When my sister and I were growing up, the kitchen clearly seemed to be the arch-enemy of self-respecting women.
Around me, there appeared to be only two types of women: nondescript mousy housewives who did nothing but cook, and gloriously glamorous ones who went to that exciting place called “office”.
Housewives. Sweaty slaves of the kitchen fires! They woke up at unearthly hours, muttered ancient prayers, and produced breakfasts, lunches and dinners in endless succession. They wore faded cotton sarees, their blouses damp with sweat. They chased and scolded and cajoled children. “Home makers” they might be – but when their husbands summoned them by name…Kamalaaaaaaa…they dropped everything else, and jumped to attention. Perhaps it was time for the next round of coffee. Perhaps there was a visitor who needed to be fed. Whatever. Clearly once the household woke up, the housewife’s time was not her own.
But the women who worked – ah. They seemed to live in a separate world. Their sarees were crisp, pinned neatly at the shoulder with little golden pins. Their blouses actually matched the colour of the saree. They powdered their faces. Their bindis were neat stick-ons, not streaky sindoor that ran when you sweated. One of my earliest memories is of visiting an aunt who worked in a bank. How wonderful the bank was! Several women sat at desks, with important looking files around them. The fans whirled high above their heads; everything was cool and pleasant. Outside, customers sat on wooden seats, patiently waiting their turn. Inside, competent looking women counted money, totalled cheques and wrote in ledgers. Tringgg! The ringing of a bell would summon a peon. “Give Rekha madam this file,” he would be told in an authoritative voice. Surely this was the good life! So much better than the kitchen!
There were other examples. At school, the Teachers Room was filled with all-powerful women. Since my mother was a teacher, I was witness to their camaraderie. I saw women sharing jokes, laughing over school politics, and debating what the annual day programme should showcase. How much more interesting than housewifely discussions of rasam and sambaar at the local temple!
Clearly, those who wanted to be anything at all, had to forsake the kitchen. They had to study. They had to go to college, and make a place for themselves in the world of career women. My mum dreamt this dream for us, and kept us out of the kitchen. While other girls my age were chopping vegetables and learning to tell tuar dal from lal masur, I grew up with my head buried in books. I drew and painted and played marbles and flew kites. I got my MBA. I travelled. I earned money. But somewhere along the way, I also learnt to cook.
It was motherhood, of course, that forced me to learn. Starting from simple “koozhu” and boiled vegetables, I graduated to complex delicacies. I had a child who loved good food. At the age of 10, she could tell one subtle flavour from another. As my skills grew, so did my desire to entertain. All of a sudden, visits by family members became opportunities for me to experiment with food. I discovered and was totally trapped in the atavistic pleasures of feeding an appreciative audience. In the process, I came to understand that those glamorous working women of my childhood – the ones with the crisp sarees – woke up at unearthly hours too. They too cajoled their children, they too pandered to demanding husbands and in-laws. But their kitchens were not always hateful prisons to them. While their work life provided them with independence and confidence, cooking and feeding people gave them deep satisfaction too.
Today my kitchen is home to several recipe books. My spice box is rich and inviting, and tempts me often to create new dishes. When I travel abroad on my consulting assignments, I raid specialty stores for delicacies. I’ve launched bazaar walks and cuisine tours in Mumbai and Delhi. Great-aunts and old female relatives have become a source of inspiration, and mum and I have conversations around food. Cooking has become a truly creative, rewarding part of my life.
Life is funny, I tell you. Twenty five years ago, I would have laughed at the very thought of cooking. Today, I’m doing food shows on TV!