Yesterday, in one of those expectant moments when I check my mails, something unexpected happened. I got an email from our domestic help back in India. My sister was going through a few pics of mine I’d emailed when the sent her when the help saw the pictures and started to ask about me. So sister had an idea. She asked the help to leave me a message, and she would type it. The message (in Bengali) read like this:
Needless to say, I was touched. So many people have been privy to the fights I had with mom, refusing to learn to cook. Forget cooking, it was a Herculean task to make me de-clutter my room. Let’s say I preferred to find my things accessible, and cleaning the room meant I'd never be able to find my things again.
I’ve decided to write her a reply. I am not sure what would I write. It might look like this:
Great to hear from you. You see, the things you try to avoid the most tend to get back to you with such vehemence. Life back at home was a bed of roses. You had seen how I’d come home from school, kick my shoes, throw away my bag and go to sleep. I had no worries about anything. I did not mind arguing with parents and going to bed on an empty stomach. If I got hungry at night, I could always make my nocturnal prowls to the kitchen. When Ma went for groceries, I gave her a long list of things I wanted to eat. All my friends agreed that my Ma cooked very well. My lunch box was always sought after by everyone in class, and sometimes vanished suspiciously. But I only ate, never cooked. I had some weird anxieties about the association between cooking and mediocrity. All the girls in class who were lining up to get hitched were practicing their cooking. I was not that girl, dying to get hitched and serve others. So I never learnt. I still enjoyed the home-made Christmas cake and tandoori chicken though.
Not only cooking, Ma made sure that my clothes were washed and ironed while all I did was go to work everyday. I never bothered with the mundane household activities. I watched dad painstakingly clean window panes and my book shelf's glass pane. Yet I never offered to help, unless he asked me to. I ignored what he said, that there is no shame in doing one's work, especially the work for one's home. Doing your own work was gender-neutral. No matter what kind of a job one has, one should always do their own work. I always wondered why did he take so much time to polish his shoes until it shone bright, or got on a chair and cleaned the ceiling fans.
And then I came here. I remember the first day G showed me how to use the microwave and the dishwasher. I was like, "Oh, do I have to cook now?" I soon realized that not only would I heat up milk and make my breakfast, but I had to clean the dishes too.
And then, I got a real taste of life when I started to live on my own. No one cared that I used to live like a princess back at home. I was appalled at the amount of work I was supposed to do at home. Studying. Taking courses. Doing lab work. And then, cooking. Which meant planning ahead of time, and doing the grocery. Since I did not drive, I was dependent on G whenever she brought her car to the campus. But what would I buy?
I remember the first day G has taken me to Walmart and the Indian grocery store. We had walked aisle after aisle, G putting things in the cart that I would need (I had no idea). She chose the spices for me while I looked at the choices of ice cream flavors.
And then, I slowly started to cook. More like stir fry things in the beginning. That means I had to keep track of what was in the fridge, and what would get spoiled first, and plan my cooking accordingly. I had to plan things beforehand. I often missed the 8 am classes in the beginning, because it was too cold and there was no one to wake me up. I would shut the alarm off and go back to sleep. Everyday I woke up, the first question on my mind was, what do I eat now? I could not thrive on instant noodles and fruits. I had to learn to cook.
And then, there was this arduous job of cleaning up after cooking. This being a common kitchen, I could not leave the dirty dishes and flee. Soon, I was cooking, doing the dishes, and wiping off every drop of water with a paper towel. I sometimes cleaned the mess others made, so that I could cook. Then, there was things like washing clothes, cleaning the carpet, vacuuming, and keeping my room clean. I was no longer just a grad student. I was the cook, the washerwoman, the iron woman (pun unintended), and much more.
There were times when I would come home tired, and doze off. And then, I would wake up hungry in the middle of the night with no food. So after midnight, I would cook, clean up, eat, and go back to sleep again. Since I had no time management skills, I solely survived on hot chocolate and instant noodles during the exams.
Life here is so different than life back at home. This independence comes at a cost, and whether you are an aspiring nubile woman or not, everyone has to do their own work. These days, I have even learnt to pay rent and the other bills on time. I have a daily planner now. I no longer come home and kick off my shoes. If I need floor space to walk or space in my bed to sleep, the shoes and the clothes need to be put in their right place. If I forget to buy tomatoes, I survive without tomatoes for the entire week. Sudden midnight cravings do me no good if those things are not available at home.
As I met more new friends, I got introduced to a new concept- The Potluck. My inability to cook well became a source of my embarrassment because the the few times, I showed up with ice creams and soda for potlucks. I remembered my parents telling me that there is no shame in cooking, or doing your own work. If you are not responsible for yourself, you cannot take responsibility of others.
I have learnt so much since I started to live on my own. Too bad that I got my wisdom only after I lost my wisdom teeth.