I did this illustration last year, the bark of a tree. The thickness or the frailness of each ring, and the rings themselves reveal both the passage of time, and the maturity of the tree in relationship to its environment. I found it an apt symbol for this essay.
Listen to this Story
‘Culture opens the sense of beauty’- Ralph Waldo Emerson
Twenty one years ago, my mother-in-law did not approve of Keshav and my relationship at all. Maybe everything she had grown up with as the ideal image of a daughter-in-law, someone who wears traditional clothes (read – wears clothes that covers a lot of the skin), fair skinned, goes to temples, serves the elders, and has a coy and reserved behaviour that is assumed comes with such external looks, that whole conservative Hindu girl package, was a far distant from what Keshav produced in front of her.
Almost shaved head, clothes that covered only what I wished to cover, working hours that extended late into the night, an enthusiastic and social personality, no embellishment of accessories that Hindu girls need to wear (bangles, neck chain, gold earrings), and certainly not-the-type who did regular temple visits or enjoyed religious ceremonies. I didn’t match any of her external physical stereotype that she associated with the role of a daughter-in-law. In front of her stood a petite troublemaker, from her perspective.
Troublemaker, I was, and the wedding did occur. Her stern poses in the wedding photographs are an excellent proof of her love for me, then.
Meanwhile, since I had inherited the love for relationships and friendships from my father, I was keen to build one with my mother-in-law too, even though at that point, I had no idea, how. We both needed a common ground, an opening through which we could start to access each other.
One of the things I had observed about her, through the course of all my visits to Keshav’s home during the time I dated him, or when my frequency increased after we got engaged, was this – her language of love was food. She built and nurtured relationships with food. Almost every meal had a minimum of 10-12 members, a combination of family and visitors, eating from that table, and never was there a shortage of food, nor anyone who entered this home unannounced denied food no matter what time of the day they walked in. She met her need for people, intimacy and conversations through the language of food.
During my visits, irrespective of her mixed feelings for me, she took care to prepare a variety of vegetarian dishes, keeping them separately on the dining table. An incredible cook, I don’t remember her ever putting out an average dish. I could forget all the animosity melt with each morsel in my mouth.
In most Indian households, food is an act of relationship, especially for the women in the family, belonging to both our parental generations, and for many even in the current generation. My mother-in-law’s childhood didn’t offer her education. She was married very young, into a paternal joint family, and so women in such households mostly found their voice, expression and acknowledgment in relationships through the language of food, with kitchen as their queendom. Here is where they make decisions, find their space, try to channel their energies, and many like my mother-in-law even sit down peacefully after everyone in the family have eaten, to have their meals. It is their sanctuary.
Carl Safina, in his book `Becoming Wild: How animals learn to be animals’, shares, `We become who we are not by genes alone. Culture is also a form of inheritance. Culture stores important information not in gene pools but in minds.’ He further adds, `An individual receives genes only from their parents but can receive culture from anyone and everyone in their social group.’
I would like to call the language of food, the collective maternal culture of India, that many of us inherit from our mothers, and women in our communities. In most households, this is integral to how we show our love to others, how we create relationships, how we build existing relationships, how we mend broken ones, and celebrate them all, through well-being, sickness, birth, death and everything in-between.
Even as human history shows that women made excellent gatherers and foragers, as they reared their young, staying close to safety and shelter, I am also not lost to the part that even as culture progressed, this very language of food, became a form of suppression and restriction in several societies, and I hold this as an awareness through women like my mother-in-law in the story.
And so, it is this language of food, that I began to see as a way into a relationship with my mother-in-law. This maternal culture was familiar to me, as it was an important language in our home too. For as long as my mother was alive, she attracted people into the house like bees to flowers, through her incredible cooking skills and the generosity with which she enjoyed sharing it. She was a lovely charming lady of wit and conversations too, and so this magical combination, meant my friends, our neighbours, dad’s friends, people young and old, enjoyed visiting us. With mother having passed five years ago, the celebration and gatherings around food at home had become dormant, and food had gone back to being just a necessity. I began cooking only after mother passed, and it was hardly out of pleasure or for celebration, without her vibrant company.
Keshav and I moved to Mumbai right after our marriage, ripe in our respective film-making careers. The joy of cooking in companionship with Keshav, started to seed, and so too the opportunity to use the language my mother-in-law was familiar with. I guess once an intention is set to build a relationship, the Universe does get things rolling, on its own. Soon, our need for home-style tasty food meant, calls to my mother-in-law for recipes, to clarify recipes, to understand ingredients, and this became our language of communication. For nearly over 3-4 years, her questions and conversation on the phone calls, almost always revolved around:
- What did you make for breakfast?
