Tuesday, July 12, 2016

United by marriage...divided by gender-roles and responsibilities?

Who doesn’t love vacations?

But when they are streaked with unnecessary worry, or preparation involving cooking and freezing meals for all the days of your vacation, or phone calls asking where a regular item in the house is kept, it stops sounding like that much of a vacation.

It happened to me when I was newly married and had been living with my husband for about three months. And then I had to be away. For three weeks. To go for my graduation in India.

Until we got married, my husband had been living in hostels and with roommates for nearly 10 years and was very comfortable eating outside. Every day. He loves food. So his food outside can get sumptuous often. Add to that the stress of his job and self-created odd long hours. It’s no surprise that he had been freshly diagnosed with high cholesterol. At 29.

Naturally, I was worried about going away. I repeatedly told him to cook at home for the three weeks and eat well. Avoid outside food. Who knows what oil they use? Right? To his credit, he did eat at home at least for a few days.

So it was just a worry about his food and health but that led to the question – why should it be so difficult and worrisome for wives to take a vacation for a few days when husbands have been gifted with all the faculties that are needed to be engaged in cooking and taking care of themselves?

Or doing the laundry for that matter. Dusting. Cleaning the bathrooms. Choosing furniture and upholstery. Deciding the décor. None of these activities that are essential to running a household are dependent on gender-specific faculties. And yet, most of these are usually gender-divided by social definition. Women are the queens of most households in India. They organize the meals, the feasts. They decorate the house. They may give out instructions and the men may ‘help’ them. But it’s women that run the house, right? They’re in charge.

We decided to consciously change this in our marriage after my worry-filled trip to India about whether my husband was eating well, and many other realizations about how a gender-divided household might fall apart if one of us was away even for a little while. Missing socks/ties/keys/screwdrivers/bulbs anyone? It debilitates both partners to have a hard gender-divide in the house, we felt. So we decided to try and build an equal household.

An equal household where no one is responsible for anything but everyone is responsible for everything. A household where no one has to give out instructions but everyone does their part. Whatever needs to be done gets done by the person who notices it. No hang-ups about something being feminine or masculine. As far as our household is concerned, we are its two owners and we do whatever is needed to keep it in good shape. More than upkeep, it is critical that both partners know the workings of everything in their life together – at home or outside. No one is helping anyone. Because that automatically excludes one person from being a complete part of the household. We are being two equal partners in an equal household. The winds of change are surely blowing in many quarters, driven by need. We are hoping to be the drivers of change in our marriage instead of having it be forced on us.

So now we pick the décor together, something that resonates with both of us. When we move, we set the house together, every drawer in the kitchen, every shelf in the house, so that each of us knows what is where. It surely takes time in the beginning but it works like a charm afterwards. We cook together but it is not uncommon to see my husband cook for the whole day frequently if I am working on something, and now when he cooks he is never hollering for me to ask where the spice/ladle/can-opener/anything else is. Similarly I don’t wait for him if a piece of furniture needs fixing. Sometimes I sweep and mop, sometimes my husband does. I don’t feel overwhelmed at all the things that need to go into keeping the house running like a well-oiled machine. Making life effortless takes some effort in the beginning. By doing things as needed by whoever notices them, we hope to get to a stage where no one feels the pain of it. We also hope that it gets us to a stage where one of us will gladly and capably take over everything when needed because our partner does so much for us at other times by just being a complete equal.

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This post was originally written for Bonobology.com.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Our kitchen is not a woman's territory. I'm not its queen.

Picture this.

My husband and I are having lunch at a friend’s. Our friend’s mother-in-law has made a delicious chutney that we cannot get enough of. My husband loves it so much that he asks Aunty for the recipe. And Aunty gives it out. To me. Without once looking at my husband.

As far as Aunty is concerned, my husband is almost a son-in-law to her, being her son-in-law’s classmate. And generally, mothers-in-law from small-town-India don’t discuss anything close to recipes, especially recipes, with sons-in-law. 

Unlike my mother, who happily and comfortably gives out recipes to my husband. Because she has seen him cook. She has seen us cook together. Everyday. 

It wasn’t easy for her, seeing her son-in-law work in the kitchen. She would fret and fuss, and try to take over for him. She began to relax and enjoy my husband’s cooking only after we explained to her that this is how we function, and we’d both like to cook for her on her vacation in the USA. 

