They cooked the food--slaving at the stove for hours, grinding the lentils and the rice and the water, watching the clock for the freshly made yogurt-but they ate last. They finished the leftovers from the night before, or sometimes they slapped together a pathetic sandwich-lacking in flavor and warmth--because everyone before them had stuffed their faces full of food. The women in traditional Indian families could fight for their own rights. To go to work, or to stay at home. To put off motherhood, or to advance it. To dress in jeans, or to put on a gown. But they never fought, found it inconceivable to fight for, their rights at the table. Here, they were oppressed and inferior, lesser and dependent. Who were they to fight against tradition? To fight against a century-old practice? Against the patriarchy that still dominated their lives?
The problems with this practice reach far beyond culture, tradition, and gender. It means that women, and oftentimes children are malnourished. It cements hierarchy instead of family. It undervalues the vital social skills that are taught at the table. Because women and children eat last, they have fewer vegetables and other dishes such as rice or bread. Sometimes they have no vegetables and eat their cold rotis with salt. They must wait until the men are finished, however long that may take. If the men begin late, the women must go hungry until late into the afternoon. They can cook savory dishes, but they cannot enjoy them.
It also means that families continue to be patriarchal and divided. Husbands will not share a meal with their wives, fathers will not share a meal with their daughters, and sons will not share a meal with their mothers. It means that families never partake as a communal unit, but rather as individual members tied together by fraying threads. It fights against the adage: “A family that eats together stays together.” Indian families are held together by duty and tradition, but not by the love that is fostered at the dining room table.
It means that children never learn the rules of society that are taught best at the table. Not which fork to use or which way to pass the bread, but how to be polite. It teaches the next generations how to notice others--if they need water or food--and how to be kind and sympathetic. It demonstrates hospitality and warmth.
If I stop to think about it, I can see my mother in the kitchen: cutting vegetables or frying potatoes or heating cold leftovers. I can see her waiting patiently in the background as my grandfather, then my uncle, then my father, then my grandmother, all eat, as she waits. I can see her rooting through the fridge for long-forgotten pickled vegetables because there is no food left. I can see her in the kitchen because it seems to me that is where I see her the most. Not playing board games, or writing careful lesson plans, but cooking delicious rasams and dosas that will be cold and tasteless by the time she sits down.
When will women gain their spot at the table? It will only be when they realize that food is time. A chocolate chip cookie means ten minutes of exercise. A banana means thirty. It takes an hour to fully make lemon rasam, fully seasoned, and it takes twelve hours to make a dosa from scratch. It takes men an hour to finish a meal and it takes women fifteen minutes to finish their meal. Food is time. It is the fuel that drives us and it is the memories that interconnect us. Women need to fight for their food, for their right to eat at the table with everyone else, because food is the basis for everything that we do.