Taste of Life:Recipes for courage and determination

The only way for widows to fend for themselves in those times was to cook for others. The women would go door to door asking if the house needed a cook. Rumours would swirl around these widows. Men, and sometimes women, would spread lies that these women ate meat, drank liquor, and lured men into having sex with them
The widows cooked and made it easier for future generations of women to step out and earn their living. But for that, they had to shave their heads. (REPRESENTATIVE PHOTO)
The widows cooked and made it easier for future generations of women to step out and earn their living. But for that, they had to shave their heads. (REPRESENTATIVE PHOTO)
Published on Nov 18, 2021 04:30 PM IST
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ByChinmay Damle

Raosaheb Sadashiv Ballal Gowandey, who was an officer in the Inaam Commission, employed in his house a Brahmin widow as a cook. Her name was Kashibai.

Born in a village near Ratnagiri, she had been married off to a thirty-two-year-old man in a neighbouring village when she was five years old. She was sent to live with her husband immediately.

Five years later, widowhood was forced upon Kashibai. Her husband had died of snakebite.

Her mother-in-law made her take off all her jewellery, and her head was shaved. She was now considered “inauspicious” for the household, and the society. She was not supposed to step out of the house or peak out of a window. She was not to be seen by others.

She was made to cook for the entire household. She was allowed to cook because she had gotten rid of her hair. But she could not eat what she cooked. She had to face the wall while having lunch comprising a bowl of buttermilk and puffed rice. She ate only once a day.

After her in-laws passed away in quick succession, her brother-in-law brought her to Pune where he worked as a priest. Since he considered her as a liability, he found a job for her.

Almost all households then employed men as cooks. These cooks would take bath, wear a special silk cloth called “sovale,” and then enter the kitchen. Those men took the rituals associated with cooking very seriously and did not hesitate in reprimanding the lady of the house in case she made an error.

Liberal and progressive men like Gowandey after the 1850s started employing widows as cooks. The widows had to be tonsured, of course. Widows who did not shave their heads were not allowed to enter the kitchen and cook.

According to a letter Mahatma Jyotiba Phule wrote to the British Government in response to the discussion surrounding “infant marriages and forced widowhood” in 1884, Kashibai was well-behaved and beautiful. She was a chaste woman. She served for several months in Gowandey’s house.

In the neighbourhood lived a Brahmin priest. He cast his gaze on Kashibai. She at first resisted his advances. The priest persisted. Six months later, Kashibai was pregnant.

Afterwards, at the persuasion of her paramour, she tried several poisonous drugs to abort the foetus, but all her attempts failed.

Kashibai gave birth to a healthy son and for the sake of her so-called “disgrace,” she slit the throat of the infant with a knife. The corpse was thrown into the well behind Gowandey’s house.

Two days later she was arrested by the police on suspicion, tried before the Session Court in Pune, and was sentenced to a life sentence at Andaman.

The incident took place in 1863. It was the first time a woman had been sentenced to such severe punishment.

This incident upset and saddened Savitribai and Jyotiba Phule. They immediately started a shelter home for such Brahmin widows in their own house at Ganj Peth, Pune. While everybody else kept discussing the trial and demanded stricter rules for “disgraceful widows”, Savitribai and Jyotiba came forward to take care of the exploited women.

The shelter was advertised in Pune and at places of pilgrimage, especially Pandharpur and Alandi. By 1884, thirty-five Brahmin widows had come to the shelter from various places. Jyotiba in his will noted with pride that Savitribai looked after those women as if they were her daughters. She would herself help the widows deliver babies and take care of them till they were ready to fend for themselves.

The only way for widows to fend for themselves in those times was to cook for others. The women would go door to door asking if the house needed a cook. Rumours would swirl around these widows. Men, and sometimes women, would spread lies that these women ate meat, drank liquor, and lured men into having sex with them.

Women were often reluctant to employ the widows because they feared that their husbands would go astray and maintain a physical relationship with the widowed cooks.

To dodge such rumour-mongering, and to assure their employers, the widows had to be extra diligent about observing all the “traditions.”

Seven years ago, I met ninety-year-old Shantabai Patwardhan in a decrepit wada in Kasba peth. Patwardhan and her husband worked as cooks all their lives. Her mother, Lakshmibai, was a cook too.

Lakshmibai’s is a story of stigma, sorrow, courage, and above all determination to change her life.

Ten years after her marriage, her husband died leaving her with no source of income and two infants to care for. The death of her husband left Lakshmibai dazed. She was told that life without her husband was no life at all. But she already knew that.

When she came into the grasp of widowhood, she did not know she would get trapped by the chains of stigma. She was forced to stay indoors. She was forbidden to cook because she had refused to tonsure.

The year was 1907. She was seventeen years old then.

In the first month after her husband passed away, she realised that her children were starving. The women of the house would make her elder daughter go hungry.

This was being done to make her shave her head and help the women in the kitchen.

Lakshmibai did not want to accept the new lifestyle enforced upon her dutifully. Moreover, she did not want her children to starve, all because she would not get her head shaved.

She stole her mother-in-law’s bangles one night and ran away to Pune from their village near Satara with her children.

Lakshmibai was taunted when she stepped out to look for a job in Pune. She would go around the lanes of the city with her two children asking for work. But nobody wanted to employ a widow who had long, bouncing hair.

During those days, men and women who wanted jobs as cooks, priests, and water-bearers would gather around Tulshibaug every morning. Widows would, of course, sit inconspicuously under a tree. They took the utmost care to make their presence go unnoticed, even though they needed to be employed. Wealthy men looking for cooks and priests would visit Tulshibaug and took men and women with them.

Lakshmibai too made it a practice to be present at Tulshibaug daily. But other widows did not like her being there. Some of them did not like her breaking away from the tradition by not cutting her hair. Others feared men would ostracise the entire group because of her. One morning, a group of men and women shooed her away and threatened her with consequences if she set foot near Tulshibaug again.

Lakshmibai did not want her daughters to go hungry. She shaved her head.

Lakshmibai raised her two daughters alone. She worked as a cook all her life. Her younger daughter became a teacher.

Lakshmibai and Kashibai were among many Hindus, so-called “upper-caste” widows of Maharashtra who were victims of cruel fate and stigmas. Lakshmibai was successful in building a life for herself. Kashibai could not.

The widows cooked and made it easier for future generations of women to step out and earn their living. But for that, they had to shave their heads.

Chinmay Damle is a research scientist and food historian. He writes here on Pune’s food culture. He can be contacted on chinmay.damle@gmail.com

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Saturday, January 22, 2022