While her partner Saif Ahmed Khan, 33, still isn’t entering the kitchen, he has been helping with changing the diapers after coming from work, cleaning the house, being there for other household chores, said Sana, who lives in a nuclear family set-up.
While marriage brings with it its own set of responsibilities for both partners, it is often the woman who is left to multitask, as she manages domestic responsibilities, the child and the rest of the family, along with her career. The Great Indian Kitchen, a recent Malayalam-film, weaves the underlying patriarchy that exists in most Indian households, whether affluent, low or middle class, and how it manifests when a woman, post-marriage, comes to a new home to live with her husband.
To understand the ground reality, indianexpress.com reached out to some millennials who have been married for over a year to understand the gender roles in an intended life-long partnership, and how it matters.
It is the reality of everyday life that hits hard, said a Delhi-based journalist, who did not wish to be named. “I work almost at the same package as my husband, but my mother-in-law would initially say ‘let my son sleep as it is very important for him to rest’,” said the journalist who got married in December 2019.
“Marriage for a woman is a very difficult life. I have to go office, which means I have to wake up before my husband, even when we work in the same organisation. I need to do household chores, cook, serve the family and then get dressed for office. When I get back home, I need to cook again. Then I am the last person to go to bed. I sleep around 2 am and wake up at 7 am. How does a woman rest? And on top of it, if you miss something, you are judged,” she said.
“I am a late sleeper. I have never woken up before 10 or 11. But now I wake up by 7-8 am, take shower, do puja as in-laws are particular about it, and then cook,” she added.
The film portrays patriarchy in day-to-day exchanges from rustling up “more than one dish as per the family’s traditions according to the men’s taste” to serving the men first before women sitting down to eat. It shows how the kitchen and other household responsibilities like cleaning fall on the newly-wed as soon as the mother-in-law departs to tend to her pregnant daughter – a vicious cycle from which there is no escaping – you are either cooking at home or wherever you go to stay.
For Aarthy Srini (34), who shifted to Pune from Chennai after her wedding in January 2020, the lockdown meant she had to start working from home while “adapting to a new family, environment, and people”. It also made her spend more time in the kitchen. While much of the cooking is done by her mother-in-law every day, she also helps out or sometimes takes over. “Thanks to COVID-19, my office-going routine has changed. Day-to-day life is cooking, work-from-home, household chores, some physical exercise, and then going out,” she said. On the other hand, for her husband Kartik Iyer, who resumed going to office in June 2020, nothing much has changed in terms of his routine, with his day comprising “morning routine, work, lunch, work, and spending time outside”.
So, why does marriage bring more responsibilities for a wife? “This has to do more with our Indian culture. Even if the wife is working, she is still expected to take care of the house, take care of the in-laws. When she becomes a mother, she has to take care of the baby. And most Indian women think it is their duty to take responsibility of the house and children. And it is always the woman who accommodate and adjust more,” Dr Maya Kirpalani, consultant psychologist and family therapist, Bhatia Hospital Mumbai, pointed out.
Since marriage is considered a ‘permanent union’, “you’re suddenly legally responsible for each other”, which is a massive change. Discussing money, can always be a powder keg, feels Syed Shifa Babar, 27. “Marriage is different than just being a couple. It’s simply different from cohabitation. Updating bills, licenses, passports, deciding on joint accounts, writing thank you cards—it’s easy to see how the stress can build during that first year when the reality of married life begins to sink in,” said Shifa, who got married to Mohd Amir Khan in December 2018.
“Earlier, every little fight may have seemed like no big deal, but now you suddenly have the ‘oh-my-god-this-is-the-rest-of-my-life’ factor making it all the more intense. And while you’re dealing with that feeling, don’t forget about your in-laws. Because they’re family too, now,” said the Delhi-based teacher.
Agrees a 29-year-old software engineer from Gurgaon who recollects how as an independent, single, working woman, living away from home before marriage, she never had to face any “interference” from anyone. “I used to do everything on my own before marriage. But here I have to be answerable to everyone in the family including in-laws about how my day is planned, what I am making, where I am going, etc,” she said.
While many think that a house help is a huge advantage, it does not really reduce the burden of a woman’s responsibilities in the household. “My in-laws are particular about home-cooked food. So the house help does everything except cooking – which means preparing three main meals and everything in between for everyone. At one time, I proposed that I would quit my current job. That’s when my mother-in-law asked me to not quit. But it only meant that she had to again shoulder the responsibility of the joint family of five for sometime until my night shifts were over while working from home,” said the engineer, who has been married to a travel company professional for the past two years.
“So, now I don’t have a choice. I automatically wake up at 8 am and then cook breakfast within an hour. During the afternoons, I take a nap. It has become a habit now,” she said, adding that the rest of the meals are made by the mother-in-law as the “men have never cooked in the family”.
“A cousin sister-in-law had left her job for five years to tend to the household work. But when I came and hired a house help to do much of the work except cooking, the sister-in-law too followed suit and joined a new workplace. So, you have to work your way out,” she added.
While her mother-in-law has softened her stand and tells her to “sleep longer”, it is the family dynamics that need to change, the journalist feels. “My brother never picked up his plate after eating. But that has changed now and he has started cooking (however, rarely). These small but significant changes show how things can change if the family, especially the older women, push for it,” she said.