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  • Writer's pictureAtomicRakshasi

The Great Indian Marriage

Wife meets husband

Everyone knows that the traditional Indian family raises its sons to be providers and daughters to be mothers, but the script of The Great Indian Kitchen (2021) goes one further, insisting that even if The Husband is incompetent, lazy, egotistical and insecure, he still expects to be treated like a king in his house. He has an inalienable right to his wife’s body and her servitude. We needed this premise because his value in both his own and society’s eyes, regardless of whether he’s worthy of it, is incontestable.

There are a few undesirable traits that remain from the providers of yore, and none of them apply practically to the modern day. Back then, most women depended on men because they were married off too young, couldn’t own property and their well-being depended on the well-being of their husbands. Submitting to the system was their only choice. Come my mom’s generation, they were allowed to own property and get a job, but it wasn’t nice for them to be seen outside interacting with anyone male unless it was a vegetable seller. Choices were limited unless you had the support of your male colleagues or the unmitigated gall to enter or demand a higher position within a male-dominated industry. This was only if your kids were old enough for boarding school or you had a trustworthy babysitter around to look after them. If you didn't, you missed out on years of work experience. It all depended on how much money the wife specifically made and whether it was worth the bargain. GenXers have a lot more freedom and, if your parents are ‘progressive’, a wider variety of professions to choose from. You’re expected to make money.

You also have to give it all up if you have to marry and move to a different city or country, and you have to remain subservient to The Husband and in-laws. You also have to erase or hide any undesirable parts of your personality and carry a monetary gift parcel with you so you’re not a burden to your new family.

And oh, you have no say on whether you get to reproduce or not, you just have to.

The key word here is still control. After all, they picked you for your looks, weight, education, salary, submissiveness level and not much else.

Extra Cringe

the foreplay conversation

TGIK ventures into the private realm of control, the kitchen and the bedroom, the areas we’re still too afraid to address publicly because of the sanctity of both. The movie disputes our cognitive comfort with some scenes that are such direct parallels that you might find yourself shifting uncomfortably in your seat. Your wife might raise her eyebrows or throw sly glances in your direction.

Surely this movie is an exaggeration. Having belonged to the educated, aspirational middle class for three generations, we didn’t think we were of all things, woman-hating sexists like the bogeymen up North, you know, the ones who put their wives through multiple abortions until they produce a male child, force their daughters to marry before they finish their education and beat their wives into submission for whatever reason. We assure ourselves that our situation could have been much worse. And I mean… if she doesn’t want to marry, then don’t marry. So easy. You’re flummoxed with the complicated relationship dynamic that this movie purportedly exposes. You don’t understand why these women are pussyfooting around their men.

That Which Good Girls Don’t Complain About

The wife serving food

Maybe it's because you’ve heard of fight or flight or freeze, but you’ve never heard of the fawn response. You wonder what the big deal is about, after all, you’re not like the loser husband in the movie. You think The Great Indian Kitchen is a testament to a time gone by, but then you’ve glossed over epic meltdowns that your mom might have had when the strain of putting herself last finally reached breaking point. You’ve never wondered about the illnesses that were allowed to fester until they couldn’t be ignored anymore. But the daughters saw, they remembered, and protested faintly or perhaps outright when the time came for them to get hitched.

Which begs us to ask the question, why is The Wife taking it? Why can’t she just leave? There are laws that protect women after all. To quote Andrea Dworkin:

“[…] most girls don’t want to become their mothers, those tired, preoccupied domestic sergeants beset by incomprehensible troubles. Mothers raise daughters to conform to the strictures of conventional female life as defined by men, whatever the ideological values of men. Mothers are the immediate enforcers of male will, the guards at the cell door, the flunkies who administer the electric shocks to punish rebellion.[…]Most girls, however much they resent their mothers, do become very much like them. Rebellion can rarely survive the aversion therapy that passes for being brought up female. Male violence acts directly on the girl through her father or brother or uncle or any number of male professionals or strangers, as it did and does on her mother, and she too is forced to learn to conform in order to survive.”

It took a while for Indian women to figure out that they were replacement moms to the nation’s sons, once they started questioning their roles, but in the nineties we were still a nation of pick me/cool girls, guarding the gates of the patriarchy with misplaced notions of progressiveness. Girls got stalked, groped, threatened, walked into college classrooms with black eyes, got pregnant and (selectively) socially censured, but to open their mouths and talk about it was the equivalent of admitting weakness. After all, how are you supposed to be a strong, independent woman if you’re going to go whining at the slightest bit of sexual harassment or violence, pretty much the same social ills that have been plaguing our foremothers for hundreds and thousands of years?

Chore Sex

To quote Nisha Susan’s article from ten years ago, “The hushed whisper families maintain around the tyrant of the house is uncannily similar to the ones that surround a colicky baby.” The male ego is as multi-faceted as it is fragile, and there are just so many things to step around. The Wife can’t call a plumber because it’s the husband’s job, and to do it herself is to hold him deficient in some way. If she says no to sex, his ego will shatter. She can only ask him to warm her up with a bit of ‘foreplay’ because it hurts too much, and then she’s crossed the line. She’s questioned his manhood. The movie explicitly delves into the world of religiously, culturally and socially sanctioned chore sex. It’s basically work.

