Category Archives: Culture

The Waiter at the Hotel and his blow for Women’s Rights

I have blogged earlier about the feminist audit of restaurants, a practice of looking at how restaurant staff treated the women customers, what were the roles they were expecting from men and women and how equitable was this.

 

I think at this point, the undoubted winner on my feminist audit is a little roadside stall in Coimbatore. I was there a few months ago with my husband. This  is a little shop with just maybe four tables, but he does roaring business. We were staying for a couple of days at a nearby lodge and we pretty much had every meal with him.

Like many little places in South India, food is served on banana leaves. Some of the restaurants also insist that the customer clears away the banana leaf themselves. Its probably a labor saving practice, and also the concept of ‘Ecchal (or Jhoota) is very powerful in Tamil Nadu, and some places may therefore feel that everybody clears up their own plate and food remains.

As customers, sometimes we forget to do this, not because we think it is wrong, but because one generally never thinks of cleaning up the plates in a restaurant. I had myself forgotten one morning during breakfast and he had to come and remind me as I was washing my hand, that I had to put my plate away.

This is what happened when my husband finished eating and walked away to wash his hand. He forgot to pick up his leaf. Two waiters were standing nearby, and one of them called after him to pick it up. Even as my husband was turning, the other one indicated to his colleague that I was at the table and I would probably clear up both our plates. But the first waiter gave a sharp rejoinder. Its his plate and he clears up. We cant expect her to clear it up for him.

I am not saying this man is a great feminist. I dont even know what he does at home. Does he wash his own plates or expect the women in the family to do it. And I have also seen men who may be doing all household work and not expect anything from the women, but still have their own notions of patriarchy and male superiority. But it was nice to see a public upholding of men and women having to take up equal responsibility.

Learning to Like a Small Town : Adventures in Trichy

 

This year, i moved to a city in Tamil Nadu, Tiruchirapalli. Its not really a small town. Its one of the major cities in the state. Its a huge trading centre. But in my head, it was very much a small town. It was also a bit of a come down because as a Tamilian, I was going back to the heart of Tamil Nadu. I started thinking where I lived would no longer be exotic. I would no longer try to understand other people’s cultures, their world views. Because everyone would be just like me.  Never mind that I have never lived in Tamil Nadu and actually have a very poor understanding of Tamil culture. That my understanding of Tamil culture was limited to an elitist brahmin culture and Tamil Nadu had much much more to offer. But for me, Trichy just didnt seem exciting enough.

And the food. I had lived in Ahmedabad, which I thought was foodie paradise. What could trichy offer other than Idli or dosas. ANd I dont even like eating them. Definitely not at hotels. How could my food devotee image survive in Trichy.

I tried my best to think positive, but I came here with deep misgivings. Maybe it was good I had those misgivings. It made me overcompensate in trying to find joys in Trichy. So I am now going to start a little series – of little things I love in this city. Its my gratitude journal for this place. For people who know me, you will not be surprised to see that most of these little joys are to do with food. But beyond that also, Trichy continues to surprise me.

My First post on this series will soon come up : Trichy Special Paruthi Paal (cottonseed milk)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A to Z Blogging Challenge : V is for Vadams and summer holidays

 

Summer holidays in South India are or used to be punctuated by the vadam making sessions. Vadam (Sandige in Kannada, Vadiyalu in Telugu) is a condiment typically prepared in summer. The batter is made, the condiments moulded  and sundried and they are then kept away for the rest of the year. As and when needed, they are fried and eaten. They are a great, crunchy side dish to have with any form of rice.

 

Now of course fully fried, properly sundried vadam is great. But the batter and the half sun dried vadam is also great. What is more, it is slightly illegitimate to eat. Grandmothers who make the vadam painstakingly are not particularly happy if you end up eating half of what they prepare even before it has been made properly. Specially javarsi (pearl millet) vadam tastes divine when the top layer is dried, but you can still bit into wet sticky millet below. With the delicate seasoning of cumin and chilies added to the batter, the taste really cannot be described.

 

So there is a guilty pleasure in almost stealing the half dried (arakaachal) vadam. It is almost an apocryphal tale for most of us as children that a kid was asked by his granmother to protect the vadams from the crows as they were drying in the terrace, and the kid ate up most of the vadams and then pretended that the crows had eaten them up. I think most of us have at least uttered this kind of lie once, as we tried to steal some vadam.

 

Vadams making is almost something cultural which seems to be ingrained in our grandmothers. The first thing my grandmother said when she saw my house in Ahmedabad was that with such a big terrace and no shortage of sun in the summer, I wish I could come and make vadams here.

 

These days I dont know if people make vadams at home at all. I have a huge terrace and the Ahmedabad sun is all waiting to be tapped into for vadam making. But I have never had the pateince to make them myself. And now there are plenty of people willing to sell vadams specially for the NRI crowd, so there seems ot be no point in making it at home. But I miss this part of my childhood. Shop vadams are all very well, but how can you taste the vadam atvery step of  preparation if you simplly buy it off a shop. Maybe if for nothing other than to give Migu an experience of stealing vadam, I will start making my own vadams.

