Of Burnt Rice and Womanhood

Newly-married, young and unknowing, it was her first time in a kitchen in a strange house performing a strange act. She called her mother and asked, “How do I make rice?”

“Just wash the grains and put them on the stove,” her mother replied, and that was exactly what she did. Little did she know she had committed a mistake; a grave one, some might say. She drained all the water before putting the rice on the fire, and what resulted was a charred, inedible something.

Not realising this, she carried on with her other work before the neighbours came running to the house because something smelt burnt. They reprimanded the woman who couldn’t cook rice while she stood there unabashed.

Afterwards, she called her mother and narrated the incident. She heard the curses thrown at her silently but in the end, she said one thing, “I did exactly what you told me, it’s YOUR fault” and hung up.

This was my mother. Newly-married, young and unknowing but unapologetic too. In 1996, an unapologetic housewife was an oxymoron. It probably still is. The representations of the ideal Indian housewife in daily TV soaps have always been shy, cultured and silent. From the subservient Gopi Bahu to her domineering Saas or mother-in-law, this was the dynamic my mother, her mother, and all the mothers before her were exposed to.

Thus, it is inspiring and, at times, amusing, to see my mother not bow down her head for the supposedly grave sin she had committed, of being a woman who didn’t know how to cook.

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When I say I want to be like my mother, that is what I mean. A woman who stands her ground, one who makes her own definition of womanhood. Yet, I find myself constantly failing. I fail at being less of the ‘ideal woman’ and more of the woman that social media tells me to be. That is the level of conditioning I, and most of my female counterparts, have been through.

It makes me wonder if in 2022, when words like ‘feminism’ and ‘patriarchy’ have become a part of our active vocabulary, women undergo some self-sabotaging in subtle ways and this conditioning influences their behaviour.

I wonder if I speak a little softer in a group of men while I cross my legs and if I adjust my dress a little too often than a 21st-century woman should. Then, I wonder if I am feminist enough. “I sometimes worry that I wouldn’t be such a feminist if I had bigger tits,” is a popular line from Fleabag. I think of every woman who undermines her accomplishments and puts on a humble face while her male counterpart boasts his, for such is the conditioning she has been through.

I wonder how deep this conditioning has penetrated our bones and how much it affects our behaviour. I think of 22-year-old Ramya who refuses to cook when urged by her father and despises silver jhumkas. This is her own act of passive rebellion. Behind the scenes, she tells me how cooking is an art she secretly enjoys, and how girls in silver jhumkas look phenomenal.

For every woman crafting her own personal femininity and expressing her true self, there is another who shies away from the ideal in rage, and one other who clings to the ideal for she believes it is the only way of self-preservation in society.

Also read: What Our Mothers Never Said

Such an ‘un-conditioning’ process of any nature would be ideal, but it is also exhausting, and sometimes, I unintentionally yield to the half-nature of my bones – be less of my mother and more of my grandmother. These are the times I think my being to be distasteful and disloyal not only to myself but to my mother, and her mother, and all the mothers before her. The crafting of my femininity is something so personal and yet, so alien but maybe this is how the unrefined process of being or becoming a woman unravels.

My mother, for me, is the perfect example of a secure process of ‘woman-ing’. Every time she recites the incident of the burnt rice, it is not out of shame or embarrassment, but as something humorous. Her act of not apologising was probably not a reflection of her rebellious womanhood, but just of the kind of human she is – grounded and secure. However, as her listener, I am constantly pulled toward perceiving the former because I know that if it was my father in her stead, the incident would not have been half as memorable.

Neomi Vira is a 3rd-year Psychology student and writer residing in Mumbai. 

Featured image: Juli Kosolapova / Unsplash