USA. That’s where the story began when I migrated from India after getting married. In the roughly 24 hours that it took for me to get from India to the USA, my life changed utterly and completely. From barely having free time on hand with a full time job, B-school, friends and freedom, I went to having absolutely nothing to do in a suburban home in North-Eastern USA. A hectic B-school schedule had left me burned out so I couldn’t read or write for leisure. So it was natural for me to try to fill my time either with wifely duties, primarily cooking lunches and dinners, or by binging on Netflix and potato chips. 

Soon it felt like it was all I was doing in the day – cooking lunches and dinners. If I decided to watch Netflix to pass long afternoons, I lost time with my husband in the evening. Having had all elements of my identity taken from me, and a ladle handed to me instead didn’t feel like a good bargain at the time. I tried to summon the image of Goddess Annapurna but only my new reality stared back.

So, here were the facts of my life:
a. I wasn’t a cook by choice but it became my identity in my new marriage. 
b. In the harsh winter, there wasn’t much for a newly married couple to do outdoors. Indoors, we could (again) binge-watch Netflix (minus the potato chips).
c. My husband cooked well. I had discovered his extremely delicious Biryani, Baingan-ka-Bharta and Aaloo-Matar Sabzi on the one-off days that he cooked.

So I decided to ask the husband for help. Sometimes sweetly, sometimes beseechingly, I explained my point of view. And I proposed that we cook together every day.

He was on board with the idea from the start. Putting it in action took longer and was more challenging. He was willing at the level of logic, but centuries of social conditioning about gender roles, passed on through the generations made it difficult for him to adopt this new lifestyle wholeheartedly. He would get on the bus every time I called it out, and then slowly veer away by habit. But we were trying. 

The only thing that may have helped my husband cross over to the kitchen counter from the couch, to the kitchen from the living room, was that we began to have great fun cooking together. It obviously made life easier to have two hands on the deck than one. It didn’t make me feel singled out for the task. And it allowed us to bond…

Bond over a love of food, that he passed on to me. I have acquired a love of food and cuisines, living with my foodie husband, and so we love to explore new cuisines in our cooking. We bring home new ingredients (our favourite example is Cactus) to work with. We go on world tours in our kitchen – starting with our own Andhra or Iyengar South Indian Meals, to Maharashtrian, Bengali, Gujarati, Malayali, North Indian and even Mexican, Cajun, European and what not. On days that we are bored, we experiment, and fuse influences – the Polenta with the Andhra Pulusu, or the Manchurian Sevaiyyan Upma.

Now, I have come to love cooking since it is with him and for him at the same time. It gives us a few hours every day to spend together…chopping, mixing, boiling, tempering, baking, brainstorming, experimenting, sharing, dreaming…it all happens in the kitchen. Every meal becomes either an experience or an experiment. It is either pure pleasure or learning. We both take the credit, we both share the blame. And we create something fundamental to human survival every day, having fun while doing it. In that, Cooking is our favourite creative together-thing to do. 

Who needs Netflix anymore? Tonight’s entertainment is ‘Cooking’!


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This post was originally written for Bonobology.com.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Heart Pickles

Whole hearts have short shelf lives.

It doesn’t take long for them to break.
So here’s a recipe.
For when the heart is shattered 
Into a million little pieces
That 
Cannot be put back the same way.
Ever. Again.
A recipe
For when it has gone sour
From all that has happened 
Or been done.

Take a jar
And throw the sour pieces in.
Along with the salt
That people have rubbed into your wounds.
And the turmeric
Of their coloured judgements, perceptions and opinions.
And the red chilly sting of their harsh words and actions.
Be careful 
To not let the water of your eyes 
Corrupt this concoction. 
Moisture is dangerous.
The oil of people’s expectations,
On the other hand,
Only helps.
Mix it all together with your bare hands.
Feel the raw texture
Of everything that has happened
Or been done.

The next part is important.
Weave a soft muslin cloth
From your compassion towards yourself.
Seal the jar with it
To keep the mist from your eyes away.
Like I said,
Moisture is dangerous.
Put the lid on
And let it sit for a while.

It’s ready
When you cannot tell one element from another.
The pieces of your heart
Are softer, a little less sour.
A little more of everything else.

The next time life seems bland,
Take a clean, dry spoon
And serve yourself
From this jar of delicious pickled wisdom 
Gained
From all that has happened 
Or been done.

Savour a piece of your heart 
Broken, softer but preserved for posterity.
Because 
Whole hearts have short shelf lives anyway.