Is the food only for the men?


When S and I were newly married, we shared our rented apartment with an elderly lady who was the owner of that apartment. What had happened was that the lady was supposed to be leaving in a month or so to stay abroad with her children, but events unfolded such that we all ended up staying together for a much longer time.

It was a very interesting experience to live that way. She was a soft spoken, cultured and well-read lady, and having been a history teacher before her retirement, she regaled us with amazing stories from Indian History at dinnertime, when all three of us sat together at the dining table.

But as it often happens with most people of the previous generation, she too lived with the notion that food was mostly cooked for the pleasure of men. How did I find this out?

In the early days of my marriage, I was staying at home, before I re-joined my job a couple of months later. I used to do all the cooking and washing up myself, and for the first few days, auntie would say in the afternoons: oh, it’s just the two of us, we’ll have leftovers from last night.

Or she would say: Oh, cook all this elaborate stuff in the evening when S comes home.

After a few days, I wondered why the two of us were not worth cooking for, and only S was worth cooking for? So when she said to me that day, ‘oh we’ll have leftovers from last night, S won’t be here anyway’, I laughed and said to her: But auntie we are here! Why should food only be cooked for S? I want to cook for myself and for you as well!

And from then on, I cooked up good stuff for the two of us also. I think she was also trying to be kind to me, and not make me work too hard—trying to make it easy for me by saying that I didn’t need to cook for her. I understand that a lot of it came from a place of kindness wherein she didn’t want me to be exhausted cooking for her.

But I’ve seen this in plenty of Indian homes where the man is considered the primary consumer of food—the food is almost always meant first and foremost for the men.

And the meat—especially the meat! The men are expected to eat a lot of meat, and the women are supposed to not want meat so much. Perhaps it has to do with the belief that meat eating makes you aggressive and dominant- not to mention highly sexual.

Qualities that traditional society wishes to keep away from women.

Well, not this woman.

I love my chicken and my mutton, and am not ashamed of eating as much as I want. (Perhaps that might explain some of my aggression and other interesting qualities. But that’s another discussion.)

So one day, S and I were invited to dinner at an acquaintance’s house. They had cooked shaljam gosht which is practically our favourite meat dish.

Now, the thing is, sucking on mutton bones for bone marrow is considered a delicacy in our culture. So when we sat for dinner, the elderly gentleman asked his wife to ladle out the big bone to S.

“Bhaiyya ko do!” He instructed her. Give it to the young man!

I waited for her to ladle it out to S, while eyeing the other big bone in the curry for myself. But before I had the chance to actually get the bone for myself, the elderly gentleman again urged his wife:

“Doosri wali bhi do bhaiya ko!” Give the other bone, too, to the young man!

Well, really! Why should all the best portions be ladled out to ‘bhaiyya’! Why had he invited me, then? To watch while my husband ate?

Thankfully, however, his wife retorted with: “Arrey woh bhi to khayegi!” indicating me. “But she is eating too, isn’t she!” I cannot explain how happy her answer made me.

Food is not meant for men alone.

More evidence of this attitude can be found in villages, in large joint families, where it is always the women who do all the cooking from dawn to dusk, but are always the last to eat.

The food is served to all the men first, and when they have had their fill of all the freshest and best portions, the leftovers are eaten by the women. Often it happens that very little of the food is left, and the women either have to go back to the kitchen and cook some more, or end up eating only the little that is left. It is unfair and infuriating.

I was not brought up with this kind of attitude, and so became aware of it quite late in life. But then I never stayed in a villag, and neither of my grandparents lived in a village either. They were all town-dwellers who espoused respectful and fair attitudes towards women.

My father was a loving and respectful husband and he would never eat until mummy had joined us at the table. Even when we had guests over, the women ate together with the men.

My partner S and I never eat without each other – unless we are both busy with our professional work, in which case we eat whenever we find the time, without waiting for each other. But those instances are rare.

When we visit his parents in Aligarh, all of us eat together, and if there’s something to be brought in from the kitchen, it doesn’t always have to be the woman who goes and gets it. It could be S and his brothers too.

Sanchari Bhattacharya, a friend of mine, wrote a poignant post on Facebook, about how she knew the food preferences of every member of the family, but not of her mother-in-law. Neither her husband not her sister in law could tell her what their mother preferred to eat – because, like many women of the earlier generation, she proudly declared that she ‘could make do with anything.’

Women’s choices are all supposed to mould themselves to fit the men’s convenience. And so Sanchari’s mother in law never asked for anything for herself, taking pride in ‘adjusting’ to make everyone happy. But Sanchari, ever the determined, caring and empathic soul, persisted in questioning her mother in law about her favourite food.

