My mother chopped. My mother mopped. My mother cleaned and cooked.
She started her day at 6am in the kitchen, and ended it around midnight tired & worn out in the same kitchen.
Her story is sadly commonplace. I saw it reflected back at me when I watched this breakout Malayalam language film ‘The Great Indian Kitchen’ recently.
The film shows a young Keralan woman being married off, then having to buckle down and work in her husband’s home. Her kind mother-in-law goes away for a few months, leaving the new bride with mountains of endless cooking, cleaning, washing, mopping. While her new husband and father in law wait expectantly at the table for meals to appear (magically!) and the large ancestral house to get cleaned.
Keralan meals, while delicious, take forever to prepare. The coconut needs to be broken, then grated by hand. Then ground by hand with chilli, & other spices on a stone grinder. Then the dosa batter (prepared the night before) to be spread slowly on the stone griddle. Then the tadka with mustard seeds and red chilli for the chutney.
And that’s just breakfast. Then there’s lunch, dinner and snacks in between. All of which needs the dishes washing, the food chopping, the preparing, the serving, the collecting of dirty dishes. Then the cleaning up, all over again.
This was the life I was trained for, in my very traditional Keralan family. I grew up being told that cooking and cleaning for my husband’s family was my ultimate purpose. I was too meek to question this then, just like the protagonist of the film.
At first, she nods politely and smiles awkwardly, starting and ending her days in relentless drudgery. Then slowly, she looks annoyed at having to pick up the grizzly food bits left by her husband on the table cloth. And then flustered at the filth in the kitchen, the dodgy sink leaking disgusting brown water.
I remember being told to wait hand and foot on visiting uncles. My mother and I would serve them their food, they would eat, then just get up and leave to wash their hands in the sink. No thank you’s. No offering to wash up. Nothing. As the women of the house, it was our duty to clean up their dirty plates and pick up after them.
I remember asking my mother why we had to do all this dirty work. She told me that’s what a woman’s life was about. It didn’t matter how educated a woman was, how talented, how bright. All that mattered in the end was whether she married into the ‘right’ family and took good care of her new family. Which mean cooking and cleaning, quietly and meekly without a single word of acknowledgment.
As the young bride in the film realizes, you can’t question these structures. She asks two questions, makes two ‘mistakes’.
One by teasing her husband about his table manners, asking him why he picks up his discarded food bits in a restaurant, but not at home. He (in a passive aggressive way) makes her apologise for asking.
Then while performing her ‘marital duty’ of gritting her teeth while submitting to painful sex every night, she quietly asks whether he might try some foreplay.
That’s it. Game over, good Keralan Indian wife! How dare she question her mighty, all-powerful, all-male husband. How dare she even know about the word ‘foreplay’? A pure Keralan woman wouldn’t have this ‘carnal’ knowledge. Didn’t she realise that sex was for men, that good women knew nothing about it? As is his wife, she was just a piece of meat to him, a body to be used, because he did her the favour of marrying her.
My body filled with rage & horror when I saw this. Because I remember asking my mother, how could I expected to just sleep with some random guy? Because that’s what an arranged marriage was to me. You saw the guy once, over fried snacks and tea. Then next thing you knew, you were lying under him, grimacing under painful, pleasure-less sex.
My mother had replied, that’s just how it was. That’s when I decided that’s NOT how it was going to be for me.
The final nail in my good Keralan woman coffin came with my father going to Sabarimala. Just like the husband in ‘The Great Indian Kitchen’. Seeing him in the film with his fellow pilgrims dressed in their black mundus brought back a sense of claustrophic rage.
In traditional Keralan households, women of reproductive age are treated as vile, impure creatures when their men plan a trip to see their god Ayyappan in the holy shrine of Sabarimala. All women undergoing puberty are seen as threatening the piety of these devoted men. As a woman on her period, you can’t even occupy the same physical space, be in the same room as the ‘pure’ man. If you accidentally touch that man, you have defiled him and he then needs to undergo complex processes to ‘purify’ himself of your touch.
As a naïve 12-year old who got her period for the first time just as her father was getting ready to go to Sabarimala, I suddenly saw my body as this filthy, disgusting thing which turned me into an untouchable overnight. Because that’s how I was made to feel. I was told that I was now ‘impure’.
That I had to sleep on the kitchen floor without a mattress, be given my meals separately. And that I was on no account to go anywhere near my father or touch him or breathe on him. If I did, grave harm would come upon him when he made the trek to the holy Sabarimala. Did I really want my father’s blood on my impure hands?
I remember thinking then that surely men poo and pee during their 41-day penance before their visit to Sabarimala. Why was it that my menstrual blood was impure and their bodily emissions were acceptable?
Even as I write this today in my 40-something body, I feel pure rage at how I was treated. The rage of millions of women, made to feel dirty and disgusting for something that is natural…it fires me up. I feel like I want to break something. Ideally, the patriarchy.
I decided after this that I wanted no part of a culture that made me feel filthy for just existing, bleeding, being a woman.
What followed was decades of rebellion and wars with my mother. She didn’t understand why I had to question everything. I didn’t understand why she would want her life for me.
My mother quoted complex stanzas of Sanskrit poetry, while chopping the tenth onion of that day. And complained about how her degree in Malayalam literature was wasted as she made endless Dosas on a hot griddle.
I decided that I would die but wouldn’t live this life of pointless servitude & subjugation.
So here I am, some thirty years later, being a fiery South Asian feminist talking about a woman’s rights to equal pay and equal orgasms with my platform Soul Sutras. I now help other South Asian women challenge traditional patriarchal structures.
I’m not married. I’m not cooking endless dosas & chutneys. I’m not washing my husband’s underwear.
I guess I’m a dishonor to my family. But guess what, I’m proud of it.
‘The Great Indian Kitchen’ is a great film. It’s filled with endless shots of household drudgery, the camera focusing almost lovingly on filthy sinks and dirty dishes piled high.
The silent, unrecognised labour that women in kitchens not just in Kerala but all over the world provide without any remuneration or any thanks. The deeply ingrained misogynistic structures of the world that we women are forced in inhabit.
My one hope is that films like ‘The Great Indian Kitchen’ start the painful process of crushing ‘The Great Indian Patriarchy’. Because it’s about bloody time.
Smashing coconuts & the patriarchy
READ THE BBC REVIEW OF THE FILM