Monday, January 25, 2021

Some thoughts after watching The Great Indian Kitchen

 A bright and sparkly young woman, whom we first see dancing with joy and abandon, marries into a 'good, traditional' family somewhere in Kerala. And then there is the endless kitchen and household work which she shares with her mother-in-law, a woman who is kind and considerate towards her, and who has, unfortunately, tolerated/enabled some extremely inconsiderate behaviour from her husband and son. Their smug, entitled acceptance of all the goodies and services that comes their way is repugnant. I wonder how deeply entrenched these behaviour patterns are, and how common they are. The story progresses: the mother-in-law has to go and look after her pregnant daughter, leaving her young daughter-in-law to manage the home. Demands are very politely worded as requests. Tradition is ascendant: a woman is employed only for the few days when the protagonist is having her period. Her natal family is not so conservative, having lived for a while in Bahrain. The men decide to undertake the Sabarimala pilgrimage, with its conditions of abstinence and ritual purity. A leaking kitchen drain is not repaired, despite several requests to call the plumber. This slow, constant leak seems to symbolize the slow erosion of harmony, of trust, of consideration, of communication, of a bond that has barely had a chance to form. This was a film that both disturbed and enraged me, with its depiction of deep seated patriarchy.

When we lived in Kerala in the late nineties, my dear teacher, Dr. Anandalakshmy came to stay with us for a few days. The redoubtable Mary Roy was an old friend of hers, and came over for dinner one evening. She remarked upon my then teenaged son laying the table for dinner, as something extremely unusual for Kerala. For our family it was normal, no task was exclusively gendered. Perhaps my childhood and youth were exceptional, but I recall no task of any kind as beneath my father's dignity. He was a deeply independent person, and hated dependence and laziness. Heaven help us if he overheard us sisters ask each other for a glass of water. Strong disapproval. An early riser, he would go for a walk and come back and make tea for himself and my mother. Although he was the breadwinner and Mummy was the homemaker,  she would happily deal with the bank work if Daddy was too busy, and he would cook something for all of us if she wasn't well, or one of his specials just for fun. (Very ugly but delicious eggplants made in the pressure cooker). Once he had retired he often sat and cut the vegetables, especially if my brother and family were visiting, and the quantities prepared were larger than usual. Shopping for fruit and vegetables, getting the wheat ground, and most routine grocery shopping were his department. My mother would, besides the daily cooking, dish washing, laundry, (mostly by hand, but my sister and I had to wash our own socks and handkerchiefs) and cleaning ( which she did for several years until we finally employed a part-time helper), she would manage to sew for us, read magazines, make pickles, sweetmeats and various snacks. Holidays were when my sister and I were supposed to clean the floors, until the helper came into our lives. As we grew older, we took turns making the evening meal. And yes, chutney was ground by hand, on the sil-batta. Overall, though, our normal cuisine seemed relatively simple to prepare.  Our much older brother had been away from home for years, and presumably, knew how to fend for himself. My spouse had three much older sisters, and was a boarding school and college hostel product, hence totally unskilled in any culinary activity. If push came to shove, he could survive on bread and eggs and, later, Maggi noodles. Given a choice, he would certainly prefer to outsource all housework, rather than do it himself. The lockdown made a dish washer out of him, as well as salad champion. A few more weeks might have had him actively cooking, but anyway...

Despite not having dealt with the specific situations/nastiness as was shown in the film, it nonetheless struck a familiar chord. Power equations within families are often skewed. A non-earning member's contributions are oh-so-often taken for granted and undervalued, or his/her ambitions squelched with false praise for the thankless role he/she is fulfilling. A movie which truly makes you think, one which reinforced my firmly held beliefs that cooking, cleaning, laundry, driving, banking etc., are all life skills which every adult human being should possess. Do watch.

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