We Indians love our food and we take our food memories with us wherever we go. This is true especially for the first generation diaspora. Food gives us comfort, as we try to navigate the unfamiliar terrains of our adopted countries.
Our memories of food tend to revolve around two distinct themes: one, of home-cooked delicacies, and, two, of mom smilingly slaving over a hot stove to produce delectable dishes for her family. This second idealized "Mother India" image is one we have grown up with and have seen in everything from movies and TV serials to ad campaigns. It's an image of self-sacrifice, of a woman whose identity is firmly pinned to her stove, her perfect fish curry and her impeccably run household. True, there is a sense of comfort in picturing moms making their signature dishes. That's what ideal Indian moms do. Make delicious hot meals, ready for the brood. On the other hand, dad's special chana masala and tandoori chicken inspire a certain degree of awe. Dad can cook too! He helps in the kitchen!
To fully become empowered, whatever our profession is, wherever we are, we need to come out of the social conditioning that deifies female domesticity.
These food-culture memories may seem heart-warming, innocuous even, but in my mind at least, they've ruined things for thousands of Gen X women in the Indian diaspora, like myself, who are trying to carve out a life of economic empowerment and equal partnership at home (like the Whites!). This image of the Bharatiya Nari (ideal Indian woman) is so ingrained in our minds that we take it with us wherever we go. So much so that we are neither able to follow Sheryl Sandberg's exhortations to "lean in" nor Rosa Brooks's call to "recline".
In a desperate, misguided notion of trying to live up to this larger-than life-image of the ideal Indian woman, we have seriously created a catch-22 situation for ourselves. We cannot comprehend that to fully become empowered, whatever our profession is, wherever we are, we need to come out of the social conditioning that deifies female domesticity. We need to actually believe that we are not bad women if we ask our spouse to help with cooking, share the responsibilities of the house, including kids, or stay late at work to finish a project or a deadline. Partnership at home is not going against our Indian cultural roots or our "Indianness."
We are not the "lean in" generation of working women. Instead we are "superwomen" frantically swaying back and forth between two full-time jobs...
Even if we are economically empowered, we feel the necessity to rush home after a hard day's work to prepare a home-cooked meal for the husband and children, see that the household chores are done, and ensure that the next day's lunches are ready. We are not the "lean in" generation of working women. Instead we are "superwomen" frantically swaying back and forth between two full-time jobs -- the first shift starts at 9am, and when that ends at 5pm our next shift in the kitchen begins. Quite often, there's a third shift as teacher too, since it's mostly our responsibility to ensure that the children's schooling, after-school tutorials and other activities are on track. While husbands and fathers are doing more housework than before and attending school meetings, the woman still does a lot more. She expects herself to do more because that's what she believes is required from her, traditionally. One lady argued that she believes in perpetuating her own food memories so that her children have a better sense of their cultural roots. This burden of cultural continuity is only hers, she believes, and something that she must jealously guard. Here, even if the husband tries to help she feels threatened and as if she has failed in her role as the ideal mother/wife/woman.
[E]ven if the husband tries to help she feels threatened and as if she has failed in her role as the ideal mother/wife/woman.
Our generation (X) finds it difficult to let go. Although we were raised in an era of increasing opportunities and freedom to work, we are fixated on trying to personify a "perfect balance" between the Bharatiya Nari image of our cultural conditioning and the professional ambitions that we long to achieve. It proves challenging to integrate the two aspirations, especially in diaspora life where the social support of home is lacking. Frustrated and exhausted, we make half-hearted attempts to justify ourselves -- "Hey! My job is a job too!" But do we really believe it? When we do "let go" of the household for a day, we spend the next few days ridden with guilt. We come as close as we can to the image of the perfect Indian woman -- she of the multiple arms and juggling act -- but in the process we face serious burn-out.
Many women don't allow themselves to "recline". They cannot have a lazy afternoon catching up with the girls without going through spasms of guilt. To circumvent this, they may cook a 10-course meal for the family before heading out for a dinner date with girlfriends. This stems from the misguided notion that she should cook and make sure her family is fed before she goes out to have some fun without them. She may do this even if she knows her partner is quite capable.
There is nothing contradictory about Indianness and a 50-50 partnership at home. There is nothing non-Indian about looking out for oneself beyond this idolized image.
The image that has been created and perpetuated of the Bharatiya Nari has endured, and mothering remains the epitome of a woman's success. And while we do pursue goals outside the home now, we have failed to reconfigure cultural expectations accordingly. As a result, women are on 24-hour overdrive, continuously extending themselves until they reach breaking point. It's almost unthinkable to let go and ask the spouse or kids to pitch in more, because that might put our Indianness at risk.
Ladies, first and foremost, we need to stop feeling guilty. We must get rid of this Bharatiya Nari image of ourselves. We have to learn to let go. An image was created for us, a myth, which we have nurtured and perpetuated. The world is changing -- recognize that. We have accomplished many things; we can do this also. There is nothing contradictory about Indianness and a 50-50 partnership at home. There is nothing non-Indian about looking out for oneself beyond this idolized image.
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