The lady in question responded with this hard-hitting story:

“When a son came home from his big job abroad, he took the whole family out to a fancy restaurant. He asked everyone to order whatever they liked, no matter what the cost because he was now rich. Everyone but his mother placed an order. When asked, the mother said that she had no preferences, so she doesn’t really know what she should order. At this, the now NRI son jumps in and says, “Oh no worries. She’s MY mother, I know exactly what she likes. She likes tail pieces (lyaja) of fish. All my life, I’ve always seen her save the tail pieces for herself and give us the petties and gadas (bigger, more meaty, less boney pieces) beforehand. Someone get her a big tail piece, please. “

The mother smiles at the son and faintly remembers how, before she got married, she’d always get the big fish head. That probably tasted better, though she barely remembered it. She hadn’t even realized all this while, when her status had got demoted from the head of the fish to its tail in the span of these 30 years.”

Eventually, Sanchari found out her mother-in-law’s favourite- prawns – but this little story demonstrates perfectly how traditional societies erase women’s preferences and individuality, even in such ordinary, simple matters as food.

It reminded me of how I, too, needed to find out what my mother in law liked to eat- she never expressed a preference.

My own mother, however, was a different case altogether. She was an avowed vegetarian in a family of meat-eaters, so an extra dish was always prepared for her whenever meat was cooked.

I say an extra dish was ‘prepared’ for her because, with my father being a government officer, she hardly ever did the cooking – merely supervised the cooking, which was all done by male cooks, appointed by the government for officers’ households.

So I had a childhood where I saw men cooking inside my house all the time, while my mother supervised them and gave them instructions. We did not grow up with the idea that cooking is a ‘woman’s job.’

We also went out often to eat at fancy restaurants, and she loved South Indian cuisine- dosas, idlis and vadas- so my father always picked the restaurants that served these. Always mindful of her choice, of things that she liked and wanted.

Even after he passed away, my mother kept up her boundless energy and zest for life for the sake of her two little girls, and the three of us often went out to eat — where we always knew she would order dosa!

And not only do we know very well the preferences of our mother, we also know the food preferences of our mother’s mother. She, too, liked to cook for herself, and have food of her liking made by the khansama (male cook, again) in her youth. To this day, even at the age of 80, she eats her favourite foods with relish. And like me, she is an avid carnivore- loves her chicken and mutton, and loves feeding everyone chicken and mutton! In fact, my Nanna is at the opposite end of the spectrum – not only does she get food of her own choice prepared, she insists on feeding other family members the food of her choice! (Talk about dominance and aggression resulting from meat-eating, ha!)

In a nutshell then, I grew up in a family of bold, energetic ladies and caring, thoughtful gentlemen – so I never adopted the traditional docile attributes expected of women. And I remained vocal and insistent about my own food preferences.

It is ironic that even though traditional societies consider cooking as ‘a woman’s job’, the first right over the food is always supposed to belong to the men.

The good part is that attitudes have changed by and large in this generation — women are more vocal and open, and men are more considerate and loving. It is a change for the better. A sign of better things to come, a sign of more harmonious relationships and more fulfilling lives for everyone.

Because ‘the family that eats together, stays together.’

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When you are old and grey and full of sleep


“When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep…”

(W.B. Yeats)

Last year, in this very month of August, a couple of elderly men ‘escaped’ their old age home to attend the world’s largest heavy metal concert in Germany. Many people found this funny. But I was deeply moved by these two men, ‘old men’ still young at heart, who wanted simply an evening out from their own lives.

The first time I ever came to know of elderly people ‘escaping’ from institutional homes was when I read a story in Joanne Harris’s book A Cat, A Hat and a Piece of String. The story was titled Faith and Hope Fly South— Faith and Hope being two elderly women living in Meadowbank Retirement Home in the UK. The story moved me to tears.

Actually, Hope is the one that moved me most. She’s a former Cambridge professor, very dignified, witty and possessing the right ‘airs’ for a cultured lady. Quite the formidable woman. But now, she’s blind.

Faith, on the other hand, is wheelchair bound. What both women share is a feisty spirit and dollops of zest for life.

Hope has a daughter who never turns up to show her face and merely sends her postcards from all over the world—which the mother carefully collects in a box. Faith, though, has a son that visits her every week—but with “petrol-station” flowers and merely stories of the “World Outside.” Never an offer to take her with him.

World Outside.

The words stung me.

The implication of being imprisoned. Not knowing what was on in the world outside the walls that caged you. And this, after having been out in that world for so long, after having partaken of its pleasures and its pains, its wonders and its routines, after having savoured every one of them for decades, you’re suddenly shut off from all of it.

