India is among the few countries where women have held power in highest offices in politics, banking, sciences and business. Their achievements are all the more laudable as they overcome a lot of obstacles in our country where social and culture fabric still prefer women as home makers. Those with careers still have to multi-task with parental and home duties.
This morning I just read an article about a women’s self-help group in Tunisia, Dhafouli, which has become a successful cooperative producing and exporting Harissa, a key Arabic sauce used in many middle-eastern dishes. Naturally my mind fled back to such women-only cooperatives, both private and government aided initiatives in India particularly in Tamil Nadu where I live.
In childhood, my maternal grandmother was the first multi tasker I had seen. She was physically very obese but dominated her country style kitchen with its four clay stoves in a 10 by 10 feet kitchen in Madurai. Her eleven children and a dozen grandchildren ran about the medium sized house of nearly four storeys, while she slogged over the stove. She was an expert of the south Indian cuisine, her curries and gravies of fish, meat and chicken, though spicy to our Delhi palattes, were consumed with relish.
Her work started early morning and after the fajr prayers. Two minions would keep firewood and cow dung pats ready for lighting the fire, while others would grind the masalas and chop shallots and vegetables for the day. She would make her ponderous way to the kitchen holding on to doors and her children and sit on a tiny kitchen chair to begin cooking. The boiling milk, tea and coffee rituals would be followed by nearly fifteen dishes for breakfast and lunch. My mother and her sisters’ job was to serve their husbands at a dining table on the first floor that was reached by a narrow flight of stairs. The stairs were steep and woe betide anyone who forgot anything. They had to huff and puff up and down.
My grandfather’s meals would be served on a separate steel table often by us grandchildren who greedily waited for the pocket money of an anna or more that he gave each of us. Meanwhile my granny would have finished the chores and left her daughters-in-law to wind up the cleaning and rice cooking. She would then proceed to her bath and dressing up which took another hour. Before and after lunch she would be busy with handwork. She was a skilled weaver and made lovely rattan baskets and mats often dyed from the local market. Besides this, she loved to string beaded purses, jewel boxes and do papier mache. Her daughters were equally talented but many left off after their marriages. My mother was my next role model. Married in her teens, she had to look after three children besides contend with an over-educated husband who often ridiculed her lack of learning. We lived in New Delhi at that time.
But she was a spunky individual. She soon learnt knitting from a female commune that was supplying the Indian army during the Indo-China war. She also learnt cooking and became an expert cook in the first decade of her marriage. She soon picked up my father’s menu preference and set up a standard menu that would suit his health.
Mother then learnt tailoring, most of our clothes, curtains, bedsheets and sweaters were homemade. Though some were slipshod, we wore them with elan often taking down critics with a firm stare. She is a good finance manager even today except for her indulgence in snacks and gifts for her grandchildren.
I may have inherited her love for multi-tasking but I doubt I am an expert. When I look at senior members of a school of which I am a board member, I feel tiny. My contribution may be little but they value my advice and often take it.
It is heartening to see women do something outside their homemaker duties, my journalist sister has covered hundreds of communes, organisations and self-help groups in Tiruchi, who do dedicated social service often with very little profit. There are widows producing sanitary napkins, hospital gowns, gloves, herbal medicines, running community kitchens and others in industrial production like beekeeping, worm manure, building toilets and even recycling food and clothes.
Women who think beyond the walls of their house are indeed blessed particularly if their husbands and families realize and form a strong backbone for their co-curricular activities and career.