Sunday, April 20, 2008

The choices women make - an Indian viewpoint

When my sis and I were growing up, the kitchen clearly seemed to be the arch-enemy of self-respecting women.

Around me, there appeared to be only two types of women: nondescript mousy housewives who did nothing but cook, and gloriously glamorous ones who went to that exciting place called "office".

Housewives. Sweaty slaves of the kitchen fires! They woke up at unearthly hours, muttered ancient prayers, and produced breakfasts, lunches and dinners in endless succession. They wore faded cotton sarees, their blouses damp with sweat. They chased and scolded and cajoled children. "Home makers" they might be - but when their husbands summoned them by name...Kamalaaaaaaa...they dropped everything else, and jumped to attention. Perhaps it was time for the next round of coffee. Perhaps there was a visitor who needed to be fed. Whatever. Clearly once the household woke up, the housewife's time was not her own.

But the women who worked - ah. They seemed to live in a separate world. Their sarees were crisp, pinned neatly at the shoulder with little golden pins. Their blouses actually matched the colour of the saree. They powdered their faces. Their bindis were neat stick-ons, not streaky sindoor that ran when you sweated. One of my earliest memories is of visiting an aunt who worked in a bank. How wonderful the bank was! Several women sat at desks, with important looking files around them. The fans whirled high above their heads; everything was cool and pleasant. Outside, customers sat on wooden seats, patiently waiting their turn. Inside, competent looking women counted money, totalled cheques and wrote in ledgers. Tringgg! The ringing of a bell would summon a peon. "Give Rekha madam this file", he would be told in an authoritative voice. Surely this was the good life! So much better than the kitchen!

There were other examples. At school, the Teachers Room was filled with all-powerful women. Since my mother was a teacher, I was witness to their camaraderie. I saw women sharing jokes, laughing over school politics, and debating what the annual day program should showcase. How much more interesting than housewifely discussions of rasam and sambaar at the local temple!

Clearly, those who wanted to be anything at all, had to forsake the kitchen. They had to study. They had to go to college, and make a place for themselves in the world of career women. My mum dreamt this dream for us, and kept us out of the kitchen. While other girls my age were chopping vegetables and learning to tell tuar dal from lal moong, I grew up with my head buried in books. I drew and painted and played marbles and flew kites. I got my MBA. I travelled. I earned money. But somewhere along the way, I also learnt to cook.

It was motherhood, of course, that forced me to learn. Starting from simple "koozhu" and boiled vegetables, I graduated to complex delicacies. I had a child who loved good food. At the age of 10 she could tell one subtle flavour from another. As my skills grew, so did my desire to entertain. All of a sudden, visits by family members became opportunities for me to experiment with food. I discovered and was totally trapped in the atavistic pleasures of feeding an appreciative audience. In the process, I came to understand that those glamorous working women of my childhood - the ones with the crisp sarees - woke up at unearthly hours too. They too cajoled their children, they too pandered to demanding husbands and in-laws. But their kitchens were not always hateful prisons to them. While their worklife provided them with independence and confidence, cooking and feeding people gave them deep satisfaction too.

Today my kitchen is home to several recipe books. My spice box is rich and inviting, and tempts me often to create new dishes. When I travel abroad on my consulting assignments, I raid speciality stores for delicacies. I've launched bazaar walks and cuisine tours in Mumbai and Delhi. Great-aunts and old female relatives have become a source of inspiration, and mum and I have conversations around food. Cooking has become a truly creative, rewarding part of my life.

Life is funny, I tell you. Ten years ago, I would have laughed at the very thought of cooking. Today, I'm watching Kylie Kwong's magic cooking on TV with my daughter. And we're both fascinated by it.

23 comments:

Indrani said...

So nice to know you are balancing your professional and personal life so well.

kallu said...

Told so well Deepa. Gentle unfolding of women's lives.

Lakshmi Bharadwaj said...

Hey, you sort of are like my mom. She works, cooks, and balances it all pretty well!! Even she loves the recipe books. Very nice blog. You have a way of putting things together.

aalok said...

this post reminds me of my mom, who wakes up at unearthly hours, loves cooking and still manages to balance her work and personal life. incidentally, my mom also happens to be a teacher :-)

Aalok
-Fear knocked at the door. Faith answered and no one was there.

