Perhaps a kitchen remains the only place in a house bearing limitless possibilities. It is where love demands precedence, patience stays stocked and intimacy slithers in spoken-unspoken ‘they like it so‘.
It is also only guided by those who can hold tenderness. Or can own hope in chaos.
Some time back, when a few relatives embarked on a multi-city West-India tour, their (oblivious to heatwaves) itinerary held one spot: our place, for lunch.
They arrived on an especially sizzling afternoon, and within minutes, we had exhausted the customary generic greetings, ‘you’re growing up too fast‘, distant wedding hints, several incapacitating Uncle jokes, and an impassioned weather rant. With, of course, embarrassingly rackety laughs.
Eventually, we all burrow into the same places we emerge from. I went back to my gleaming laptop and patient notebooks, furiously typing, writing, trying. The three Uncles remained stationed on the living room couches, instantly leading them to discuss cricket, (and, with inexcusably stunted knowledge of) politics, and inflation. Ma with Masis got up and disappeared together into the kitchen. Like someone had just ordered them. Plenty in the past had.
Force of habit.
It is tricky to teach defiance to those accustomed to the wrong. However, their collectively inferred cue to leave the room’s comfort ushered me to think of the first time when, to overcome the outsized feelings of not belonging, each one of them had to obscure in a place where no men travelled – when instinct moved their limbs, not habits. A place they could call their own, where they commanded authority. A place where they housed things to account for their ease and access.
This kitchen here, within an instant, brimmed with four very excited voices, uninterrupted gossip, new confessions, recounted anecdotes and leftovers from the last gathering. The loud chatter came peppered with a few tej patta hacks (source: inheritance), detailed demonstrations of Ma’s recent sleek kitchen purchases (a true influencer with a loyal audience doing a mini Amazon haul with unending AMAs), and a spicy climax of hurriedly tasting her delectable rajma efforts.
I, surprised at feeling the pull, went to them. The disparity of warmth exuded by men and women when you enter their spaces is worth noting. While women embrace you – for having known alienation forever, men refuse to acknowledge your presence and carry on without you. Until you leave again.
So, in the kitchen, I listened to everything: Masi’s daughter’s wedding preparation and all the event-specific colours the family will turn up in, another’s latest two-month long staycation in the hills, the rumoured scandal in the so-and-so household, the third whisper-telling about a quarrel with her seated-in-the-room insolent husband over a saltless dal – and, oh, there goes the tadka!
Timing tadkas to annihilate all escape routes for what is revealed in this safe space without arousing suspicion is a testament to women’s unswerving loyalty.
In the inching finality of wiping the slab, washing used pans and ladles (with a staple argument over this chore-doer), arranging cutlery, and garnishing with the utterly important, hand-torn dhaniya (because cooking does not end at, well, cooking), the four women sustained a strangely rehearsed rhythm. Together, they turned this kitchen into a tiny, aroma-filled world where they lent ears, hopes, and choices to one another. Each time one went to serve the men, they stood held like breaths and resumed only after all were present again.
All this while I lurked in a corner, sans any speck of knowing how to help.
For the women of this kind – who could not farm pin-ups of the modern woman in their heads and imitate those templates to the very last specificity – cooking is a learnt expression of how they serve affection. They labour relentlessly in a territory they own in the hope of earning love outside it. It is cruel to reason with hope.
I had exasperated at the knowledge of the guests’ arrival. But when they left, I reflected on a patriarchal idea I had swallowed long back.
When I was little, I remember adoring the kitchen. I idled on the cold marble slab with my dolls and toys; Ma washed, sliced, kneaded, fried, simmered, and poured. Often, between stirs, I would find her aeroplane-mimicking fingers in my mouth, which could leave anything between orange slices and roti morsels to fill my belly! Everything she did was perfectly measured, timed, and tasted. We were also never trespassed – the place was ours, because of Ma. So there, we laughed, talked, cried – a lot.
Yet, growing up, I shunned this relationship. I discovered myriad versions of the independent woman scurrying to work in dresses and heels, downing milkless coffees, smudged with projects and left-off kohl, staying out forever, eating out forever, and emulated them with pride. I perfected my facade with one final addition – flaunting the inability to cook.
For years, unknowingly, I dismissed the efforts of the women whose likes stood in my sight that afternoon. More lamentably, because of my internalised patriarchy, I forced my mother to forego this solidarity in moments and spaces that seemed so precious to her. I left her to work in excruciating mundaneness alone because she pursued in me the same companionship she was reared with. And I had been ashamed of it.
When patriarchy shoved girls and women into kitchens, outrageously disregarding their relentless toil, it also imposed severe loneliness on them. On the other hand, it produced harvests of bad feminists (me) who left the former demeaned and belittled. Who had the most unlearning to undertake but looked away.
It was an adaptive act for women to evolve kitchens into their own spaces to unwind, soaked in immense, inviting solidarity.
But, amid the utensil clatter and khada masalas, I let Ma be lonely for way too long. I’m still to tell her I’d come with her into the kitchen.
Isha Sharma is an aspiring author trying to make a better sense of the world using her activism and words.
Featured image: Unsplash