By: Sanbula Zaidi
In Salman Rushdie’s family saga Midnight’s Children, he utilizes a recurring motif of various characters cooking their emotions into their food. Curries brimming with regret. Vegetable kormas overflowing with longing. Desserts thick with unspoken anger.
If this magical realist element was applied to my life, I have spent my entire existence consuming expectation.
Every visit to Pakistan, after the question of what I wanted to be (I had wanted to be an aquamarine crayon as a child, so I parroted “a doctor” just as my mother had taught me), the matter would inevitably
turn to “So, what have you learned to cook?”
“Nothing,” was always my answer, secretly thrilled to see the worried looks on my extended family’s faces.
“Well… that’s okay for now. You’re young. But what are you going to cook for your husband?” my uncle asked with concern. This seemed like an inappropriate question to ask a ten-year-old who was still flirting with boys by pretending to hate them.
“If my husband expected me to cook for him, then I would just feed him poison,” I spat out defiantly, as my mother gasped in dismay, the recurring soundtrack of my life.
My uncle burst into raucous peals of laughter and told my mother, “You’d better watch this one. She’s feisty.” He was less amused a week later when he asked me to
make him tea and I insolently dumped heaping teaspoons of salt into it. My mother would often encourage me by telling me what a hapless cook she had been. She had lived a rather genteel life, flanked by servants who, like the impoverished versions of Disney woodland creatures, scurried around sweeping and sifting and stirring. Once she was married, she quickly realized that she had never set a foot in the kitchen except to give out an order. She learned to cook from scratch through years of trial and error and it was assumed that I would follow suit.
My paternal grandfather, who disliked showing displays of emotions except for the two stiff hugs he bestowed upon me every year (one for greeting and one for parting), was delighted the one and only time I have made the starchy South Asian staple, roti. The bread was filled with wheat pustules and riddled with craters, but he ate it all silently and shot me a rare smile of approval. The positive reinforcement had no effect on me.
My father tried to reason with me. “This has nothing to do with gender roles, Sweety,” he argued, using the infantile moniker that my family called me. “It’s basic survival. You need to be able to take care of yourself.”
“Would you be stressing this as much if I were your son?” I asked.
The argument always went the same way: he cooked, didn’t he? He sewed too, which was true, as all the hideously patterned muumuus he crafted for my Barbies attested. He would happily scrub the kitchen over and over again until it smelled of ammonia and obsessive compulsion.
But I could never shake off my awareness of the traditional structure of the South Asian family unit, which has always relied on maternal, domestic instincts. Even if my father cooked, he did so rarely. The expectation always was that my mother was the primary cook.
Over the years, I learned that cooking brought with it psychological tremors when dealing with the South Asian social scene. Being invited to someone’s house in Pakistani culture isn’t just a pleasant gathering with small talk over piquant entrees. On the surface, everything is light and airy. But there’s a sense of gnawing dread secretly enveloping you. For now, you are indebted. Indebted to invite your gracious hosts over for a meal as quickly as possible, lest you come across as parsimonious or ungrateful. My mother would come home and tally how many appetizers, entrees, and desserts she had consumed on ring-cluttered fingers, her kajol smeared under her eyes after a long evening of forced frivolity. As she tittered all night, in the back of her mind, she knew she had a limited deadline to plan, execute, and deliver a
dinner invitation that exactly matched – and more importantly, outdid — the valiant efforts of her hosts.
In most Pakistani
households, as the eldest daughter, I would have been expected
to be her sous-chef. I was supposed to be there to secure the pressure cooker so it did not spray out lentils in a scalding legume eruption that barely missed her face.
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But due to my stubborn refusal to bow to the expectations of being her chef’s apprentice, I was excused from the frenzied preparation that my mother embarked upon every time she took on such a venture. She would cook painstakingly for days, screaming hysterically if anyone entered the kitchen for a taste.
Three days later, she would have pulled off the Fitzgerald-esque feast seamlessly, glowing among the compliments her culinary talents had elicited. We, her family, stood tight-lipped by her side. We trembled from the post-traumatic stress disorder we had developed over the years, experiencing momentary relief that we had survived the entire ordeal. After the party, she would always tell me, “You’ll understand one day,” and smile knowingly, as my heart tensed with fear.
No matter how many times I tried to dress like a tomboy with dirt-as-war-paint, I was mired in expectation. On South Asian matrimonial websites, along with the requirements of possessing a university degree, you see many parents wanting a girl who is “homely”. In a Western context, I think of the idiom “a face only a mother could love”. This expression, however, holds a completely different meaning for South Asians, denoting domesticity. That implied importance of “homeliness” has always seemed ominously present.
