My passage to India brought me to many homes I caught glimpse of, while my mind registered the details, it also did not fail to be reminded what I have seen growing up on an island barely 1,000 km in size with a population of 1.2 million instead of India’s 1.2 billion!
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 someone who worked in a bank to open an account as a student. Several women sat at desks, with important looking files around them. The fans whirled high above their heads while straw stuffed coolers blew cooler air around their calamine addicted faces; everything was peaceful and pleasant. Outside, customers sat on wooden seats, patiently waiting their turn. Inside, competent looking women counted money, totalled cheques and wrote in ledgers. 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 heat blasted kitchen!
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. Mums dreamt this dream for their girls, and kept them out of the kitchen. While other girls my age were chopping vegetables and learning to tell tuvar dal from lal moong, I almost envied my position in the carefree environment of a college with rooms as big as a DDA executive officer’s flat, called studio. I drew and painted, went to Bangali markets a thousand times, hopped to Connaught place for a dark cinema to forget the world outside, travelled to other cities at the end of the weeks, studied more. I got my MBA. I travelled. I earned money. But somewhere along the way, I also learnt to cook.
I discovered and was totally trapped in the atavistic pleasures of feeding an appreciative audience.
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 speciality stores for delicacies. Great-aunts and old ladies I have have befriended have become a source of inspiration, and memories of mum and I have conversations around food. Cooking has become a truly creative, rewarding part of my life.