There’s nothing remotely common between the two times I fell in love – more precisely the idea of love, the first time around – save for one thing. Both the times, the guys concerned, cooked for me. How, what, when, is besides the point.
The crux of the matter is the men did the one thing traditionally expected out of women, at least as far as Indian stereotypes go. And it was not a one off. During the first year or so of my conjugal life, the husband did most of the cooking. And darned tasty and innovative meals they were! As the months went by, I developed a flair inside the kitchen, quite voluntarily. While the Internet was a huge help, encouragement and compliments from Mr. B were added bonus.
One of these days – while I couldn’t pat my back enough for nailing a typical Bengali dish with the first attempt – it suddenly occurred to me, why at all is the act of cooking – along with so many other things – so gendered in the contemporary urban milieu? And that took me back in time.
Despite my contempt for the so-called ideals of an ‘average middle-class Bengali household’, there’s an ‘anomaly’ I can’t help but acknowledge. My Father. While I was growing up, he was an exception to the many established stereotypes – he also reaffirmed some – of what a man of the house should or should not do. One among his various ‘anomalistic’ traits happens to be his faculty with rustling up a decent meal. Granted, he has never ventured beyond his signature dishes. But a man born in the 1950s pottering about in the kitchen is not so common.
The only cooking I myself remember doing until I was in my mid 20s, was to boil rice and potatoes and of course the quintessential Maggi. It came as a rude shock when a prospective suitor – yes I did go through the matchmaking grind too – casually asked if I would mind learning tangra maacher jhol (a fish curry) from his Mother! Eventually I decided against taking things forward, but at times that one question still feels like a truant Hilsa bone stuck between my teeth. ‘Knowing’ was not enough. I was expected to ‘learn’ cooking.
That was perhaps the only time I consciously felt the need to adhere to the idea of ‘not cooking’ as empowering. Yet I found something admirable about women who liked cooking, and were good cooks irrespective of age and my relation with them. I told myself ‘I love food, but cooking is just not my thing’.
As the years went by, I tried to do something ‘different’ in the kitchen now and then. After a few hits and misses, pretty much like my Father, I became confident about my then ‘signature dish’. A version of Chicken Stew which I now find staid and bland.
I never went beyond that until I was married. And even when I was, I didn’t feel either the urge or the need to take cooking seriously. There was someone to take care of it. I was happy in the knowledge that I didn’t have to do a ‘chore’. The fact that I had married a man who cooked seemed ‘normal’ to me. But I often got to hear, I was among the ‘lucky few’. And I accepted that statement with a wide grin. Between ourselves though, we never really discussed the ‘implications’ or ‘symbology’ of a man or woman cooking.
I don’t quite know when I started making an effort to make good food, and not just food. It just happened and never felt like a chore. These days, I probably do a little more cooking than the husband does but I don’t feel like it is a task that has been assigned to me. I don’t understand why I ought to feel lucky because he can cook. Yes, I feel lucky because he’s a GREAT cook. Likewise, I don’t understand why should he feel doomed if I couldn’t cook at all.
Cooking – as I see it – is pretty much about flair and choice. Either you like doing it or you don’t. This pre-determined role that we have been conditioned to associate with a specific gender is kinda hackneyed. As is the need to ‘reverse’ it. At best, it’s a shared responsibility, at worst it’s the maid’s culpability!
As far as learning it as a means of sustenance goes, what are ready meals there for? Also, there’s nothing more tasty than a mashed mound of boiled rice, potatoes and eggs with a bit of salt, a generous dollop of ghee or butter with gnashed green chilies! And that is hardly any ‘cooking’. Of course, you are not allowed to count the calories if you are on this diet though.
I understand the need to debunk and declassify commonly accepted – and imposed – societal roles and ‘traditions’, for a more holistic and fulfilling life for women in general. But I also happen to think that too many things have been overtly politicized and have become hot topics of repetitive, often futile discourse and debates.
Even if you leave the kitchen aside, an omnipresent ‘discourse’ concerns if a woman should ‘look’ married or not. Again, it’s a choice, neither an imposition nor an obligation, and definitely not a debate. Given our nuclear lifestyles, I think most of us have the ‘freedom’ to make that choice. And honestly, even in a relatively conservative place like Jaipur, I often can’t tell who’s married and who’s not. I don’t think the change in mindset has occurred because of activism. I think it is more about empathy and the average person’s impetus to attune themselves with the times. People don’t expect bahus to cover their heads all the time in front of elders or to smear a copious amount of vermilion on their parting or to wear bangles up to their elbows.
And yet, there resides ancient relics in so-called progressive communities who think the daughter must dress in a certain way when visiting in-laws (when the people concerned don’t give two hoots), cover her legs even within the four walls of her home, conduct herself ‘traditionally’…so on and so forth. In the end, it is not even about ‘society’. It’s just the individual. No amount of activism or discourses can bring about change unless the person(s) want to change.
Meanwhile, let me check what’s cooking…