By Sonali Kokra Apr. 11, 2019
When I was growing up, Maa’s kitchen had some manner of grinding, slow cooking going on at all times. But my utter lack of initiative when it comes to feeding people ghar ka khaana has been the cause of great pain to women in my family.
Igrew up in a large, bustling joint family. As irritating as that was to a young girl who only wanted to find a quiet corner in which to read her new Sweet Valley High (please tell me Elizabeth and Todd got married and made sombre, well-behaved babies!) minus colicky, wailing infants waddling over to grab said book, there was one undeniable advantage to my crowded living situation: the food.
With four generations of women living under one roof, the walls of the two kitchens of our home have seen drama, tears and meltdowns that would put Gordon Ramsay’s productions to shame. The kitchen was simultaneously a warzone and wonderland. It was like our personal rendition of the Game of Thrones. Except, the Iron Throne was the newly purchased and highly coveted microwave oven and all the younger women were prepared to scheme, seize, and battle for it. While the Iron Bank (Maa, my grandmother) and Olenna Tyrell (my great-grandmother) looked on in amusement and alarm.
The first and original kitchen on the lower level of the house was guarded and ruled, obviously, by my grandmother and her mother-in-law with the ferocity of fire-breathing dragons. This room played by the rules. No shortcuts were allowed here. And no onions or garlic. The only explanation I can offer is that the Bhagwan perched in Maa’s tiny kitchen mandir (you know, in case someone suddenly needed to pray for forgiveness for culinary hara-kiri such as not adding enough adrak in chai) must have a highly sensitive olfactory sense and the aroma of burnt garlic or bhuna onions must tickle the hair in its nostrils.
But that’s not the point. The point is, at any given time, Maa’s kitchen had some manner of grinding, beating, reducing, slow cooking going on. This was the room where every summer, all the women and girls in the house would gather for days of achaar-making. Tens of kilos of raw mangoes would be peeled, diced, shaved, rolled in a specific combination of specific masalas, dried and inspected by Maa before they were deemed worthy of being added to a kadhai the size of a bedroom (in Mumbai) and cooked for hours on a low heat. This was the room where these achaars were then proportioned into large mustard and cream barnis and dispatched to all major and minor branches of the K-family around the world. The other kitchen produced dreadful experiments like broccoli — “mehengi gobhi”, as Maa ridiculed it — soup and magical creations like chocolate ladoos.
I wonder if cooking is my mum’s passion, or a compromise she made to make life easier.
I grew up having home-cooked hot meals being delivered to school exactly 10 minutes before the lunch-hour bell. One of my best friends today is a girl who only grudgingly struck up a friendship with me over 25 years ago because my mother’s dabba was already making waves in the lunchroom. I have a lifetime of memories of my young mother watching Tarla Dalal and Sanjeev Kapoor with rapt attention and taking copious notes, filling up diary after diary with their instructions and hacks.
My sister has inherited some of my mother’s passion for cooking. While she’s not above tossing two-minute noodles into her spawn’s lunchboxes on the days she wonders why she chose to procreate, I often hear my mother and her on the phone, exchanging recipes, or gleefully telling each other about new techniques they learned on YouTube.
But this enthusiasm for the culinary arts, the desire to put my heart and soul on a plate so it can titillate the senses of the person feasting on the fruits of my labour, eludes me. It’s robbed me of the few remaining points left on my arranged marriage scorecard, once enough deductions were made for my progressing age and 21-and-a-half white hair. When past romantic interests have expressed a desire to have me cook a meal for them, they’ve been treated to a stack of sharply cut and thickly buttered bread slices. I feel guilty about many things that I do when I’m seeing someone, but ordering takeout from restaurants with average ratings on Zomato and passing the food off as my own is not one of them. And if I’ve helped with the cleaning and chopping of the raw material, I have no compunctions about calling myself the chef.
Which is not to say that I’m a parasite that quietly lurks around and gets by on the largesse of my mother’s kitchen. I’m a grown-ass woman and have lived away from the family home for many months at a time at various stages of life. I know how to get by carefully rotating my limited menu of three types of bhindi, six varieties of dal, one paneer preparation, and masala dosa on special occasions. I may not know how to work all the attachments that come with the Boss blender (seriously, are they trying to launch a rocket or make a milkshake?), but I can rattle off a comprehensive comparative analysis of all the popular ready-to-eat and instant-cook brands stocked at Food Bazaar. It’s not a feminist statement — there’s nothing liberating about craving kheer but settling for ice cream — I simply have no interest in it.
And that’s a liberty I, and other young women of my generation can afford to take. With our education and freedom to choose careers and employ others to do the cooking, we have the privilege of turning up our noses at slaving over the stove.
I consider the right to act on my disinterest a gift – one that my mother, and others of her generation, gave their daughters. She was expected to come into her marriage, fully trained by her own mother in the art of dal-chawal-roti-sabzi. I was trained by mine to keep out of it.
I often wonder that if she hadn’t been conditioned into believing that feeding her family was a sacred womanly duty, what else she might have found herself doing. Would she have pursued her love for Sanskrit, instead of forgetting the script altogether? What could her life have been if her mother too had sent prospective mothers-in-law packing with a frosty look when they hinted that I would be “allowed” to work, as long as I relieved them from their lifelong kitchen duties? I wonder if cooking is my mum’s passion, or a compromise she made to make life easier.
Still, old habits die hard, and my continued lack of initiative when it comes to feeding people self-prepared ghar ka khana remains a cause of great pain to three generations of women in my family. Mum and didi have taken to stoking my maternal instinct, painting vivid scenarios with tight close-ups of my future children’s forlorn faces as they look at lunch money, while their friends tuck into mummy ke haath ka khana. They don’t know that I’m currently in the process of calling in every favour owed by food writer friends to set me up with single, hygienic sous chefs from restaurants I approve of. There, problem solved.
Sonali Kokra is a journalist, writer, editor and media consultant from Mumbai. She writes on feminism, gender rights, sexuality, relationships, and lifestyle. In her 12-year-long career, she has written for national and international magazines, newspapers and websites. She was last seen as the lifestyle editor of NDTV, and HuffPost.com, and has published a coffee table book on Shah Rukh Khan.