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Friday, April 16, 2021

What is the worth of a woman’s household work?

There is actually just one word that would suffice for all of us. The right for women to say “no” — not clean up, put clothes in, take them out, monitor the pantry, plan the menu, watch the children, and do this keeping to everyone’s schedule.

Written by Shalini Langer |
Updated: March 28, 2021 8:38:06 am
It was liberating when a feisty colleague finally said openly, without any touch of apology, that her mother wasn’t a great cook and neither did she like spending the best hours of her day in the kitchen.

Rs 1,000, Rs 1,500, Rs 2,000, or Rs 15,000 (“with skilling”) per month. What is the worth of a woman’s household work? As parties, all led by men, rush out these doles in manifestos this election in a bit of amazingly un-ironic coincidence, for that half of the world euphemistically termed “homemakers”, are we ready to even go there?

As the responses to the startling Malayalam film The Great Indian Kitchen — capturing all the work that goes into a day to keep a house running, and especially keep it fed — showed, the men have either no idea about this or, if they do, would rather not be reminded of it. The enormity of what our mothers have gone through for generations hit most of us “working women”, so to speak, as opposed to “homemakers”, during the Covid lockdown. With helps vanishing at one swish of PM Modi’s wand, it was interesting to see how social media was flooded with recipes, with domestic work glorified as a return-to-nature exercise.

A year later, as coronavirus warnings return, no one is suggesting those helps be kept out — and the recipes have dried up.

Cooking, it turns out, is only fun when someone else buys, peels, chops, grinds, washes, and importantly, cleans after you.

And what if you don’t like any of it — starting with the cooking? As mothers, can we even harbour that notion? Our lives are full of stories about mothers’ cooking. It was liberating for me when a feisty colleague finally said openly, without any touch of apology, that her mother wasn’t a great cook and neither did she like spending the best hours of her day in the kitchen. At home, where my mother-in-law is a receptacle of Hyderabadi recipes, I see my mother, the same age as her (74), struggling exhaustedly against the pressures of conformity.

No, she doesn’t make pickles; yes, she once made papads and ketchup but that was a time before these became a phone call away; no, Punjab where she grew up doesn’t have a range of delicacies for her to reel off, not ones that she knows of certainly; yes, she makes excellent Dal Makhni, kheer and other “everyday” things, but nothing that would make it to social media.

But she does keep her home spotlessly clean, day after day, helped by my father.

So where would her “homemaking” skills fit in, given that the two of them settled long back on this division of chores, with my father shouldering the heavier burden? Which payment scale? How much? Do years of toil count? Or her say?

There is actually just one word that would suffice for all of us. The right for women to say “no” — not clean up, put clothes in, take them out, monitor the pantry, plan the menu, watch the children, and do this keeping to everyone’s schedule.

The Great Indian Kitchen does us all a great service. We may adore our families — at home now for the past year, breakfast, lunch, dinner — but we can never look at chores the same way again. Or a clogged sink, or waste left in dishes. Or a male relative’s smirk, “We have done the cooking, what else is there to do (that, especially, hits close to home)?” Or wonder how women after women (in the film and the real world) keep getting caught in the same cycle.

Nor can we forget its protagonist at the end, driving into her dance class in sneakers, having shed her ungainly salwar-kameez and chains of gold. She watches, fingers tapping as her students decked head to toe in traditional wear, jump in abandon to music — overturning every bit of convention. Just as she has taught them.

This article first appeared in the print edition on March 28, 2021 under the title ‘In Great Indian Election, ‘homemakers’.
National Editor Shalini Langer curates the fortnightly ‘She Said’ column

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