In my rural Indian household, the kitchen and living room are more than just two physical spaces. Growing up around these spaces made me realise over time that much like everyone who lives in my home, these spaces have an assigned gender to them.
The living room was brought up to flaunt a masculine vibe and the kitchen a feminine one since the time they were built. When my ancestors were building the house, they instructed the builders to keep the kitchen at the deepest end of the house. The builders then mindlessly built it at the end, as per the instructions, with the remaining brick and mortar.
Hence, the north-facing wall of the kitchen is the last wall of the house. It holds a small rectangular vent that allows the kitchen’s inhabitants to look at the tiniest bit of clear sky. This vent also serves as a cathartic space as it allows the burning aroma of spices and choking smell of curry flavours out – but hardly.
A few years ago, when my grandfather decided to renovate our house, he left out the kitchen to cut costs. When the ladies of the house insisted on at least getting a few marble tiles pasted on the walls and the running wires covered with a cable cord, he said he would think about it.
He is still thinking about it.
At times, when I look at any inanimate thing, my mind starts conjuring up a picture of a person I know. With the kitchen, it starts prompting the image of my old, stooping, frail and furrowed grandmother. Though the busiest, the kitchen remains the most dilapidated, neglected and scarred space in the house. I have seen both of them being acutely busy, attending to the behests of my father, grandfather and uncles that they hardly ever get time for themselves.
Like every room of the house has its peculiar sound, the kitchen has a sound of suppressed laughter. It is the loudest in the afternoon when the husbands have left for work and ladies have started their gossip and innocent banter. In the evening, with every male member returning from work, these giggles and occasional guffaws start receding. By dinner time, what’s left are hushed tones and muffled voices.
The kitchen does nothing but cook food all day long, just as the housewife does in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s poem ‘The Houswife’,
“Food and the serving of food – that is my daylong care; what and when we shall eat.”
After cooking, it goes on to serve the finest of its delicacies to my uncles and brothers – those who neglect its very existence. Much like my grandmother, mother, aunts and me, it is also conditioned to crave male attention and validation.
While our kitchen was constructed to be spacious, I always found it too cramped. Every bit of baggage that enters the house gets haphazardly pushed into it. With no storage room in the house, the kitchen doubles up as one. Now its aesthetics almost looks like a burdened housewife operating as a mother, domestic worker, housekeeper and caretaker all at once.
The living room, on the other hand, always reflects grandeur at its best. Renovated for the umpteenth time now, it always has something new added to it. Sometimes it’s a new sofa cover or a new TV. It’s the best-loved room of my father and uncles and they don’t mind splurging on it.
Just like my cousin brothers, it is always promised the best of everything, furniture, interiors and electronics. And just like my sisters and me, the kitchen never questions this blatant discrimination. Access to this pompous facade is reserved for the males of the family. Even when relatives visit us, the women rush to the kitchen and the men grab themselves a comfy seat on the sofa.
The loud tones rising from the living room are often laced with the malign colour of saffron, sexist humour and justification of systemic violence. The voices in the room are never filtered and often in chorus sing the cacophonous tunes of misogyny and everything that is wrong with the present generation of liberals. The women come in with plates full of refreshments and snacks and leave in hurried steps. The room never lets them stay for more than a minute and treats them as nothing more than side characters from the hero-worshipping Bollywood movies it watches all day long.
Sitting by the verandah of the house, I often wonder if the dichotomy between these two rooms exists in my mind only. If the kitchen and living room are just rooms and I am overthinking the spatial arrangements of my house. Then I also remember how the roots of this house grew on gender inequality and sexism and will continue to do so until one of us starts talking about it.
Manvi Gupta is a self-proclaimed writer and journalist.
Featured image: Unsplash