The top comment on the Queer Eye star, Tan France’s tutorial on making rotis says:
“My mom is gonna be so pissed when she finds out I started making rotis because of Tan France and not because of her.”
France confesses that learning to make roti as a young boy in a South Asian household was extraordinary. I must have watched that Americanised tutorial while slumbering in my blanket and binging YouTube, sometime. I thought of the video as I sweat profusely, bent over a rolling pin, an iron tawa on a burner adding to the heat.
At the beginning of my month-long break from work, I joked to my mother, “Imagine what my sasural waale will say if you don’t let me make rotis”. Both of us giggled. Thus, I came to stand in the kitchen making rotis. The idea was to capture the space of the doorless home kitchen. Every day I would wake up, stuff my ears with bluetooth earphones, put on a lecture or a podcast and then alternate between different items I was preparing.
My mother would peek and offer to “at least” make the rotis. I would act irritated and ask her to rest in her room. In my newfound resolve, I felt insecure and fragile. Not ready to be put on observation. Thus, when my roti was brittle and papad-like, instead of seeking mentorship from my mother, I slyly looked up suggestions on Cook With Manali.
“Making round rotis is really really hard”, Tan France acknowledges in the video. I felt an unadulterated joy as I saw steam filling my round roti. I started making round rotis when I finally stopped caring for their roundness. I did not use a katori to give it a smooth round texture, which is highly discouraged in the formal roti-teaching pedagogy. As Karthiga commented, “And un-round rotis are a great way to subvert patriarchal expectations”.
Growing up, I was not expected to toil in the kitchen. Yet, I decided to enter this institution, the inheritance of my foremothers. I wanted to be close to whatever femininity meant in the family. I also thought it would be a good idea to confuse my family by displaying how eagerly I wanted to manage a household, nurture and feed (Not that I was a do-it-all woman from Hindi TV shows). At the same time, I kept my avowed criticism against the hegemony of conjugality intact.
Those meditative hours spent in the home kitchen taught me so much about gender and household labour. Roti making, after all, is a loaded process.
When I started making rotis, I realised that it is a skill to be mastered. It comes with practice and patience. Yet there is an air of “knowingness” around it, none of the women around me ever made a roti too bad. I often wonder when did they learn to do this? I know the answer, all their lives. There is a mundaneness about rotis and the kind of women who make them. Thus, roti making was “something that anyone can easily do” and at the same time “you leave it, I will do it” for the women who made them. Making rotis was making a confession of surrendering to the expectations of Indian patriarchy and I resisted it for so long.
Roti, along with kapda and makan is a part of the basic structure of Indian need. It lies at the linchpin of gender roles and national identity in our country. Older women in my family expect hot rotis from the brides of their young sons in return for all the roti labour they had put into their sons.
A newlywed sister came back from her sasural to tell us about the hundreds of roti she had to prepare for the farm going men (even at an advanced roti career, I’m not making a hundred rotis for ungrateful emblems of patriarchy). There is something that the mechanical act of roti-making does to women – a kind of numbness, exhaustion, frigidity. I remember a bhabhi once complaining, “Didi, I don’t cook all these exotica because at the end they also expect roti”. In a north Indian household, how will you escape rotis?
I don’t remember being formally initiated into it but it happened gradually. As a young girl shadowing my mother, I was expected to find chimta (that transformative character from Premchand’s Idgah) from a basket of utensils. Soon enough, I would graduate to making loyis. As a teenager, I experimented a lot in the kitchen much to my mother’s irritation. But I did not engage in the regular act of roti-making before leaving home.
When I went to the hostel, the significance of roti hit home. I sat in my hostel mess declaring that I would become a rice person now. I went back on vacations to hot, round, inflated rotis. My mother would always be prepared for making hot rotis for my brother. “He doesn’t demand but eats an extra roti when it is hot”.
I would visit relatives stuffing an extra roti for the companionship of my cousins availing the free roti labour unquestionably offered by my bhabhis. It was the kindness of my flat mates and our collective desire for cooking together that made me want to perfect rotis.
Women in the family often stand in unventilated kitchens, their sindoor making a red line on their noses. Their knees and backs were now infested with one disease or another. My male relatives would mock the rotis, complain about the delay in the service, throw their thalis for the roti not being made right.
It was probably those memories, the inter-generational trauma of ungrateful roti labour, that made us look away. I shudder when I think about it, not that it is a thing of the past. I cannot accept any unsolicited humour from men about rotis. Even well-meaning romanticism around maa ke haath ki roti angers me.
Now my friends, cousins and nieces do not want to enter the kitchen. My niece said, “Bua, when they don’t ask my brother to do it, why should I?” Another cousin says, “Didi, if you enter the precincts of the kitchen, it is all about shaadi.”
“I understand“, I tell them.
The moment I entered the kitchen, I felt belonged. Every time I made roti, I placed honour in my grandmothers’ hands. An ordinary tribute to their longstanding career in the kitchen. Why should I let anyone tell me that what my ancestresses did all their lives is not a skill or has no economic value?
Why should the wisdom of my ancestresses be reduced to nothing? Cooking, I believe is not only a life skill or a hobby but it is labour. And thus I stand to labour in the kitchen of which I was exonerated. Despite all I say of labour and patriarchy, I know it lives in me- the failure of not being able to make rotis right. On bad roti days, I comb the casserole to find the least successful roti to eat and place the best-made rotis in my father’s thaali.
Silvia Federeci argues in Wages Against Housework, “We leave this worthwhile effort to the ‘career woman, the woman who escapes from her oppression not through the power of unity and struggle, but through the power of the master, the power to oppress – usually other women”.
Is it the cheap labour of a “maid” or unaccounted labour of other women in the family? What really makes one an independent, career woman? A constitutional law professor had once announced in the classroom, “Roti makes you independent”. And what does that mean?