Growing up, I never once saw my father enter the kitchen. He did not know how to cook; in fact, I doubt if he even knew how to make a cup of coffee for himself. The kitchen was always the exclusive preserve of my grandmother, my mother, and the other ladies of the household. The men never ventured inside; no, not even to fetch themselves a glass of water.
It may sound strange now, but this was pretty much the state of affairs in every home. Women did the ‘womanly’ things like cooking, cleaning, serving, fetching; yes, even the ones who held down jobs outside of the home. And men did ‘manly’ things like go out to work and bring back the daily bread (to be toasted and buttered and served up to them with a strong cup of tea). Men were very much the hunter-gatherers. And women remained nurturers and carers.
There were some men of our acquaintance who knew how to make a decent mutton biryani or a chingri malai curry, but their excursions into the kitchen were treated as momentous events that were marked down in the calendar months in advance. And even then, they were assisted by a flock of women who did all the dirty work – peeling, chopping, cleaning – for them. Once the mise en place was set, the men would sweep in to do the frying, sautéing, roasting or whatever else. And then, they would sweep out, leaving the kitchen in an absolute shambles, to take their place at the dining table to be served like the kings they were.
I am glad to say that things have changed since then. Men no longer treat the kitchen as alien territory. Nearly all of them know enough cooking to be able to feed themselves in the absence of a mother or a wife. And many of them actually enjoy cooking, and take pride in their achievements behind the stove. But even so, based on purely empirical evidence, the bulk of the cooking in most households is still done by the women (either the lady of the house or the hired help).
What intrigues me, though, is how cooking has become another battleground of sexual politics. New-age feminism seems to think that a working woman who still cooks (or is expected to cook) at home is downtrodden, the victim of an age-old patriarchal system that decrees that the kitchen is a woman’s preserve. She is buying into sexual stereotypes and letting the sisterhood down with every perfect chapati she rolls out.
On the other hand, a man who works outside the home and comes back to cook for his family is seen as an enlightened being. We even have a name for him. He is called the New Age Man. He is confident of his masculinity and not afraid of being in touch with his feminine side. He does not buy into any kind of sexual stereotyping. He is equally at ease in the boardroom as he is dexterous at the chopping board. We should all be so lucky as to end up with someone like him!
So basically, a woman who loves to cook for her family is a sell-out. But for a man, cooking for his family is a unique selling point. Can you figure this one out? No, me neither.
Why should the same impulse – to nurture and feed your loved ones – be seen through two such different prisms depending on the gender of the person? Why should a woman be mocked for doing what a man is congratulated for?
Clearly, as we enter into the second decade of the 21st century, gender stereotyping has come full circle. But while men are admired for stepping out of their gender-defined roles, women are pilloried for staying within them.
I can still hear the jeers that greeted Sunanda Pushkar Tharoor when she admitted on national television that she enjoyed being a housewife and cooking dinner every night for her husband. How could she possibly say something like that, her critics tut-tutted. Didn’t she know that women were expected to be emancipated from housework now? Being a woman of substance meant having a career outside the home. Admitting to being a homebody, and worse, confessing to cooking for your husband (and actually enjoying it!), was a complete no-no.
And yet, I am sure if the tables had been turned, the public reaction would have been quite different. If Shashi Tharoor had said that he loved going back home after a hard day at the office and rustling up a nice meal for his wife, he would have been hailed as the epitome of the New Man, an ideal that every male should aspire to.
What is going on here? Why is Sunanda’s goshtaba or tabak maas bad while Shashi’s meen moily or avial is good? Why this double standard when it comes to appraising a primal desire: the impulse to cook for those we love?
The truth is that all of us are good at some things and rubbish at others. Some women enjoy the prospect of cooking for their families while others wouldn’t be caught dead before a stove. Similarly, some men love the idea of cooking while others steer well clear of the kitchen.
So, here’s a novel idea. Why not allow each one of them to do as they please – and what pleases them – without any value judgement? That’s not asking for much, is it?
From HT Brunch, September 15
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