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Food, culture and bonding : The joys of Indian food

It is a long cherished dream for me and my husband, to undertake a sort of ‘food tour’ across the country, visiting different places to savor the local foods there. While we may have covered barely one tenth of the country, we make it a point that wherever we go, we seek out the local food there.

This actually is becoming quite difficult in recent years, because there is a kind of pan Indian taste which is taking over. All North Indian food gets subsumed into the Punjabi category (even though it is not even true Punjabi) and if you go by restaurants which sell South Indian food in North, we only seem to be living on only Idli and Dosa. Local people themselves do not advocate the local food, but guide visitor to the places, where there is more common Indian food, which according to them, the visitor will like.

For instance, on a trip to Shirdi, around the shrine, we mostly saw Andhra messes and pale imitations of Gujarati food. When we asked the cab driver to take us to a place selling Maharashtrian food, he looked a bit blank, then replied that we would not like it. When we pushed him, he took us to a small restaurant, slightly far from the shrine. The waiter was again a bit skeptical about us, offering to serve us the conventional Punjabi food, but after a lot of pushing, he finally served us some yummy baakri, thaalipith (maharashtrian breads) pitla (a gram flour based side dish) and techa (ground nut based super spicy chutney).

Similarly, when we were visiting Hampi, in North Karnataka, our cab driver point blank refused to take us to the local Khanavali. Since I have traveled a bit in the region and know about their culture, I insisted on going to one, and his reply was that Khanavali was not a place for people like us, and we should stick to the Tourism department hotels. I had to dip into my limited knowledge of North Karnataka style Kannada, in order to convince him that I knew jolly well what I was asking for.

It is perhaps because of this love to explore regional varieties of food, that around the time of Pongal/Makar Sankranti/Lohri/Uttarayan, I organized a pot luck at home with all the invitees bringing in some kind of food unique to their region. So we had undhiyu from Gujarat, Kothmir Vada from Maharashtra, different kinds of Pongal from the south, Moong Dhal Pakoda from UP, different varieties of puri and thepla, Parippu curry from Kerala and Aloo Poshto from Bengal.

It is the last two items, which revealed some cultural vignettes. When my husband encouraged my Bengali neighbor to sample the Parippu Curry from Kerala, he remarked that the dish was very similar to something made in Bengal. It underlined the fact that these two states share a lot of similarities beyond their love for Marx. Or maybe it was through all the comrade bonding that recipes got exchanged and became localized.

The last item, Aloo Poshto, is seriously something. It is potatoes cooked in Khas Khas (poppy seeds) and seasoned with mustard oil. Khas khas is fairly expensive item, and seldom used in a large scale while cooking (at least by us Tamils), but this item was fairly dripping in it. When I spoke to the provider of the item later, I remarked that this was a really expensive item to cook. To which he explained that it was not the case traditionally. Large parts of Bihar and Bengal used to or were forced to cultivate poppy to feed the needs of the British run opium factories back in the eighteenth century. So Aloo poshto or even plain Poshto in mustard oil was a very logical food for many peasants. They simply ate what they grew. Now that poppy seed production is highly regulated, this item has become practically unattainable for many.

I hope India retains its diverse food and the stories that go with them, at least long enough for me to finish my food tour. And I hope that in places I visit in future, localites are not diffident about their cuisine but push us to eat it with pride.

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How free are you ? Social Roles get you one way or the other

Recently, I heard that a young couple who had gotten married fairly recently were expecting their first child. My first reaction was, “Of course I am not surprised. The girl is not working.”

This reaction and all the judgment it involves set me thinking about the fact that as an educated working woman, I have spent so much of my life trying to fight the social role of a conventional woman, which is usually imposed on us, but at the same time, I am replacing one social role, with another, and judging a lot of women by whether or not they measure upto it. My new ideal woman is someone who has a fairly decent education, is capable of working. But this is only a superficial description. Underneath, I also assume that she will be aware of family planning, willing to follow family planning and capable of doing it.  If anyone therefore got pregnant right after marriage, she was not really educated or concerned about a job. That a woman, educated or otherwise,  may choose to have a child soon after marriage is not a possibility I was willing to grant anyone.

In that way I exclude many possibilities for educated women. I wonder why someone would choose not to work (even if she has no commitments like children). I wonder why someone gives up a chance for a productive job to dabble in some kind of hobby. Actually, I exclude many possibilities for myself. Though there are times when I find the dual responsibility of motherhood and a job physically and emotionally exhausting, I don’t even consider quitting. There are days when I feel, I would love to not have to do a job, so that I can read all the amazing books which this well stocked library possesses, but I know that is totally fantasy. There are days when I feel I want to quit all these jobs, and pursue yoga seriously, but again, I know that thought is going nowhere. I dont mean to say I work unwillingly, but I acknowledge that my decision to work is not wholly a ‘free decision’. At some level, it is influenced by my expectation that a woman should work.

