NFI), 2004-2005, and wrote a series of gender-centric stories based on her home state Jharkhand. She lives and works in New Delhi.
Featured Image Source: Lisa Limer, OFFSET