What lies inside the great Indian kitchen?
Part commentary, part reflection and part personal essay about kitchen as a gendered space. Words by Shirin Mehrotra
Hello, and welcome to the first edition of Deep Fry. I am launching the newsletter with a rather angry essay, which I wrote after watching the Malyalam film The Great Indian Kitchen. If you haven’t watched it yet, change that now. It’s available on Netflix. The angry rant came in the form of personal essay and a commentary on how cooking and kitchen are projected in popular media. Mostly as an act of nurturing, rarely as a sight of gendered oppression. TGIK changes that to a certain extent, and with this piece I aim to keep the conversation going. A quick shout out to my friend Virat Nehru who edited my first angry rant (you can call it draft) into a more cohesive piece.
What lies inside the great Indian kitchen? by Shirin Mehrotra
In one of our family photo albums, there’s a picture of my mother squatting over the sil (large, flat stone), batta (cylindrical grinding stone) in hand, grinding fresh coriander and mint leaves into chutney. The picture is from the late 80s, when moving the heavy stone to the centre of the veranda, grinding, then cleaning the stone and keeping it back in its place was one of the many daily chores of my mother - making an onion tomato paste for the subzi; grinding keema for shaami kebabs; making fine dosa batter. I haven’t seen the sil batta being used in years now. Since we got a mixer-grinder sometime in the mid 90s, my mother has not gone back to using the heavy grinding stone; it now lies in a dusty corner of the balcony, seldom moved from its position.
I have no nostalgia attached to it, or any other kitchen tool that required my mother to spend extra labour and time in the kitchen. This is probably the reason why I could never relate to people who love romanticising good old “traditional cooking”. To me, any traditional tool that doubles the cooking time and demands extra labour in the kitchen is a tool of oppression and domestic slavery. And this sentiment has been appropriately translated in the recent Malayalam film The Great Indian Kitchen (TGIK), which originally released on the indie OTT platform Neestream (the film is now available on Amazon Prime).
Directed by Jeo Baby, the film narrates the story of a newly-married woman in a small town in Kerala, struggling to accept the role of a submissive and dutiful wife and daughter-in-law she’s expected to play. The film uses the kitchen as the central motif around which the narrative is built; for the first time in Indian cinema, we aren’t shown cooking as an act of love, togetherness or a catalyst that leads to blossoming of a relationship. Instead, cooking becomes a lens through which we see constant oppression of women in the domestic space in Indian society, leading to the eventual inescapable outcome: abuse. The film does a wonderful job of highlighting how an act such as cooking, often viewed as an act of service by those who witness it from the outside, actually becomes an instrument of oppression for those who are expected to perform the act (women), largely for the benefit of others (men).
Food media in India, whether in textual or visual form, has mostly looked at commensality in domestic spaces with a lens of sanctity or an art form. In Sooraj Barjatya’s films of the 90s, a woman cooking halwa for her son or lover was portrayed as performing the ultimate act of love. Of course, the cooking of halwa was also symbolic of a woman’s domesticity and “traditional upbringing”. So what if she was a practicing doctor? Her identity and worth outside the four walls of the kitchen were immaterial.
In Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox, cooking is transformed into an art form, imbuing in it a transcendental quality that the original act is devoid of. Cooking for a stranger becomes an escape for Ila (Nimrat Kaur) from her loveless marriage. We see and marvel over her skilful hands making perfect paneer koftas, or tying a thread around the bitter gourd to hold the stuffing in. Similarly, in the Marathi film Gulabjaam (directed by Sachin Kundalkar), Radha (Sonali Kulkarni) finds solace in cooking to complete her lonely existence. The images of food in these films adhere to the idea of “food porn”, a visual treat captured in a deliberate way on camera to tease our olfactory senses. TGIK doesn’t do any of that. When you see the protagonist (played by Nimisha Sajayan) juggling between making puttu, cooking rice on the wood-fired stove– because the father-in-law prefers it that way– and making a tadka for the curry, all you see is the frustration building up in her body. Like the slow cooking rice on the chulha, and the continuously leaking sink that her husband doesn’t want to get fixed, you can feel the anger bubbling deep within her, ready to overflow at the slightest nudge. But she covers up the anger, just like she covers up the stinking, overflowing kitchen sink with a rag.
After the long ordeal and unacknowledged labour of cooking, cleaning, washing, dusting and mopping every night, she (passively) participates in sexual intercourse with her husband; constantly smelling her hands for the odour of the kitchen waste and dirty dishes. This scene made me squirm, not because it made me uncomfortable; it made me squirm for its similarities to my own life just a few years ago. Cooking a full meal for four - without any help - serving, cleaning, and resisting ex-husband’s sexual advances were part of a daily routine in the initial days of marriage when I didn’t have a full-time job.
