Your relationship to cooking does become more functional and humble, but not entirely unassuming, because you wish to taste life, to matter in the world, to have expertise
In 1993, the 73rd Amendment to the Indian Constitution made mandatory a 30 per cent representation of women in village panchayats. A lovely book, edited by Bishkha Datta, and reported by her, Sonali Sathaye, Sharmila Joshi and my neighbouring columnist Meenakshi Shedde, recorded responses to this in rural Maharashtra. Its title quotes some men who object to women in public life with: "And Who Will Make the Chapatis?"
The figure of the woman 'belo-ing rotis' is the ultimate symbol of gendered servitude. In parts of Gujarat, thinner your rotis, more your matrimonial eligibility. I'm told in Maharashtra it's the excellence of your poha. For such reasons, many women, myself included, never learned to make rotis (though we may eat them), however we may excel at cooking, or enjoy it.
Indians rarely learn how to cook, for their own selves. They usually have someone else to cook for them. Elites, have domestic staff. In poor families, it's usually the women who cook for everyone. Those who do cook are also taught that it is for others—in-laws mostly. Even if it is 'do roti kamane ke liye', the act of cooking is not in itself for the self.
That changes if you live alone. Until I began to do so at 22, I had cooked in an arts and crafts way. But, after a little while of making your party-type food, you start craving the staples you grew up on—dal, chawal, roti, sabzi and their equivalents.
Your relationship to cooking does become more functional and humble, but not entirely unassuming, because you wish to taste life, to matter in the world, to have expertise. Once you can afford to pay someone to cook for you, cooking once again becomes expressive of your personality and pleasures rather than an act of sustenance.
Recently, a dishwashing liquid advertised itself as tested by real moms. The conflation of moms with housekeeping annoyed moms who are professionals. I wash dishes too, but I'm not a mom. So, I wondered about other conflations: are all who wash dishes women? Or, if they wash dishes, but aren't moms are they not women? Also, what about the women who wash dishes professionally, as domestic staff, and may or may not be moms? Isn't their approval the one to cite? Well, perhaps not if it's a re-run of Kyunki Caste Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi.
Cooking has been no hardship for me in lockdown, but as when I first lived alone, I eventually missed some 'regular' things, yaniki rotis, my cooking's final frontier. I resisted for a long time, before I began to try, and as expected disaster-rotis that looked, felt and tasted awful were born and died. YouTube videos helped. But finally, making rotis is about rhythm, practice, commitment, self-effacement; not getting puffed up about one fluke phulka, but getting it right over and over.
Patience with myself in my non-excellence, not becoming my worst critic in rotis as I am in the rest of my life, I keep trying, though not every day. We resist being the belo-ing woman, not only because we can, but we also need to for a while. But as our contexts change, as we understand how redefining one kind of woman sometimes ignores another kind, our symbols and rebellions and criticisms should change too. That graceful political realignment, like roti-making, needs constant practice too, I guess.
Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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