I learnt to cook on my own. Thankfully, my mother never dragged me into the kitchen or nagged me about making perfect rotis or gobhi aloo (a la Bend it like Beckham). Cooking was a functional activity for me, primarily for sustenance. Almost every day for a year in Mumbai during my post-graduate studies, I relished the no-fuss humble dal-chawal I made. No, I did not ‘survive’ on it, I enjoyed it. It barely took me 30 minutes, and made for a great meal. Once in a while on a weekend, with free time on my hands, I would prepare an elaborate meal with my flatmates.
It is perhaps during this time, when I was juggling studies, dissertation and a documentary film, I understood that I aim to be a functional cook, I don’t wish to achieve culinary perfection or be lauded for my cooking abilities. I did not want my value and worth to be reduced to what I could produce in the kitchen. I embraced the tag of ‘kaam chalau’ cook. This anxiety in me to not be identified as a good cook stemmed from the historical and social context of confining women to the kitchen and domesticity and judging them by the metric of how delicious their food was. The general assumption that women naturally love to cook and experiment with new dishes has made me immensely dislike the kitchen-space, look at it with derision and even complicated my relationship with food itself.
When I was younger, some of my school mates would bring home-made samosas, bread rolls and cakes, and I would often wonder why my mother who works in the bank does not rustle these up? I remember asking her innocently one evening, “Mamma why don’t you make samosas at home?” She smiled feebly and sent me to the market to buy some. The expectation from a woman to bake a cake at home, when she wakes up at 6 in the morning to make breakfast and lunch for husband and kids, get them ready for school, get ready herself, go to work and do more of the same again once she is back, is inhuman and violative. In spite of her hectic schedule, our mother managed to feed us your everyday North-Indian fare quite lovingly, though we secretly wished our mother was Tarla Dalal! Women of her generation were expected to be perfect cooks, rustling around the kitchen producing rich halwas, fried pooris and velvety ice-cream. This was something I understood later on, observing other women around me, who were expected to excel in the kitchen and devote their time painstakingly to cook and feed the family and not allowed to do anything else. I am speaking of those women, the ones who are burdened and expected to live their lives within those four walls or who are allowed to step out but continue to get pulled back by the cooktop.
Earlier, women’s worth, their value and contribution were to be measured by their culinary skills. Few decades back women had to fight and struggle to work professionally (many women still find themselves in that position). And they were still expected to shoulder household and kitchen responsibilities at home albeit all by themselves. This juggling of the life outside and inside, made them spread themselves thin, exhausted them and burnt them out, putting their mental health and bodies at risk. It is precisely for this reason that all this has taken a toll on my mother’s health now, as she suffers from years of strenuous work and pressure, at home and outside. There was certainly no concept of self-care back then, even going to the beauty salon for threading and waxing was viewed suspiciously and raised eyebrows. Eventually many women (including my mother) quit their jobs or take a sabbatical. The unsympathetic conditions at home which do nothing to facilitate your work-life produce these conditions. And my mother still regrets it.
It is 2021 and I am frequently asked this question, especially by my media students: why is feminism still relevant? In the classroom I encounter many statements that begin with ‘I’m not a feminist, but…’, suggesting that feminism is a terrible label and it connotes an unpleasant subject position vis-à-vis men. Certainly, feminism and feminist activism produces great anxieties among men, and the parodying of feminists, as men-haters, has not helped matters. Most food shows or films that obliquely refer to the kitchen or the food being cooked, never draw your attention to the labour that goes in producing food, consequently alienating us, the viewer, from all that goes into making those dishes. Members of the household shower heaps of praises or brickbats but never really reflect on the very tedious and tiring process of preparing food, and the sheer variety of dishes cooked. We need to firmly and resolutely dwell on those moments, the drudgery of dicing and cutting vegetables, the repetitive nature of making heaps of tea every day, the enervating task of washing dishes after every meal – what really happens behind the kitchen screen? If food has the ability to bring people together, it can very well pull them apart.
The rigid gender normative roles are reflective of the anxieties that families project on women, the anxiety of women stepping out in the public space, the anxiety of women becoming independent, the anxiety of women questioning the given gender roles – all of these anxieties lead to the formation of prevalent sexual divisions of labour. The kitchen in the domestic sphere continues to be the domain of women, with men sometimes arguing that they don’t want to step in their territory. These are obviously nothing but excuses to shun responsibility and escape the boring, tiring and repetitive nature of work in the house and kitchen. Men mostly view cooking as an exceptional leisurely activity to be pursued on weekends, to be lauded and to be praised for.
The demands put on the modern-day working women are far worse. With better terms of gender equality now, women are studying and working, albeit with a rider – the house is theirs to maintain and run. We have ended up burdening women with more, thereby affecting their mental and physical health. This is not to disregard that many women have found innovative ways of negotiating this in their everyday lives by having equally-involved husbands, keeping cooks, by eating out and ordering-in, and with some women even enjoying their time in the kitchen – but if, as the first-wave feminists have argued, that the kitchen is the emblem of women’s imprisonment, maybe their performance need not be top-notch!
On this International Women’s Day, I want to make a case for working women (because all women should have the opportunity to work outside their homes, and the ones who don’t want to, that is alright too) – to embrace being functional cooks. This year’s theme for the Women’s Day campaign is #ChooseToChallenge, flowing from the idea that we need to be deliberately provocative, and question and call out regressive practices which perpetuate gender bias and inequality in all its myriad forms. Sure, everyone has to eat, and someone has to cook, and if women end up being the ones to do so, they should not aim for gastronomical excellence. Women are certainly getting better at negotiating this complicated terrain now. Many of my friends don’t aim to achieve culinary perfection either, prospective omelettes can turn into scrambled eggs, dosas can refuse to flip, idlis can be pudgy, the kuzhambu can be watery, pre-mix cakes can be shoved in the oven, frozen food can be fried and served to guests and that is alright.
This world needs to become more sympathetic and supportive to working women, and not expect them to be Master Chefs who are spending a huge chunk of their time crunching numbers, making presentations, conducting classes or attending calls and meetings. Women shouldn’t be given unkind and offensive remarks towards the fare they cook. Don’t fall in the trap that makes you question your cooking skills and nudges you to do better in the kitchen next time. I resolve to become a mediocre intermittent cook, who produces average fare for sustenance, and perhaps so should we all.
Aakriti Kohli is an assistant professor, researcher and documentary filmmaker. She teaches media and cultural studies, and has a keen interest in writing on gender and technology. She is currently working towards her PhD on screen media and the youth. She can be found on Instagram. She can be found on Instagram.
Featured image source: Cinestaan