Unlike the wife in TGIK, I lived in Mumbai with my ex-husband and his parents. But, despite the façade of a “progressive” outlook and modern thinking, there was inherent patriarchy at play. They wanted their daughter-in-law to be “modern” enough to go out and work but also adhere to the traditional norms of coming back home and cooking for the family. Funnily enough, none of these domestic chores were expected from the out-of-work stay-at-home son, except to “be a man” and “tame the wife”.
An average Indian man does not know how to cook, nor is he trained to pick-up after himself. And if he chooses to do so he wants to be crowned for it; it’s performative – to entertain the guests or to taking up more masculine cooking, like non-vegetarian food. Once he’s done creating his masterpiece, he leaves a trail of chores for women – cleaning, mopping, and organising the kitchen left in a mess. TGIK doesn’t show commensality and entertaining guests as moments of joyfulness. It shows them for what they are – never ending household work and a cycle of everyday labour for the women of the house.
You might think this is a reality for a housewife, but not for a woman who’s working to earn a living. You’d be wrong. In Chaitanya Tamhane’s Court, a scene from the domestic life of the public prosecutor (played by Geetanjali Kulkarni), subtly expresses the reality of a working woman expected to juggle her labour in her professional and personal life without much help. Both, the husband and wife work a nine-to-five job. But the husband comes home and sits in front of the television. The wife changes, freshens up, and heads straight to the kitchen; the rest of her evening is spent in the kitchen, cooking dinner for the family. When I was in Mumbai travelling in the Mumbai local, I saw many women cutting beans or shelling peas on their way back home from work. You knew they had to get home and cook dinner for their family, clean and prep for breakfast and lunch the next day, and ensure the house is in order. A household in Mumbai cannot run on a single salary. But this is as far as the shared responsibilities go between men and women running a house together. Domestic chores still remain a woman’s duty.
These incidents, whether in films or my own experiences, are not isolated. Over the past few months I’ve had conversations with multiple women who have similar stories to share. A few of them have had a tumultuous relationship with food and cooking because of the abuse meted out to them in their marital homes. In the many ways a man wields power over a woman, food is the most common one. As historian David Arnold writes, “food was, and continues to be, power in a most basic, tangible and inescapable form”. And we see that in an average Indian family. When a man decides to judge the food he is served cooked by a woman, he asserts his authority over her – by demanding the food to be cooked as per his choice and taste buds, by refusing to eat the food cooked by her, through controlled appreciation, and even ridicule.
Women are brought up with the conditioning that a “way to man’s heart is through his stomach”, and hence they’re often not even aware of the abuse they’re subjected to, even if it’s as apparent as throwing a plate of food across the room. Even when the abuse is re-directed through the mother-in-law, it’s still patriarchy that’s responsible for this gastro-politics. Nivedita Menon explains it in her book Seeing Like A Feminist. She writes, “women in virilocal households derive their power solely from men – their husbands, and then their sons who eventually become some other woman's husband. Power struggle between women is inbuilt in this kind of structure, and is inevitable. This is not because they are women, but because they are put into positions where they are pitted against one another".
There’s no in-your-face violence in TGIK, but those everyday acts of violation of the protagonist’s self-worth in the domestic space are soul crushing. Her escape offers little respite, because escape from such circumstances is not a possibility for many women. In Neeraj Ghaywan’s Juice, a short film touching upon gendered roles in the household, the man of the house sits in the living room in the comfort of an air cooler with his male guests, with a drink in hand discussing politics and sports; while the women huddle up in the hot kitchen, preparing food, feeding children and struggling to get the table fan to work. This scene is a lived experience of most Indian women. At the end of the film, the woman of the house (played brilliantly by Shefali Shah) picks up a chair and drags it to the living room, placing it right in front of the air cooler. She sits down, aware of the discomfort this act of hers has caused the men, and drinks from her glass of orange juice; her one act of defiance.
I understand there’s plenty to celebrate about kitchens in Indian homes, and food media will continue to do so. There’s merit in writing about the recipes passed on by grandmothers and the tools they used, for the sake of preserving traditional knowledge. But there’s space for other narratives as well; narratives that address the many skeletons hidden inside “The Great Indian Kitchen”.
What to read?
As a student of Anthropology of Food, I have been most fascinated by the works of the legendary Arjun Appadurai. His essay on the Gastro-Politics in Hindu South Asian homes is one I keep going back to time and again.
Ruth Thrush’s essay where she explores the political issues surrounding the culturally established norm of the kitchen being "a woman's space".
What to watch?
Jeo Baby’s The Great Indian Kitchen, obviously. It’s available on Amazon Prime.
Neeraj Ghaywan’s short film Juice, which deals with the same subject.