She'll learn -Seekh Jayegi
by Kiran Jhamb
(Nagpur, Maharastra, India)
I was always thought of as an excellent cook by my family - Home Science being my favourite subject and being a topper from the University - I was quite complacent. No, hubris was not my sin. I know pride goes before fall; I was just a tiny-winy bit happy that at least in this department my sasuralwalas won’t be able to fault me - otherwise I was quite prepared to be dissected, taken apart, scrutinized, labeled (negatively) - as all the girls are.
My groom was/is an engineer, his father too, but not the mother (anyway over the years I have realized that degrees don’t matter). After much ado, the wedding ceremonies were over and I was installed in my sasural.
I was quite happy - the hush-hush and gloomy atmosphere had not yet pierced my euphoria. As the bride, I was expected to cook a special dish and along with ‘halwa’ I chose to make paneer pakoras my hors d’oeuvres. They came out soft, fluffy, golden brown just as they always do whenever I make them. After serving them, I was waiting expectantly for the ‘ohs’ and ‘ahaas’ to begin, for the shabashis to flow and to bask in the glory of being a good cook.
No one even spoke. They - MIL, SIL, FIL and hubby dear went through the motions of eating them or perambulated the poor pakoras on the plates. I could hear even the pakoras wondering ‘what’s- wrong-why- aren’t-we-being-snatched-up etc’. Then I was damned with the ‘nice-but-too-spicy’ praise. I just felt flustered - unable to understand my predicament.
At night, the dinner was cooked by MIL and I did not even have to sit under the Bo tree for the enlightenment to dawn on me - that all of them liked watery, hospital food - without oil, spices and taste. Next day my youngest aunt, who was returning after my wedding, missed her flight and while going back home thought of giving me a surprise visit. She was in for a real surprise when she saw my nervous, unhappy face. My downcast eyes did answer her ‘What happened?’ My MIL assured her that everything was all right and opined that it seemed as if I have to learn cooking. “Don’t worry. Seekh jayegi.”
This was in 1975.
My loving (!) journey of ‘seekhna’
has been continuing; till she was alive, my MIL didn’t let me take off the ‘L’ of Learner’s License. If she could have, she would have ensured that the status quo continued after her departure also. Anyway, I learnt a lot from her if not about cooking then about human nature. This breed of MILs is very common. When they enter the household, like all the DILs, they are at the margin. From this marginalized position, with lots of difficulties over the next thirty years, they move centre stage. Now woe betides any person who wants them to abdicate. So these MILs become the guardians of the patriarchal values and force their new DILs to do all those things which they themselves had disliked doing as young DILs. Who gains – the men, of course, because everything is arranged to cater to their needs. And men very genially, philosophically shrug their shoulders and accept that women are the worst enemies of women. Equally common is the breed of mothers who groom their daughters to toe the line, guiding them into safe (albeit dull) marriages, teaching them to merge their individual peaks into the plateau of boring uniformity.
In twenty-first century I have been watching my daughter Seema’s (her degrees like B.E, M.B.A etc. not to be forgotten) trek through the matrimonial passage. The story is still the same. The hubby dear keeps quiet and MIL queens it over giving subtle hints - “Seekho, seekho”.
For example, Seema had been taught to keep each and every dish in the fridge covered except milk, till a thick layer of cream solidifies to be taken out. Her MIL as a rule keeps each and every leftover dish uncovered in the fridge except the milk because otherwise milk will take on their flavor.
This clash is happening in almost all the spheres of domestic life. So what should poor Seema do? What should she keep covered or uncovered? What should be her norm? Ideal stance that it should be an amalgamation of both will come later - if she sticks it out. At the moment it is irritation, exasperation and the feeling of being topsy- turvy. In her cooker’s whistles Seema can hear the steam coming out of her degree certificates. Whither the individualism and money earning taught by current formal education?
Why does seekhna fall to the girl’s part only? The new family too can learn to accept the differences that a girl brings. Marriage in our country is still like a game of kabbadi where the girl alone comes into the boy’s team of family and runs out of steam because the whole family is there to fell her down. Either the poor thing surrenders in this family game or is declared “out”. She can never forget the pain of being uprooted and replanted – the older the bride is more intense is the pain.
In 1975, I couldn’t understand a girl’s predicament but today I can. Actually at that time I was watching in our patriarchal culture the incipient stages of the formation of an average Indian woman - confused, dominating, insecure, frustrated, ready to cry or pick up a quarrel at the drop of a hat - in short the typical middle aged woman, who does not like that anyone should challenge her authority. A DIL, who has to hide her impulsive reactions, undergo rigorous (generally collocated with imprisonment) living in the discipline of her sasural stay, is never allowed to have a mind of her own, always has to say ‘Yes, Saas’ – will turn into a stern MIL who uses all the right generous words in a mild tone but has the dangerous intentions of subduing the other woman. After all, she has to settle scores for the coercion she was forced to face over the years. To do so the shrew has to hide under the veneer of ‘gentle lady’ and carry on. Otherwise, she will be a neurotic wreck - the kind for whom living is no fun, who are sans zest for life. As a positive corollary she may turn spiritual and accept a ‘Guru’.
I hope I live long enough to save my granddaughter from the same fate into which, following my mother’s footsteps, I have pushed my daughter. I hope, next time Seema gets a son – no, wait, this traditional wish is not for the continuity of the vamsh, but to subvert patriarchy by using the male child as a weapon. We can bring up our sons to respect women, to celebrate differences.