What’s worse was reading that they needed permission slips to join the rare outings that occured.

“I have to say I don’t much like the idea of Tom having to sign a slip,” says Faith. Tom is her son who has to sign her permission slip. “It reminds me so much of the times when he used to bring those forms home from grammar school, wanting permission to go on trips to France, or even skiing in Italy, trips we could barely afford, but paid for anyway,” says Faith. To have your children become your parent. It seems an almost indulgent thought, but it isn’t really—not if it is unaccompanied by the respect that is due to those elder in years. It can carry an edge of humiliation with it, which I realised for the first time.

Worse, far worse is this—which Hope and Faith had to endure. To have people that are half your age tell you that you’ve been ‘naughty’ because you ‘escaped’ for a daytrip of your own- because you dared to claim one day of your life for yourself. To be taunted for expressing your need for independence and dignity as a human being.

“Lorraine (the warden at the old age home) is equally appalled—for a different reason—and often speaks to us in the syrupy tones of a cross nursery teacher, explaining how naughty it was of us to run away, and how worried everyone was on our behalf…”

Cross nursery teacher.

Being addressed like a kindergartener, robbed of all dignity.

Hit me like a punch in the gut.

Hit me with the severity that accompanies guilt.

Do I sometimes speak to my mother this way? Like I know more than her, like I know better? Like I’m the one instructing her on what was best for her? It’s hard to own up to this, but I do. Sometimes I begin talking to her like I’m writing one of my articles, going on and on about a point I’m trying to make.

Having it said straight to my face, even if by a fictional character, dropped me into reality with a painful thud.

Into the truth of what it meant to be a ‘senior citizen’. Especially when your children begin to exercise control over you.

This is common even in societies like ours, despite the fact that we don’t send off our parents to old age homes. The way we look askance at elderly women wanting to wear jewelry and make-up. At elderly women wanting to enjoy life beyond just grandchildren. The way we expect the elderly to have no dreams and desires, no need for enjoyment and revelry— no need for anything more than a prayer room.

Hope and Faith are ‘punished’ by Lorraine, the young warden, for ‘flouting her authority’ and going off on their own. She restricts them to the confines of the Home the next time everyone else is taken on an outing. A greater humiliation, one that hit badly where it hurt. It hit their desire and their one chance to be out in the world, even if for a day.

And then, something beautiful happens. Faith’s young friend Chris, who is a helper at the old age home, decides to bring the world ‘in’ if they can’t go out into it. He makes a beach ‘setting’ for them right inside the Home.  He hands them glossy travel magazines with mesmerising pictures and makes them sit with their backs to the window, so that the wind ruffles their hair like it would do on an actual beach. Then he lights scented candles on the sideboard, and all over the walls of the room Chris puts up posters of beautiful islands, “islands seen from the air like flamenco dancers shaking their skirts; bare-chested, beautiful young men standing hip-deep among green vines.”  And then, much to Faith’s surprise, she begins to actually hear the ocean. 

“Now I could hear it; the soft hissh of water with a throatful of stones. Behind it, a burr of crickets, above me, the wind.”

How?

Because Chris has turned on a recording of ocean sounds in the Lounge recorder! He then proceeds to complete their experience by dipping Hope’s feet in a tub of water and pebbles, like one finds on a beach, and Faith’s in a tub of sand, “soft, dry, powdery sand that tickled my toes and made small crunching noises in my insteps.” He brings them tiny bits of “forbidden” delicacies to celebrate, and plays the piano for a long time until they nod off peacefully in their chairs, with the ocean whispering in their ears like Nature’s lullaby.

It’s remarkable what one can do with love and empathy and a little bit of imagination.

The story ends with these lines that tug at your heartstrings long, long after you’ve finished reading. “We went to bed early, Hope to smell the candles that Chris slipped in her bedside drawer, and I to read my brochures and dream of orange groves and strawberry daiquiries and plane rides and yachts,” says Faith. “Next week we can try Greece, I think. Or the Bahamas; Australia; Paris; New York… as Hope always says, travel broadens the mind.”

Faith and Hope never left my heart once I became acquainted with them. They made me see, for the first time, what it was like to grow old and fragile, after you’ve been young and strong. They made me also see how it’s easy, when you’re young and full of self-importance, to be dismissive of the elderly, dismissive of their nostalgia and their longing for a beautiful, familiar world that is now long gone.

The story of Hope and Faith very subtly and beautifully reveals how, in caring for the elderly, what’s important is that we do not grow patronising and high handed. That love cannot be love until it is layered with patience and respect.

And also, that no matter what the body’s age, every person has a child in their heart that deserves to have some fun once in a while, a child in their heart that deserves to have the freedom to whoop with joy.