There are many things being a girl has taught me. I have learnt, in the past sixteen years, how to make compelling conversation, how to make sure a surprise visitor never sees the house in disarray, how to apply eyeliner on a moving bus, and how to hide turbulent thoughts while appearing unperturbed. I have learnt that there is a place for everything, and everything is best in it’s place. I have learned that letters to myself serve as effective reminders of lessons learnt, and I have learned that I am a woman in a wild world and that there are lessons to learn and places to be. But perhaps most significantly, I have learnt to move in a kitchen in such a way that it seems to be just an extension of my limbs.
I thought I would want to fight this, liberal feminist that I am, and yet I find myself gravitating towards the hub of whistling pots and sizzling pans. There is no fight in the kitchen. It is where stories start, it is where things begin. Told for years that my place is in the home, that the real world would bury me alive, I have found twisted solace in here. If home is where I belong, I choose the kitchen. A place for knives and girls with sharp tongues.
Like all things that we are drawn to, my connection with the kitchen is deeper than it just being a place I cook in and clean up. The kitchen is where food is made, and to me, and to my mothers before me, food has been our way of communicating without speech. Food has been our mediator, our peace-offering, the bearer of questions, comfort, and forgiveness. I have watched food act as mender of hearts, watched people bond over hors d’oeuvres and share their pain over slices of cake. With my eyes closed, I could think of a day in my life and tell you how the kitchen played a part, how it was the centre of so many memories.
On the stepping-stool by the housekeeper’s feet, I watched her make chocolate cake using store-bought chocolate milk, an improvised celebration when she learnt it was my eighth birthday. Afternoons after school spent on the kitchen island, ginger and garlic frying on a pan and wafting through the house as my mother tossed and stirred things with her magical mother hands. A December night standing in front of a pot of boiling water wondering if I was supposed to add salt before I put in the rice, or after. Adding a coriander garnish to the first meal I ever made all by myself and wondering what everyone would think, realizing later why it felt like a test.
Watching as the years slipped by and my mother stopped being in the kitchen as much as she liked, learning to step into her shoes, to hold a ladle the way she did and hope that maybe a little bit of the magic was just the act of cooking. There are too many days now where my mother has to let us cook instead of herself. Without a question, my sister and I take turns, negotiate our schedules of work and school to fit in hours where we can do what’s needed, hours where we pretend that we are magic, too.
At the door of the kitchen, I leave behind all my worries, tying back my hair, rolling up my sleeves and grabbing a knife, a pot, a ladle. I no longer pretend to be delicate. In the kitchen, I am vicious. Chopping cilantro, coriander, chillies, mint, tomatoes, onions, meats; frying ginger and garlic; boiling rice – there is a method to the cacophonous madness that is dinner for six, a sense of purpose, and maybe in the bitter-sweetest way, a sense of being a part of something greater than myself.
Boys will be Boys
In the kitchen, girls with sharp tongues wield knives and discover self-truths over pots of food. In the kitchen, girls make food and men don’t meddle. Men stay outside, at the door, and at most offer a suggestion, ask if they can help. They are chased away by grandmothers with rolling pins, told to go out, to not interfere where the women are working. Outside, they converse in loud laughter and exchange pleasantries. Women cook. Men don’t interfere. In the kitchen, girls with sharp tongues realize that asking men for help changes the natural order of things. If it works, we call it a miracle but our mothers say when men and women forget their places, the world is doomed to destruction.
At gatherings, we watch from the living rooms of family homes, at the running boys tumbling down grassy hills, giggling and kicking balls and climbing trees. We sigh, and while our mothers and grandmothers talk of marriage, men, and kitchens, we tighten our scarves around us, bring in tea and biscuits, smile and make polite conversation.
We are young women, but boys will be boys.
