An old friend, who was visiting after many months, looked at my eight-year-old sister and remarked, “Arey, ye kitni badi ho gayi hai,” as if she had stumbled upon a discovery.
Next, the two started talking. “Isn’t your favourite colour pink, Sobia?” was my friend’s next remark, supposedly an ice-breaker.
Sobia uncomfortably looked at me, and then again at my friend. After a brief pause, she leaned in close and whispered something into her ears before running away.
I was puzzled. What was it that she was trying to hide from me? Noticing my unease, my friend told me what Sobia had said.
It left me embarrassed.
Apparently, Sobia’s favourite colour was pink, but she didn’t say it out loud because she was afraid I would scold her.
Pink, for a long time, represented femininity and weakness for me, which I had sworn to avoid at any cost.
I started thinking about it. I realised, I didn’t hate the colour pink because I didn’t like it, I hated it because it was supposed to be a colour I should have liked as a girl. I hated it because all the frocks I had been given as a child were pink. I hated it because the first badminton set I got was pink. I hated it because my first bicycle was a shade of pink. I hated it because it was a colour that was imposed time and again on me, and on other young girls.
In an attempt to save my younger sister from this “feminine” colour, I had imposed my own ideas on her and taken away her agency to like a colour simply for being pretty.
Just before the lockdown over the coronavirus outbreak was announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the end of March, I had bought a new laptop. Excited, I ordered a fancy looking cover for it. But the order couldn’t be delivered as the lockdown had already been announced.
Coincidentally, there was some leftover pink wallpaper at home and I used it to cover the back of my laptop. For a moment I thought to myself, what if I have to take the laptop outside for work and people would see that the back of my laptop was pink – a colour associated with little girls?
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Then I thought about all the things that were pink, beautiful and most importantly, gender neutral – the pink sky, roses, fresh watermelon, bubble gum and cotton candy. If Barbie is pink, so is the cancer awareness symbol, I told myself.
And for the first time, I decided that all this while, I did like pink a little bit. And I was, instead of being angry, proud of my eight year old sister, now ten, for being true to her likes and dislikes, unlike me – who had for a long time refused to openly like a colour that I secretly loved.
A few years ago, a family gathering was to take place at my house. Among those coming was an elderly family member who used to send me boxes filled with Readers’ Digest all the way from Jamshedpur when I was a child. I looked up to him and considered him responsible for my good reading habits.
He finally arrived, and I excitedly jumped up to go see him.
As I entered the room, I expected him to say something about how much I had grown up, or about how tall I was.
He looked at me and said words I will never forget: “Ab bhi utni hi kaamchor ho, ya jhadu pocha lagana seekh liya? (Are you still that lazy, or have you learnt to do some household chores now?)”.
To have a family member I hadn’t seen for many years to not even greet me before asking whether I fit his idea of a conventional woman was alarming. And such a remark coming from somebody who had ensured in the first place that I became a reader was depressing.
Angry as I was, I shot back and said asked if he had ensured that his only son, who I knew had been brought up with utmost love and care, knew how to do “jhadu-pocha”.
He made a disgusted face, and said, “Wo ladka hai (he is a boy).”
We don’t speak anymore.
This was just one example. Festivals and other fun occasions started to become painful for me. I would see misogyny everywhere. Every time I met my extended family, I braced myself for being told uncomfortable, misogynistic things repeatedly.
“Haldi dudh lagao, kaali ho gayi ho.”
“Moti ho jaaogi, kam khao.”
“So when are you planning to get married?”
“Haath se nikal gayi hai ye toh.”
“Sure, we are okay with a job, but what if your husband has a problem?”
“What if your husband wants to eat homemade food every day?”
My frustration wasn’t just with that one relative, it was with a system. And so, at a young age, I decided to steer clear from doing household chores. I especially steered clear of the kitchen.
It was an obvious cause of concern for my parents.
As I was growing up, my father would often sit with me and have conversations about my distaste for household chores and where it comes from.
“Apne ghar ka kaam karne se koi chota nahin ho jaata. Ye toh zarurat hoti hai…”
He would endlessly try to convince me.
“But beta, I don’t have a son. Even if I did, I would have asked him to also do the same household chores I ask you to do.” I used to think that he only said this because it sounds good in theory. “And I ask you to do these chores because I want you to become an independent woman, who doesn’t need any other person to survive.”
I used to look at my mother, a woman who has been doing house chores for almost her entire life, and hate her for not resisting. For waiting while everybody else finished their meal before she started. For waiting for somebody to say, “Aur roti chahiye,” so she could quickly go back into the kitchen and roll some more.
I used to see my mother simply as a victim of patriarchy.
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When I newly became a feminist, I started seeing my house as a patriarchal setting. I would often deny laying out dinner for my father. While others saw it as basic courtesy, I saw it as performing fixed gender roles.
But my father didn’t give up on me.
He would give me examples of my sister who moved to the US and couldn’t afford to have a maid. “Dekho, bachpan me kucch karti nahin thi, abb sabb kucch karna padta hai. YouTube se dekh kar karti hai, mai nahin chahta tumhare saath aisa ho…”
I wouldn’t trust him for a long time.
But when I turned 18, my father started waking up at 5 am every day to teach me how to drive a car. This went on for about six months, until I became a good enough driver. Currently, I am the only woman in our extended family who can probably change a tyre by herself.
I trust my father more now when he says, “I want you to be independent on all fronts, including household chores.”
With time, the distance between the kitchen and me became even more prominent. It had become a known fact among my family members that I and the kitchen don’t get along.
I was happy with this fact.
Then came the lockdown. I was at home, with not much to do.
Reading about how this was a time to experiment with new things, I made a list for myself and included “cooking” in it. Since the maid had also stopped coming to the house, my mother would have to do all the house chores all by herself. No matter how much I hate to do the dishes or cleaning the house, seeing my mother do it all alone pinched me.
And then it started. I picked up my phone and started googling “easy dishes to cook at home.”
The first time I made momos with my younger sister, I rolled the dough a little bit too thin. The second time I tried making gulab jamuns, nobody ate them except my sister and I.
The third time was potato wedges. I had made just enough for myself, and brought it over to a game of Ludo with my family. Within minutes, the plate was empty. My mother and sisters had had them all.
For the first time, I thought maybe I could cook.
Now, during the lockdown, since the maid is on leave, the whole family has started contributing in their own capacity to do the house work. Mom cooks, dad experiments with cooking, my sisters clean the house and I sometimes do the dishes.
Even now, as I enter the kitchen to wash the dishes, my mother mostly sends me back. “Haath kharab ho jayenge (you will ruin your hands).” Earlier, I would look for ways to get out of doing household chores, now I shoot back, “Kya farq padta hai, mummy, karne do (How does it matter mummy, let me do).”
Along with participating in household chores, I still have those discussions with my parents. With each discussion on feminism I hold with them, they come one step closer to my ideas and thoughts.
Maybe one day, I used to think, they will learn to love me without being blinded by the notions of a perfect daughter who does all the house-work and still manages to top in college and has a job prospect as well – all along with a desire to get married at the “right” age.
It was much later that I realised that they had actually loved me all along.
Ismat Ara is a mass communication student at AJKMCRC, Jamia Millia Islamia.
Featured image credit: Chris Barbalis/Unsplash