Travel diaries: Of pickled identities

Travel diaries: Of pickled identities

By Debotri Dhar | 25 June, 2016
Excerpts from an argument at an airport, which ended up highlighting the class dimensions of housework.

Yesterday, an Indian-American couple seated beside me at the airport in Amsterdam was having an intriguing argument. His mother’s lemon pickle recipe was the best, the husband contended, with ingredients that could easily be obtained and replicated anywhere in the world. The wife maintained that her late grandmother’s radish pickle—“with mustard, and gongura leaves or something”—as far better. “You don’t even remember. You were so young when she died,” the husband retorted. “It tasted unique, I remember, like family recipes are supposed to. Not something that can be replicated everywhere like assembly line production. Or a chain of stores, or banks.” “What do you know about assembly lines and banks?” he asked, irritated. “What do you know about pickles? And your mother doesn’t even make it herself in India. The servants do,” she hit back, adding “too sour” in English for good measure before going back to her magazine.

Airport conversations such as these are quite fascinating, when they get split along the fault lines of gender, culture, language and nationality as people wait. This household had a gendered division of labour; he went to work and did the banking while she stayed home and did the housework. They used store-bought rather than homemade pickles, which was what had prompted the husband’s diasporic nostalgia for his mother’s goodies and the wife’s attempt at deflection alongside her clever critique of the class dimensions of housework. The exchange—too loud not to be overheard within a fifty-mile radius and too interesting not to be written about in a Sunday column—made me think of other Indian-American and NRI households, and their division of labour.

Like India, its diaspora too is not a monolith; norms, practices and lifestyles differ greatly. There have been distinct waves of migration to the United States, for instance, with women in earlier generations mostly migrating as wives and daughters with their traditional gender roles intact rather than as independent travellers. While one knows families which would still not dream of letting their daughters travel alone, this pattern has changed in our generation, where single young women do travel abroad for education and work. Teaching at different universities in the US, I have heard a few Indian-American students talk about how their parents, who had migrated to the US in earlier generations, expected the daughters and daughter-in-law to cook and do the housework. I knew an NRI couple where the wife, an investment banker, did all the housework; the husband, who earned half her salary and had twice as much free time, considered it demeaning to help her with the housework or cook. These gendered narratives remind one of Jhumpa Lahiri’s stories, of women congregating over stove-tops in the kitchen, symbolising diasporic nostalgia even though the realities of both home/lands are more complex.

Airport conversations are quite fascinating, when they get split along the fault lines of gender, culture, language and nationality as people wait.

The relationship between women and the kitchen is social rather than natural. Unlike this unremunerated work in one’s own kitchen, the highest paid jobs in the industry mostly went to men, who constituted a majority of the top chefs. A shift in the household division of work happened in sections of American society as a result of middle class women’s equality and increasing opportunities in the public sphere as well as the high cost of labour. While household division of work is by no means gender-equal even in America, this shift happened to a lesser degree in the labour-intensive Indian economy, where middle class women’s advancement in the public sphere resulted in housework in the private sphere being passed on to other women and the working class. Gender and social class stereotypes related to cooking and housework thus remained largely unchallenged in practice.

Speaking of gender stereotypes, the top one on the list has traditionally emphasised a woman’s personal and family life over her professional, creative one. I travelled, for education and for work, on my own terms, with my own identity. Single women households in America are interesting; we do all our outside work as well as our household chores ourselves. No husbands, no house help. Here in Delhi, it’s a piquant summer: sharp sun, tangy evenings, lemony late-night breeze. Maybe I should kick off these holidays with family and friends with…umm…making pickles.


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