The Great Indian Kitchen is a recently released Malayalam movie (watch on NeeStream) that dominated discussions in the Malayalam-speaking world for weeks. If you don’t know, the movie is about the lives and experiences of a newly-married woman in a typical conservative middle class Malayali household. She (Nimisha Sanjayan) was bought up in an urban upper-middle class NRI household and dreams of being a dance teacher and is married to a soft-spoken but self-centered (and daddy’s boy) school teacher (Suraj Venjaramood) living in an ancient tharavadu house that has seen better days. His family expects her to be the dutiful and obedient housewife who caters to their every whim without objection or counter. Fresh into the house, she wrestles with kitchen chores; chopping, boiling, mixing, frying, cooking, serving, washing, cleaning, drying all day, all day, every day, early morning to late evening, continuously, without a break. Not putting out any spoilers here, so let me just say it does not go well in the end. Pardon me if this chapter is not going to be a critical analysis of this movie or will have to do much with its story. Instead, taking the movie as a base, we could try to take a look at gender roles and the question of why household tasks, though mostly predominantly the “job” of the woman, are equally shared by the man in many societies and not at all in others.
There is a very interesting little detail in the movie. The husband (Suraj) is shown entering the kitchen only a grand total of two times in the entire movie, the first day after the wedding to flirt with his wife and later (at the end) to admonish her. This little fact is the answer to the question of how this movie differs from the countless others that deal with the same subject. The Great Indian Kitchen shows the extremes to how gender roles are entrenched in our society, so much so that most men in many households consider the kitchen doors to be a portal to a different dimension where what transpires is of no concern to them as long as food emerges from it at specified intervals. All the womenfolk and their chores in the kitchen, the massively inefficient, labour-intensive, time-consuming manual, physical labour that is but the mainstay of any household is so totally taken for granted. And in societies where such mentalities are prevalent, the opposite happening often results in it being breaking news.
The Gender Role Culture Shock
“You know, if you go to places like Bangalore and Bombay and all, even the husband does work in the kitchen!“
Once upon a time in Bangalore I went to visit a newly-married friend at his newly-bought flat where his (or hers? I don’t remember) parents and an uncle were also present. After exchanging pleasantries and admiring the new fittings and the view of the endless sprawl of multicoloured concrete boxes topped by the black cylinders of Sintex water tanks, the guy (who was also a not-so-bad cook) went and made and brought us coffee (the wife had something else to do apparently) thinking nothing about it. A cloud passed over the uncle’s face when he saw this and lost no time in lovingly admonishing the newlyweds, pointedly the girl, for this sacrilegious act. The mom quickly stepped in and delivered the children of today’s age and time not knowing about customs and manners punch dialogue, thereby defusing the awkward situation so we could go back at admiring the water tanks. In the same manner I have also witnessed counsellors telling couples “You know, ‘in abroad’ and big cities like Bangalore or Bombay, the husband and wife both do the kitchen work! When the wife is cooking he cuts the onions. When she is cleaning he does the dishes. Can you imagine this in our land?“
People from more conservative backgrounds regularly experience this kind of culture shocks while visiting working couples in big Indian cities. They are sincerely surprised when they see the man and the woman (nearly) equally sharing chores around the home (flat) and talk about this amazing phenomenon in wide-eyed wonder when back home. The more cynical say things like “Is this some kind of ‘modern’ thing, that he also cooks and cleans?” and “Should you make him do all this manual labour that he is not accustomed to,” and in extreme cases, “Isn’t he/aren’t you a man?“. A lot of people cannot understand why the man wants to be partaking in household chores when he should be going around taking care of more important international things like reading the news or driving the car or discussing politics which are the gender roles of the man and are more earth-shatteringly important than mundane kitchen work that makes no difference in the way the world functions. Surely the girl must be forcing him to cut onions?
People are surprised because as far as most people are concerned, gender roles are the default setting of life, a thing discerned by nature, like the south-west monsoon or thunder following lightning or Petrol prices going up. Many women would criticize Nimisha’s character in the movie because they would believe that it is her duty to do whatever her husband’s family asks her to. If her father-in-law wants rice cooked over a firewood-fired stove instead of in a cooker on an LPG stove, rice shall be cooked over the firewood stove. Well, gender laws are not rules of nature, of course, but only happen to be ways of life that were once invented out of necessity but ended up freezing solid with time. In more conservative societies, gender roles are considered to be among the foundations for the preservation and functioning of society, erosion of which are viewed with great angst as they are perceived will lead to unrestrained anarchy or the upset of the present order and hence the loss of privilege and patronage of the dominant sections of that society. This belief is shown as crystallised in the form of Suraj’s father in the movie. In many cases this is also becomes the default setting of many societies that had been stable and conflict-less and somewhat prosperous for a protracted period of time.
Kerala – Gender Roles Reloaded
Kerala is a land of massive contradictions. One of the most baffling among those is that it is both extremely urbanised and extremely conservative at the same time which is the stark opposite of the reality anywhere else in the world. However there is a simple explanation for this. Unlike other societies that first urbanised and then wealth followed as the result of the proliferation of ideas and innovation and industry and finance in those urbanised settings, Kerala first became wealthy as a result of money literally blowing in from its western seaboard which then resulted in urbanisation. This means that Kerala’s wealth was a typical add-on or topping on the existing societal set-up while at other places the wealth was the result of the disruption of the same. The absence of industry and corporate employment values has resulted that a typical Kerala household can and does comfortably survive on one income (which is often remittance) alone which has again resulted that there is no need for gender roles to be altered because it works well for now, and what is not broken needs not be fixed. This is why many over many tens of millions of people, women equally included, strongly believe gender roles need to not just be not altered but have to be enforced for current prosperity to continue (man works, mostly abroad, while woman stays at home rearing the family, which works), and a movie is certainly not going to change their minds.