This is not just my expectation. A scan of matrimonial ads will show that in most cases prospective grooms desire working women, preferably, professionally qualified.   A lot of recently married women tell me something like, my husband would like me to work, So I will settle into the new place and start looking for a job. He does not want me to be a house wife. Now I wonder, and I want to ask them, “Do you really want to work there, or do you just think you want to or your husband wants you to. Would you prefer to settle into married life without the additional responsibility of finding a job. Would you prefer to pursue some hobby which you never had the time to for now. Would you continue to value and respect yourself if you dont take up a job. Or will you feel like an underachiever every time you hear of a career progression of a friend or erstwhile colleague.

So is this where my personal empowerment has led me?  Replacing one set of ideals with another. It was far easier fighting the other role of an ideal woman as a ‘good and dutiful wife, mother, daughter in law etc etc’. It is so much more difficult to fight this role, since its something I created myself. I will need to shift my empowerment drive to a higher gear, where I really make free and informed choices, with no pressure to fulfill any social role.

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Cultures and Parenting : How India offers freedom to its kids

Recently, my seven year old NRI nephew, who visited me, made a very pertinent remark. We were at a  restaurant, and my boisterous one year old daughter was running around and making merry. She was curious about the place and saw no reason to be confined to a chair. And all the waiters paused a minute to let her pass, did not reprimand us, and even made sure she was safe, when she went too close to a swinging door. One of them even volunteered to mind her as we ate. My nephew remarked, ” Its really nice to see waiters in this city seem to like children”

My nephew was born and raised in the US, a place where kids are expected to be in their best behavior while out. He has probably been shushed and reprimanded by waiters before. For him to see waiters volunteering to mind a naughty child was a revelation. 

Its not just hotels. When I take my daughter shopping, shop attendants dont really seem to mind her mischief. One of them even told me, this is the age when children are curious, dont stop her from pulling the kurtas out, we can always rearrange them later.

This in sharp contrast to an experience which my aunt narrated about her daughter, another NRI. Apparently when her kid did some mischief in a shop in the US, the shopkeeper told her she ought to be training kids better. 

I am not saying every shopkeeper or waiter in the US is a terror and everyone in India is an adorable person. And I agree that a certain amount of disciplining is needed, so that the child does not get unmanageable. But what I have realized is that in India, we are much more happy dealing with randomness and disturbances when it comes to children. We dont really expect our children to be automatons. Our education system may be placing importance on rote learning, but I feel, otherwise, to learn life’s lessons, we give our kids a lot more space. 

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A Feminist Audit

According to most people, feminism has made me a raving, ranting, over-analytical, hyper-sensitive WOMAN. But I have thoroughly enjoyed filtering all my experiences through the philosophy of feminism and seeing how so much of our social behavior is shaped by expected gender roles. One of the most delightful pastimes which emerged from this was the Feminist Audit of Restaurants, which I started doing. 

Basically, the Feminist Audit was about how the restaurant staff treated you and how this was influenced by what they expected from women. It was specially a lot of fun to do this when I was eating out with my husband (then my boyfriend/friend) and we had an understanding that each of us would pay alternately for the times we ate out. The times when the bills were handed over was hilarious. Here are some extreme cases : 

1. One restaurant hands over the menu to my husband. Worse, whenever I order something (even a roti), the waiter looks at my husband for confirmation as to whether the order can really be taken (I am not overweight or obese, so I can safely say concern for my overeating was hardly the reason to seek this confirmation). Worse, he automatically handed the bill to my husband, and even after he saw me taking the bill, taking out my purse and paying for it, he handed the change back to my husband. Must have thought I was one crazy woman who could not even count the change. 

2. At one super posh restaurant, I am overjoyed after the meal when the ‘bill’ is handed to me. I think that this waiter deserves a big tip, open it to find that its not a bill, but a suggestion form. Bill obviously goes to the male. (Btw, I get the thing about bill going to the male, but why should suggestion form come to the female. Are males not capable of having an opinion about restaurant experiences and stating this opinion). 

Funnily enough these instances have always occurred only in big restaurants. When we are eating out on the roadside, bills are randomly given, I think based on whoever is standing/sitting more closely or whoever has made eye contact at that point of time. 

Anyway, this is just about restaurants. I have found similar attitudes in lots of places. Railway ticket collectors who expect my husband to have the ticket and id, even thought its mostly me who carries it, doctors who, when trying to assess our situation want to know where my husband works, but does not consider asking me that question, travel agents who want details of my husbands bank account when I apply for some visa. It would be extremely irritating, were it not for the fact that the look on their face when the see the woman taking the lead in those situations is priceless. I hope to continue bashing many such social expectations. And to all my woman friends out there, break some more.

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