My father quit reasoning with me and he quit coming to my room, choosing to avoid seeing it in its unkempt glory. He told me years later that he used to have nightmares induced by my slovenly domestic habits after he visited my childhood bedroom, dreaming himself in a blank white space full of black dots that kept multiplying rapidly as he tried in vain to collect them. That was the effect my defiance of being “homely” had on my father.
Young South Asians are faced with shifting gender politics that are foreign to
their parents. What were considered normative gender roles for our parents are no longer as prevalent amongst newcomer and first-generation South Asians. My parents were cognizant that I was part of a generation that was influenced by ideas existing within a society they had not been raised in. As I sat down to begin this piece, a quick search on this topic yielded a survey about who is expected to be the homemaker/cook in a South Asian family household, and how to approach the discussion of how tasks should be divided equitably. With more and more South Asian women out in the workforce, just as educated and ambitious – if not more – than their male counterparts, an application of “woman: homemaker, man: breadwinner” feels antiquated. Nowadays, it seems like a crude summation of the myriad complexities around shifting South Asian gender roles, and the challenges still remaining.
These were realizations that took a long time to arrive at. My rebellion brought me a strange sense of comfort. It blinded me from seeing that because of my adamant refusal to partake in any kind of domestic behaviour, I was burning Easy Mac and gingerly washing spoons one at a time in front of horrified friends. I was twenty-one when I realized I had proven my point, one I had so stridently clutched onto, but I was no longer sure what point I was making exactly. The principle had taken on a life of its own.
So, just as I had quietly begun experimenting with drinking alcohol in field parties as a teenager, I began experimenting with cooking in my adulthood. I wanted my mother to know about neither of these activities. I secretly scrambled eggs and watched them sizzle sinuously on skillets. I made some truly atrocious sauces, which were so acrid they assaulted my nostrils well before my taste buds. I made covert trips to the supermarket to examine cuts of meat.
My foray into cooking unearthed another realization: how much cooking was embedded in my memories. I remembered how my mother made tandoori chicken drumsticks for every childhood birthday party I had. I remembered how my uncle used to buy piping hot seekh kababs wrapped up in newspapers for afternoon tea when we went to visit my mother’s family in Pakistan. I remembered how at three, just after finishing eating a samosa, I forced Ali, my sworn nemesis, to run over the sharp, jagged rocks in front of our house as a dare.
Food is such a vital part of life. The smells, the cultivated recipes, the spontaneity, the stories. It’s a rich mélange of a shared history. There are still some aromatic dishes that transport me back. They evoke memories of a filthy, cheap hole-in-the-wall Pakistani restaurant my parents used to take
me to called Lazeez Mahal, which I jokingly dubbed Zaleel Mahal, changing the meaning from “Delicious Palace” to “Humiliation Palace”.
A central part of South Asian identity is food. By abdicating the expectations I perceived being
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attached to my burgeoning womanhood, I realized that I was denying the full impact all this had had on me, both good and bad. It’s allowed me to have a wealth of stories based on my mother’s emotionally taxing cooking sprees. It’s taught me to deal with situations that are akin to negotiating a hostage crisis (“Put down the vegetable peeler, Mom, and take deep breaths. You’re going to make it”).
For years, I battled with the perceived gender expectations of being a South Asian female: mother, homemaker, career woman who is both a mother and homemaker. This year, at the age of thirty, I cooked my first South Asian meal: dahi murgh. A creamy chicken dish consisting of yoghurt sauce with a rich fusion of spices. I recalled how my mother used to casually throw in ingredients, her senses trained over years of experimentation. It’s a talent that requires an innate confidence.
As I carefully garnished a bowl, noting my omission of the light seasoning of multiple cups of oil that Pakistanis add for artery-blocking flavour, I reflected upon the thirty years it had taken me to cook this one simple meal. My whole life, I had refused to cook. I rebelled not against the act of cooking, but the limitations it represented in my mind. Being South Asian and female and juggling those two identities meant they were often in conflict for me. They seemed at complete odds, and I felt I had to choose one or the other: being a strong woman or being South Asian. I believed that the
two could simply not co-exist in my life.
It’s been a long journey. A long, burnt, undercooked, salty, bland journey. One that has been shaped by expectations of what gender is in the context of ethnicity. Ultimately, I realize more and more that any limitations and prescriptions of who I am can only apply to me if I accept them.
If Salman Rushdie’s motif of life being a feast with different dishes of memories and experiences served before us to digest holds true, I hope mine tastes like reclamation.