Deepa Krishnan said...

Women who balance everything add pressure not only on themselves, but also on other women around them, who now think the "right" thing to do is be responsible for everything.

I'd hate to be a role model for other women. The last thing I want is some mom-in-law to tell her d-i-l "Look at that Deepa. See how well she does everything!" This is the sort of praise that breaks women's backs.

RAJI MUTHUKRISHNAN said...

I do love your post, Deepa,it is so well written.

As for myself, I have to confess, though I cook reasonably well, I just can't whip up enough enthusiasm to look forward to doing it everyday. :)

Gardenia said...

Bully for you, Deepa! Fine sentiments in that reply to all the comments.
You've said a lot with very little fuss and much insight in this post!

Anonymous said...

Very well written..It is indeed sad that men are yet to step into the kitchen and take equal part in running the house. Feminism has always been looked at as one where a woman takes on roles typically performed by men. And women who supposedly "balance" (read slog throughout the day) work and home are shown as model women..the symbol of a freedom...True Feminism is one where man takes on roles typically done by women (i.e running the house)...

Kat said...

Nice to read about a 360 degree satisfaction derived from life.

Sigh.... you think "home makers" fit that description? :-))))

Can see that the day is not far off when Kamala would summon... " Kannaaaaaaaaaa is my next cup of Coffee ready ?..!!!! "

Roop Rai said...

Woo you've written this very well!! Strangely, I made an attempt at this myself today albeit mine is very weak compared to yours!!

Here

Reading you describe saris, I felt transported to your world. Thank you.

:)

Diviya said...

I am no Superwoman, and don't aspire to be that. Kudos to the women who can 'balance' things well, but if someone else will do the cooking -that would be great!!

Swarna said...

Was I holding a mirror just then? :)
Adding to that story so well told, I could never have thought of myself as a wife, mom, d-i-l...

vaishali said...

I read your lovely post on cooking. You sound like one of my friends!!! Since you know a lot about delhi bazaars now, pl guide me- where in delhi ncr can i find rocket/roquette/arugula salad leaves to make a salad? My local noida "english sabzi" stocking store does not know about rocket.
vaishali

Deepa Krishnan said...

You should be able to get it in Khan Market in Delhi. It's where all the expats in Delhi shop for all their daily needs.

writerofthestorm said...

It's very different when you do something by choice instead of because it is an obligation. And you have discovered that cooking can be a form of artistry and expression, instead of a chore - good for you!

Super Babe said...

I just read this (directed from another blog), and I have to say that it is beautiful how you worded it. I'm Mexican, but for us life too revolves around cooking, so I pretty much made the same choices you did... and I so enjoy cooking now, but I think the main reason I enjoy it (it may be your case too) is that it was OUR decision... we weren't forced to learn, we just chose to :) (After reading the comments, I guess this is a general sentiment) :)

Roopa said...

Very well written Deeps (as usual). And so completely true ... I echo your feelings. Life is funny and I have sen many of my so called "value systems" / "beliefs" completely change in the last 10 - 15 years.

tournesol_vibrante said...

very well written. relating to it completely.

Unknown said...

Totally bowled over. You have a facile pen. Your cuisine must be equally tasty!

Mala said...

Hi Deepa! Good to know a bit about the other side of you. I too, share the same love for cooking and can relate to that! Like you, I like to pick up spices and seasonings from my travels and experiment with recipies from cuisines (Chinese, Thai, Mexican, Italian, Mediteranian...a long never ending list). I am always looking forward to social events and trying something new.

Mala Modi (USA)

Anonymous said...

Nice job, Thanks

preeti said...

I loved ur blog....reminds me of my childhood and the choices we made then - to avoid the kitchen and become career women.

Unfortunately i never did become a good cook, but manage to train my staff pretty well:-)

Kalpanaa Misra said...

Really enjoyed reading this post. I also divided women into the homemakers and the office goers. Judgemental huh? Cooking can be fun but isn't always - specially when it's routine. I find I have to keep reinventing myself - the old thumbed and splashed recipe books no longer excite me, it's the internet with it's tons of new recipes that inspire me.
We must cook because we want to, not because it's expected of us.