More Ewage

The kitchen sink is the epicentre. If you’re repulsed by the burgeoning sewage problem, you’re missing the symbolism of the last scene. If you can barely stand the nauseating nature of The Wife’s work, you’re missing the point of the repetitive and compulsory nature of cooking and cleaning.

“Few tasks are more like the torture of Sisyphus than housework, with its endless repetition: the clean becomes soiled, the soiled is made clean, over and over, day after day. The housewife wears herself out marking time: she makes nothing, simply perpetuates the present … Eating, sleeping, cleaning – the years no longer rise up towards heaven, they lie spread out ahead, gray and identical. The battle against dust and dirt is never won.”

―Simone de Beauvoir,The Second Sex

Who, after all, is the daughter-in-law? She’s the last in line, she’s paying the rent for her existence with replaceable sexual, reproductive and domestic labour. She may have an actual job but these aspects of domestic labour---time-consuming, repetitive and valueless when she does it--are non-negotiable. The system requires her to acknowledge that her self-worth is reliant on her functionality. Her inferiority is inherent, and she has to prove her worth through sacrifice.

It’s the pedestal we love putting mothers and daughters on.

No touch, Cz Ur Dirty

isolated during periods

Right up till the nineties, mothers passed on their impurity myths to their daughters, dreading the arrival of the red-stained panty. Catch ‘em young and the myth intertwines around their sense of being with the sort of contradictory mindfuck that makes them think they’re special so they have to be clean because they’re dirty. The menstrual taboo comes as a surprise to The Wife because she hasn’t been trained in the art of isolation. She’s impure five days out of a month. She’s easily defiled, easily defiles. She tries to wrap her head around the logic of it while the female enforcer, an aunt, takes charge, a replacement figure of authority when the mother-in-law or mother is missing.

Now, if The Aunt had been any kinder, or dressed this up as a matter of rest and privilege, it would have been easier to persuade The Wife to stick to the rules, but with all the scoldings and endless social distancing instructions, her pain and humiliation turn into rage. The bubbling kitchen sink is a veritable swamp by now, and her exit, after showering both Patriarchs with sewage, is efficiently planned and deftly handled. Her ire is silent and eloquent: take back your barely disguised misogyny, your impurity myths, your hierarchy and your religiously sanctioned rape.

Marriage Fail

If you were a woman who’s ever been through a matrimonial selection process, you’d wonder, like me, at the innate sense of superiority that parents of sons tend to carry around. You’ve watched your own parents breathe a grateful sigh of relief when you finally get ‘selected’. Your relatives stop making snide remarks about your marriageability. You’re protected now, societally approved and inaccessible except to one man. You’ve made the bargain and have to uphold your end. It’s why women have so many markers to show whether we’re taken. It keeps out the riff-raff that habitually plague single women trying to make it alone in this country.

It doesn’t work a 100%, but most married women, safe in their castles, will swear that it does. You'd have to hack through a thousand years of permafrost to break the ice on this topic with any of them.

If you’ve observed what marriage does to Indian women from a young age, you’d have noticed that the married women who advocate it most rigorously to girls, like some punishment, were never as happy as they claimed. They know that submitting to marriage means submitting not just to the ceremony of it, but to a lifetime of compromise. Watching their daughters and nieces and their neighbour’s daughters go through the same trials, the opportunity to criticise the weight gain, the dark circles under their eyes and the premature grey hair gives them a sense of continuity and schadenfreude. So why should they not advocate for it?

But what has always surprised me though is the overwhelming zeal with which women insist that other women conform.

But What About Romance

Most chick flicks and romance represent fantasies, nothing more because men like that don’t exist. Let’s take, for instance, the world's most oversold love story to women, Pride And Prejudice, which was not as much about romance as it was a warning to choose wisely.

Brown girls who refuse marriage are wise enough to know that giving up control of their lives and their well-being is a foolish compromise for a bit of romance, which they can have anyway on the side. They prefer their peace in isolation, their friends represent their extended family. Reproduction should always be optional.

Western countries tend to romanticize traditional Indian marriages because of their own broken dysfunctional families, but this isn’t the solution. The Patriarch belongs to the microcosm of a system that has run efficiently for centuries on unpaid domestic, sexual and reproductive labour, and the silence of women and girls. The arrangement isn’t half bad if he lives up to his role. Back then, you could have nine kids, educate them well and cheaply, and you could own a house large enough to house and feed them so they all get a good start. Now, the thought of having nine kids, even if your wife is up to it, would be an economic nightmare. It was a system that worked at a time when the Patriarch was willing to uphold his end of the bargain, but the Neo Patriarch has failed to evolve with the times. His position is upheld at great cost and in order for him to exist, women especially have to diminish themselves, kill their dreams and compromise their bodily autonomy, turning into purely functional, replaceable features in a system that has passed its usefulness. They wait until their sons marry so that they can finally relinquish their duties to the next slave that passes through.

No wonder many women just don’t have the energy to be replacement mothers anymore. All we have to do now is accept that a woman is a self-contained being, without having a man beside her to make her whole, or worthy of the space she occupies in this world.


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