There is an often repeated trope in older Malayalam movies that goes “This family is not desperate enough that <female (and sometimes male) family member> has to go out and work to feed it!” It is a fact that at least in some quarters deviating from traditional gender roles is considered an “insult” to the family. Why would women have to work if the men are earning enough? Also, the traditional Malayalee notion of a “rich family” was one of feudal landlordism, where nobody in the family did any remunerative work at all. All labour was done by employed (often bonded) staff while the lord sat idle and ordered them around. The belief that the women needn’t go out and work is an extension of this. In the movie, Suraj’s father, the patriarch, prides on the fact no women from that household, including his wife, a post graduate nonetheless, ever went out to work, making his daughter-in-law working out of the question, not matter what her wishes are.
Gender Role Revolutions? Not Quite
It is always changing economic and social circumstances that force revolutions, and they arise out of strong necessity, as the old saying goes. And this “strong necessity” is more often than not, survival, which is true for gender roles too. These changes may be gradual, like the Bangalore couples, or sudden, like the world wars that famously emaciated the American woman, when the shortage of men forced them into the factories to build the masses of guns, planes and ships that eventually helped America win the wars. Puritanically restricted into their homes until the mid 1910s, it was this taste of freedom and earning created the “Flappers” of the roaring twenties and the “New Deal” that eventually created the suffragette movement culminating in universal franchise and equal opportunity for women in the USA.
Right now, remittance families in Kerala can not just survive but also prosper on a single income. City-slickers on the other hand, find that they need two incomes, or for both people to work if they are to maintain their high flying lifestyles they are accustomed to. This makes it impossible for a single person to manage all household chores alone. In case of a city like Bangalore a typical person gets around three or four hours a day outside of their professional and personal commitments (nine hours work+four hours commute+seven hours sleep/personal things/leisure). If they were to attempt to do all the housework alone they would only end up burning out pretty soon enough and bye-bye happy home. There is no way than split the three hours of housework between the man and the woman. Sure, maids and washing machines and dishwashers and Swiggy/Zomato exist but even then, work to be done around modern urban homes extend to more than traditional cook-dishes-laundry chores. And there is a limit to the work that can be done by the help.
As for Kerala, the current remittance-prosperity is an economic anomaly that occurred because of an exact once-in-history alignment of a number of unique organic and environmental factors over a very narrow slice of time, that is now coming to an end. When it turns out that maintaining four cars, a 2000 sqft house with centralised AC and “status” in society gets difficult on a single income, you might see gender roles diminishing.
So, one might ask, what is wrong in following these norms? People often fail to realise is that denying reality by desperately hanging on to the laurels of long-past prosperity will only hasten the path on to utter ruin. Those who do so will fail to see this coming until it is too late. The most prosperous communities in Kerala today are those who had educated their women and encouraged them to go out and stand on their own legs (but while strictly keeping to the moral code with no deviations, of course). Well, reward for abandoning things like gender roles is greater prosperity: more earning opportunities, better, comfortable lives for the family, greater worldview, wider networks and more than everything, better knowledge, open minds and better decision making capabilities, and of course, the culmination is that children grow up as better individuals with more opportunities. When the man shares the burden of household chores, the woman will be able to share the burden of earning for the household.
However, it would be wrong to assume that abolishing gender roles is some kind of revolution for establishing women’s rights or anything. Things like these are best left to the devices and sensibilities of individuals and families and the direction they would want to take. They won’t want to take all those opportunities? No? Good (bad) for them. Those who would know that there is great benefit to be had from changing with change will definitely try to change things. A family is like any other organisation that requires great team work to survive and prosper. Those who would not want to change with change will end up getting left behind. However, that too is best left to the people to realise. Legislation may help, but it is often fraught with controversies and trying to force change will only have negative effects with the original messaging getting lost.
A discussion on gender roles with someone from Europe once ended: “The only distinction made between man and women there is at the toilet. And nowadays not even that.” It is realisation and experience that got them there.
COCCYX: For the love of God, people, please get yourselves a dishwasher! Forget everything that you have ever heard about how dishwashers don’t work especially for “Indian” cooking and utensils. All of it is false. I have been using the Bosch SMS66GW01I for a year now and everyone is absolutely thrilled with it! No, the machine does not cost a bomb (Ours came for Rs. 28,500) and neither does the tablet/detergent (Rs.12.95 per tablet). No, the machines do not break down frequently (if they are properly used), yes, they can easily accommodate all kinds of “Indian” utensils. And finally, yes, washing with steam at 75 degrees or more, modern dishwashers can glean any amounts of oil-encrusted remains off your Kadhaai Tawas. Doing dishes is the most demanding and labour-intense chore in any Indian kitchen. It is only after you get a machine how much bloody time and effort and money that you save (an entire wash cycle consumes only 1 unit of electricity and 9 liters of water)! Believe me, no matter how good you are, you will never wash as well as the machine.
There is also this thing about huge houses and “tharavads” (large ancestral family house). A large part of Nimisha’s day goes into cleaning the massive house. It is very evident that Suraj’s family is barely eking along on his frugal single income as a lowly school teacher and the huge tharavadu is in a state of serious disrepair. We know that Kerala has a massive fetish for huge houses that people drop their entire life-savings on, but maintaining such large mansions is no joke. In many cases, later generations are unable to bear those costs and try to dispose them off at the first available opportunity. It will be no different in the movie as well. After his father’s time, unable to bear its maintenance costs and prodded by his wife’s unending nagging, Suraj will most probably sell the property and move into a small house in 20 cents somewhere in a semi-urban locality closer to his work place. So in the end, Suraj’s father’s proud insistence to keep up the family’s tradition will probably end up with them losing what had been the family home for a century.