As a part of our school leaving examination we had to read a novella, Nishkriti, by the author Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay. It is a social commentary on the relationship between income and power structure in what used to be called the “joint family” in Bengali society. A joint family is one in which brothers and their respective families lived under the same roof and their incomes were pooled together to run the household.
In that novella when we first meet the character Naintara (the wife of one of the brothers) she is in the privacy of her bedroom busy gulping down a couple of sweetmeats and washing it down with water. With these very words the author manages to set the direction of Naintara’s travel – the reader gets the drift that she is a baddy. Would we have formed the same opinion if a male character were to be introduced in a similar fashion? It is a difficult one but there is no doubt that the social opinions that I had formed at that age had led me to believe that a grown up woman who eats for pleasure and in private was not to be trusted.
When I look back at my childhood I realize that I had hardly seen a grown up woman eat or cook for her own pleasure and when some of them did other adults did not have a favourable opinion about them. I once bumped into one of my female relatives while she was enjoying an ice cream by herself on her way back from work. It was an awkwatd moment on both sides – she felt ashamed of indulging in a luxury without bringing home similar treats for us and I was feeling bad for having caught her in the act. She gave me the ice cream and asked me to have it and as far as I remember I obliged. I did not share the story with my family because as a young girl I was afraid that the incident may not present her in a favourable light.
It was also uncommon to see women eat alone. Hence, for example, a lady would miss a meal if the rest of her family was not around – some of them would not even cook in such a situation. Cooking was mainly for providing noursishment for the male and child members of the family and in their absence a woman cooking for herself verged on indulgence.
Sarat Chandra was way before my time and reading the Bengali literature of his era reflects how a woman’s relationhip with food was used to define her character. A woman with high moral character could starve for days without showing any pain, a woman with a healthy appetite and wanting regular meals was lacking in rectitude, a woman who ate for delight was evil and a widow who dared to talk about hunger was beyond redemption.
Woman still have a difficult relationship with food – some deprive self to conform to standards of beauty, some overdo to manage the regular stresses of life and yet some are still denied their fair share of food merely because they are considered inferior to their male counterparts. So we still have a long way to go to have a healthy relationship with food but today as I go about my life I often see women of all ages and from all stratas of life savouring a treat on her own and that gives me hope because we have indeed come some way from Sarat Chandra’s time.