There was a time in my early teens when my family was unable to afford a maid. We had always had one but my father’s salary had failed to keep up with the growing inflation in Pakistan in 2006. A smaller house was rented and concurrently it was established that it could be maintained without hiring domestic help. Who was to maintain it, was never explicitly answered; it was understood; my mother would replace the maid.
Those were tumultuous years of growing up. My sister, a doctor, easily frames that time in physiological terms. A mother was going through menopause, and the two daughters, through puberty. Naturally, it was a clash of civilizations with opposing sets of raging hormones bombarding each other every day.
Sundays were particularly brutal; it was when my mum had to do the ‘inside out’ cleaning. Everything from the toilets to the porch was disinfected; marble floors and shelves were swiped clean; sofas and tabletops were dusted; clothes were laundered. My mum, with a broom for a weapon, was the “one-man” army, twisting and curving her body and arms to get the dirt out from every nook and cranny imaginable or not. But the sparkling clean house came at a price. She would scream-sometimes loudly, sometimes under her breath- with rage most palpable on Sundays and mostly muted for the rest of the week.
Chaos would ensue, words exchanged but by the evening we all would be enjoying her Sunday Special Biryani and dreading the packed school week ahead; until next Sunday at least, we all would casually forget what wrong had been committed and march on.
It is only after all these years that I was reminded of those years after watching the Great Indian Kitchen: a Malayalam film streaming on Neestream right now. A girl (who remains unnamed for the entire duration of the film) gets married off into a family in a typical arranged marriage scenario and is quickly relegated to the handling of the kitchen and cleaning of the house. Most of the screen time is dedicated to just her-in the kitchen, in the morning and afternoon, day and night, day after day, week after week, until the inevitable happens. The only difference between her and my mum? Her outburst comes 20 years too soon.
My mum is nearly 60 now. She innocently tells me over the phone how her skin has become so thin and flaky that it bleeds upon opening a mere jam bottle.” I don’t even remember when I first entered a kitchen”, she sighs.
Imagine not remembering when you started your first ever job, which would become your lifelong job. There is a reason why she can’t hand over the responsibilities of the kitchen to maids now. It’s like giving away your office desk to an intern after 40 years of working on it. Not all moms are born kitchen experts, control freaks, and dabba collectors; they grow into it. It’s not a gift or a habit; it’s rigorous drilling of hours spent in the smallest, hottest, and smokiest room in the house for decades that perfects that, ‘maa ke haath ka zaiqa’ we all suffer the absence of. It also lends her body a perpetual sense of haste. Unlike a man, a woman enters a kitchen never to leave it.
The trauma of this unspoken, unseen drudgery of domestic labor that most women are sweating out daily can only be communicated in a series of raging and swallowed screams. A woman’s stay in the kitchen accumulates a thousand stories a day: from the clogged kitchen sinks to the peeling, slicing, and dicing, to the forever scraping of garlic and the workouts with mortar and pestle. Just yesterday, my mum tells me how her maid had spoken a bit harshly with her when asked to wipe the kitchen floor again; she came to apologize for her brazenness a few hours later. I could empathize then-like all employees, she too, should be afforded the luxury of burnout.
My mum never ordered us, her two daughters, to do the daily housework. Even in those harshest of times when she would go berserk at the tyranny of fate and curse everyone in sight with a broom in hand, she kept us away from taking on a daily responsibility of any house chore. At night, her hands would smell of a weird mixture of Max Bar and Surf Excel; her clothes had oil marks giving out a pungent garlic stench.
Many times in the Great Indian Kitchen, the girl smells her hands, desperate to take away the stench that seems to have permeated her skin so deeply that no amount of fragrant hand wash could soak it away. The stench is more in the sub-conscience though. It’s like having a home office (a dilemma more and more are going through right now). There is no going back home from work when work is at home and for many women, work is home.
This is a labor of a woman that has been relegated to her in lieu of not having to provide for herself financially. True, that labor varies significantly according to the income bracket the woman finds herself in. The Great Indian Kitchen, however, gives an idea that no matter how rich or poor a woman’s circumstances may be, the reality of her labor does not vary much.
The Great Indian Kitchen is a portrait of that daily labor inside the house-often unseen and belittled. By showing the bland repetitiousness of her work in the kitchen, the film erases all ideas of domestic bliss from anyone’s head, especially men’s. It shoves it in your face rather, that running a home is no mean feat or perhaps, worse than working for your bread and butter.
The never-ending, unpaid, thankless labor that a woman opts to or is forced to do, ultimately leads to a breaking point: the bursting of a carefully contained and curated anger after years of slavering away- one washed teacup at a time, is satisfying to watch, but also tragic. Kitchens may change but the occupant remains the same-the girl in the film has no name because she is every woman. Now I know how my mum ‘did it all’; every woman does because every woman has to.