- What was for lunch?
- What is the price of vegetables in Mumbai?
- How far is the market?
- Do you get double beans? Do you get white brinjal?
- How much red chilli powder should I send? What else do you want?
- What did you make for your guests? How did it turn out?
- Did Keshav eat anything non-vegetarian? No need to make it at home, you can get it from restaurants too.
There were times I wondered how there wasn’t a word she asked about how I was doing, how my work was going, and when I attempted to ask such personal questions they were met with monosyllabic responses. We discussed dishes, I clarified recipes, she asked about Mumbai’s markets, I asked her about Bangalore markets, and we hung up.
With each visit to Bangalore, and in my moments of interactions with her, I wrote down recipes. As years passed and I began to gain more wisdom, I slowly began to understand how she too must have struggled to find a common language to converse with this troublemaker. And maybe unknowingly, she must have found relief too, that the language of food allowed us some intimacy and conversations.
Mind you, her generosity in this language was so high, that she regularly sent food for my father, who now lived alone and whom she cared for with all her heart. She invited him home for every festival and fed him, as well as packed food for him. In many ways, she showed him love, through the only way she was best equipped to, from the confines of her kitchen.
Strongly influenced by our respective maternal culture, Keshav and I love to gather people in our home. My need for doing so is intimacy, conversations and celebrations, in that order. Keshav’s need is slightly different, in just the reverse order, celebrations, conversations and intimacy. While we both plan the core elements of the gatherings together, one person then takes the initiative in the execution, and the other follows. What do you think is that core, we plan together? Yes, food and drinks. While this is not the only language we know to meet these needs, like how it is for my mother-in-law and many women in India, the language of food does play a significant role in our gatherings.
As soon as we meet or get to know someone, enjoy their company, the next thing we say is, `Oh, you should now come home for a meal. Let us fix a day soon’. Within days, the person or family we met is at home, and it is through a meal, a drink, and then many meals, we move from acquaintance to friendship.
In the year and half of the pandemic, it is this intimacy, conversations and celebrations that we both miss. Sitting around the same table, breaking bread, conversing and celebrating. But, like a dear friend and I recently discussed, the language of food became the thread available to yarn strongly in several households, and certainly in ours. We received meals as gifts from friends, we sent meals as gifts to near and dear ones. We opened our doors to surprises, and delivered surprises to doors. This maternal culture we share, had indeed become the one thread accessible to yarn together, and yarn we do, as often as we can.
It appears that my mother-in-law and I had after all found common ground, through the needs we shared for intimacy and conversations with people. We had through the force of Universal love, found an opening through which to see and learn more of each other.
In one such call, she mentioned something very beautiful and insightful. A cousin of Keshav was visiting Mumbai, and had stayed at our place for a few days, and he thoroughly enjoyed the food and hospitality at our place, and in Keshav’s family, news travels very fast, faster than digital medium, and before long, the news of his enjoyment at our place had reached my mother-in-law. So in our call to her, I could sense a hint of pride about her daughter-in-law’s care taking, and in her ever-casual tone she said, `Nobody comes home because they don’t have food, they come because they love us.’ This will forever stay in my heart. Yes, just like all other languages, food too is a medium, to give, receive, and feel love.
Over ten years into our marriage, I heard that when my mother-in-law was sitting with her entire extended family, which has many women and girls of different age groups, she apparently stated, `in this family, the one person who has very good taste in clothes and colours is Anjan’. News travelled, real fast, like it does in their family, bringing a big smile to my face.
The last few years, conversations with my mother-in-law are very different. She starts by asking:
And if I tell her about the food we have made that day, she says, `Oh, just make something easy and light, it’s anyway just the two of you. And yes, don’t forget to light a diya (it is a lamp that many Hindu households light, as a welcome of the divine light into our lives), it’ll bring you both goodness.’
I think we have forged a connection, and the way to it, was through her queendom.
Thank you for listening.
(I wish to share that my mother-in-law only speaks in Kannada, and Tamil, two languages from South India. Her part of the conversation is my translation of it into English. I have done my best to do so, and capture its essence. I haven’t met her since December 2019. I do look forward to seeing her in-person, soon.)
If you wish to share, I would so love to hear.