By Poulomi Das Jul. 25, 2019
My mother belonged to a time where the kitchen was a woman’s prison and her call of duty. She has spent, what seems like, an entire lifetime inside the kitchen. It’s why I seem to have spent the better part of my life running away from it. Choosing to not have a relationship with cooking, almost felt like the only way to protest.
There’s a story my mother likes to repeat as a comeback – sometimes, in anger, and other times, as a sincere documentation of her bravery – every time my father and her have an argument. It goes like this: As a young newly-wed, even when my mother was running a high fever that rendered her almost immobile, she had no time to rest. Instead, she was ordered to the kitchen by her mother-in-law. In that state, she – the youngest daughter-in-law – was tasked with making a three-course lunch for everyone in the house, that included an array of aunts, uncles, and their children, besides the immediate family. My mother was 25 at the time. Today, she is touching 50. She might not go through life according to the demands of my grandmother anymore but even now, so much of my mother’s emotional labour revolves predominantly around cooking. My mother has spent, what seems like, an entire lifetime inside the kitchen. It’s why I seem to have spent the better part of my life running away from it.
Growing up, I’ve heard her recount this story on more than one occasion. It takes a life of its own with every recollection: Some days, she focuses on the endless list of items that she ended up cooking for lunch that afternoon, and on other days, she dedicates a generous amount of time to eke out the sweat-inducing stuffiness of the kitchen that held her prisoner for over three hours. But even if she hadn’t laced this story with excruciating detail, which she invariably does, I would have bought the extent of her helplessness in a heartbeat. I have, after all, witnessed it play out right in front of my eyes, day in and out.
My mother married into the kind of conservative Bengali family that believes in abundance, especially on the lunch table. Every meal at home is expected to be nothing short of a buffet, a family tradition that my mother willingly internalised. It meant that she was always up at 6 am before everyone to ensure that my father would have rows of bowls full of the choicest lentils, chicken, and fish preparations to eat with his rice at 11 am before he headed out for the day. In between, she’d feed my sister and I before we left for school, pack two sets of tiffins, while also tending to my frail grandmother and fixing her breakfast. Cousins visiting from abroad, marriage anniversaries, Durga Pujo, and countless birthdays were events that differed in their scope of enjoyment only for the rest of us. But for my mother, all of them meant one thing: they required her to step inside the kitchen and remain ensconced there, cooking for hours, if not days.
You see, my mother belonged to a time where the kitchen was a woman’s prison and her call of duty. And like most homemakers of her generation, she heeded to that duty without any resistance, effectively living a life that could be counted out by the endless meals she has been preparing. But the generation of women that I belong to, are bound by no such mandates. We’re women who’ve grown up looking at the kitchen, not so much as a refuge, but as a blackhole of sorts, one that has robbed the identity of all our mothers and aunts. Regarding the kitchen with suspicion – as the other – was the first lesson all of us learnt from their lives. And choosing to not have a relationship with cooking, almost felt like the only way to protest.
The kitchen is after all, the never-ending marriage a woman is expected to weather.
It didn’t take a lot for me to look at the kitchen with disdain and distance myself from it. It is after all, the never-ending marriage every woman is expected to weather, from the minute they are born. But whenever I think of the kitchen, I think of my mother’s wasted potential – I think of all the things that she could have been, had she not remained stuck in there. I mourn the things she had no idea that she was and has been giving up the moment she decided to will away her life inside that cramped room. At 26, I have done anything and everything to guarantee that I don’t end up being the proverbial woman in the kitchen, for whom it is the first room in the house to enter in the morning and the last room to walk out of, at the end of a day. I’m single, unmarried, and don’t have a family to cook for. In the past eight years that I have lived away from home, much of my daily life as an adult has been marked with an abject unwillingness to acquaint myself with the idea of the kitchen as an indispensable part of my life. And like most women my age, I have even looked at my lack of cooking skills as a badge of pride.
But the trouble is that, in being convinced that I should resist the kitchen, I have also stripped myself off the chance to find out whether I could have a relationship with cooking – on my own terms. To realise that the simple pleasures of making a meal for myself should not be marked by guilt. That I can get excited to try out a new ramen recipe on a Sunday afternoon without worrying about whether I am giving in to the socially held idea of where a woman truly belongs. That I don’t have to punish myself by training myself to be indifferent.
None of this made more sense than last week, when I suddenly fell ill; a high fever meant that I was confined to my house for a good three days. During that period, I spent my afternoons in the room I expected the least: the kitchen. I was tweaking recipes, rustling up my comfort food with an abandon that comes only when you’re having fun while trying out something new, but which somehow feels like routine. Initially, I told myself that I was just in it to pass time, that I wasn’t becoming the cliche I swore to never become: a seemingly independent, millennial woman who gets swayed by the kitchen. But by the second dish, it was hard to keep up the pretense. Until last week, I hadn’t entertained or admitted, even to myself, that I might have inherited my mother’s pedantic love for cooking.
I suppose, much of my hesitation with being someone who doesn’t just take a liking to cooking but also announces it, has been the fact that the kitchen continues to be built up as that space where a woman lives for others. Our society, even after applying a progressive 2019 filter reiterates the stereotypes of a woman being in a kitchen in slyly sexist and insidious ways. Irrespective of her agency, a woman who likes being in the kitchen, is still joked about in hushed whispers as someone devoid of ambition. Even in 2019, no one wants to know that woman, much less be that woman. If the burdens of patriarchy that our mothers quietly shouldered, could make me hate the kitchen, is it also not behind me taking a liking for cooking? And is it even possible for them to be two separate things?
In this tussle between fighting against what the kitchen represents and wholeheartedly embracing the joys of cooking, what often got lost in translation for me is that the kitchen, without the assumptions it invariably carries, can also be such a deeply nourishing space. It’s also that room where a woman gets to be in control. It’s possible for it to be a refuge; that space where a woman finally goes against years of conditioning and refuses to put everyone else before her own self; where what she makes is dictated only by her own taste buds and cravings. Lately, I find myself thinking about another story my mother admitted to me once: That the kitchen was also where she fell in love with cooking. She described it as “the act of giving life to her appetite”. Someday, maybe I will too.
When not obsessing over TV shows, planning unaffordable vacations, or stuffing her face with french fries, Poulomi likes believing that some day her sense of humour will be darker than her under-eye circles.