Maybe, we have the courage to ask why things are this way, why we always seem to find ourselves inside. We are met with incredulous stares and shocked expressions. Our grandmothers and mothers look conflicted, these are questions they don’t want to answer. Perhaps they consider giving us hope for a moment but ultimately buckle under the reality. We will nod and pretend to understand but what we take from their answer is this: Women cook, and men don’t meddle. Men make choices, and women make it easier for them. A woman who changes the natural order of things is a force to be reckoned with and I sometimes fear that I am not that woman. I also sometimes fear that I am, because I have heard that those women are hard to love. I am a girl with a sharp tongue and hands that I pretend are magical. I am encouraged to be made of stone, to be unmoving, stoic, unbreakable. But I am also to be made of water, to be enough for someone else to swim in. We learn these lessons as part of our training in the art of womanhood, in the art of pretending to be magic, the art of looking smooth and unperturbed.
Getting into Shape
At seven, they told us that liquids take the shape of their containers. This was a science lesson. This was them educating us. A lesson put into a short sentence, demonstrated when they poured our water bottles into a bowl. See, they said, it’s changed shape but it’s still water. This was the beginning.
At ten, we learnt that womanhood was something that was thrust upon our unready hands and that once given, it could not be returned. We learnt that there was a difference between us and our brothers and that we would have to start acting different. It was an exciting adventure, we tittered and chattered and waited for the Next Big Step.
At thirteen, they told us that being a woman meant to be adaptable, that things may change because we were young women now, and that we must wear this change with a smile. You are so pretty when you smile! You change shape, now, but you’re still woman! It became taboo to run in public, fear that someone will say something we don’t like, or worse, see something that they do. We were told to smile more, but sit neatly with our legs crossed, hands on knees, pictures of docility. We are easier to swallow this way.
At sixteen, I realized I had to be strong but adaptable, to be ready to drop my dreams at the tip of a hat but to have dreams to begin with, to know how to stand tall but not be intimidating, to be an open hand. This was womanhood, I learnt, being not too much. Not too bright, but not too dim, not too strong but not too weak. Just enough. Girls with sharp tongues learn to not talk until the time is right, the titter and chatter die down.
Total strangers will stop us to tell us that our eyes smile even when they can’t see our faces. Acquaintances will tell us that we are good listeners. Friends will call us pillars and shoulders to lean on, but we are so much more than all of this. We are struggling hurricanes wanting to do no harm but powerless against the nature of ourselves. We were made to destroy, but we are women. We cannot destroy anything without repercussion. We are good listeners, shoulders to cry on, women who can put you at ease with just their eyes because this is who we were trained to become.
I Am a Woman
This is who I am, all five feet, three inches moulded and adapted self. Hurricane in an airtight container. Tsunami in a tightly closed bottle. Shake me and spill me over, twist me and squeeze and pour me down the sink, I am water, I will just come back. Rain on your crops and help them flourish, I am woman, told to be gentle, made to be strong.
I will angrily sprinkle more red chilli powder on my aloo gosht, turning up the heat and stirring slowly. The slowness will probably calm my thoughts, and I will remember, time and time again, that food is for the most part, a metaphor for who I have been told I need to become: put over heat, chopped, thrown into boiling water, but when the time comes, I will appear, dressed and ready to be presented, made for the consumption of others. Maybe this is why I love the kitchen so much, because it is an extension of myself, it is my container, and I take the shape of it, a place made entirely for the purpose of giving.I have watched for years as women have learnt to communicate without speech, as women have been the mediators, the peace offerings, the bearers of questions, comfort and forgiveness. I have watched them be menders-of-broken-hearts, watched as their shoulders were cried on, watched as they served slices of cake and wiped tears. I have watched girls with sharp tongues cut their own mouths with their newfound silence. The time is never right.
I have learnt that all I want is to be treated as more than the container I take the shape of, to be seen as more than a comforter. For it to be known that a woman’s hands are not magic, they are cut and burnt, the pungent smell of freshly grated garlic washed off by sugar-and-lemon-scrub, bleeding and burning. That even bleeding women will never stop giving, bandage their hands and start again.
So you can stop saying it, I’m going back to the kitchen. I’ll make a cake, and if you ask real nice, we can share a slice.