There were two stories in The News Minute last week about women and stereotypes. One was from a woman telling us about her encounter with motherhood in general and breastfeeding in particular. The other one was about Malayalam actress Manju Warrier’s return to films and the free flowing advise to her from all and sundry.
They brought back memories. I was reminded about a Canadian diplomat with origins in Ireland telling me there are four countries in the world beginning with the letter I - Israel, India, Italy and Ireland - where you dare not question the overbearing mother and all real and imagined motherly attributes. The first three is family and this post is restricted to the two countries in between. I was born and raised in India and married into an Italian family. We indeed have a lot in common. The guilt trip starts early – will you stop working once the baby is here, you don’t need to work, what is your priority – child or office – sounds and feels the same in all languages, cultures and gestures. I even learnt lullabies in Italian. It always starts at the right place, from the goodness of the advisers and it manages to land in the wrong place for the advised. Women are raised to go to the best academic institutions, learn fine arts and excel in culinary talents, keep a perfect home and a rich table for guests as if they are being readied to be the wife of the CEO. Then one of them wants to be the CEO and all hell breaks loose – it was not supposed to be like this. Why does choice always work against women? My wife does not work, she is a housewife is as ridiculous as saying my wife works but she doesn’t neglect the home or the children. She is also a very good cook. On mother’s day, an Italian friend of mine got an iron with the latest technology from her husband. Her Indian husband spoke about it throughout dinner as if he had gifted her a spacecraft.
The baby is coming, the baby is coming – amma and mamma’s jugalbandi
What, they don’t have lady doctors in Switzerland? Amma came through the phone. Amma, who had travelled in a boat from Bombay to Naples in 1952, Amma who cooked her own food on board making sambar and uralakazhangha podimas first for herself, then others. It was an Italian boat and they like rice. Simple. Amma, who in her times was a globetrotter, was telling me this. I told her a male doctor had delivered me. Don’t argue with your mother. Mamma, had concerns as well. I was working too hard, long hours, travel (Bofors) the phone was ringing constantly and I was not eating properly. I tried to please her (guilt) by attempting to knit socks and just managed to not splice her eyes. Try a scarf, she said. Amma wanted to come into the delivery room to keep an eye on the doctor. They can change the baby was her ruse. Keep quiet, it happens all the time – I will keep an eye on the doctor and the baby. The doctor told her the baby would not be changed and led a protesting amma to join the army waiting outside.
It’s a boy, it’s a boy – he will be Prime Minister of Italy. Thoo
Stop kidding yourself. Son-preference is common, even more common than you think. The spin goes like this – actually it makes no difference if it’s a boy or a girl as long as the baby is healthy. What’s the third – E.T? You must be so happy it’s a boy, you must be so happy it’s a boy...! Our son was going to be Vivaldi and Leonardo da Vinci, Stradivarius and Pingala before he could burp. No, said mamma – he will be the Prime Minister of Italy. Thoo said amma, all this an hour after the baby’s arrival. Can we arrest these people, I wondered? Worse was waiting. For the next ten days – that’s how long Swiss hospitals kept new mothers and their babies then – I had my Italian family, their cousins and cousins of their neighbours in procession. I was treated to minute details of their deliveries, their difficulties with breastfeeding, free coaching classes on postpartum depression and even freer advise on how there was no greater joy in the world than a breastfeeding mamma who gives up all her professional pursuits to pursue motherhood. And motherhood only. See, Italians are like us, said amma.
I was neither a heroine nor a cow. I felt selfish and guilty and wanted to be alone with my husband and our baby. Indians and Italians do not understand this private place and space thing. For Indians it is a western practice, for Italians it’s cold – like the Germans and the Austrians. The army had a party at home – amma, a polyglot who spoke ten languages but no Italian told me she managed. Just like the Italians – everybody managed. They all shook their hands, raised their voice and the champagne glasses and comprehension was easy. It had snowed so much when our daughter arrived a few years later that all routes to the Clinique were closed and trains were running at reduced frequency. God is kind I felt initially and then guilty about lying to people who called saying how much I appreciated their desire to come and see me.
Gifts and gifting – Godrej and dinning table and bed linen to last a generation
Italians compete with members of the family when it comes to gifting, especially for weddings. First, the weddings themselves – you eat and drink like thee is no tomorrow. If you say you like a certain dish, expect ten portions to land on your plate. As for gifts, there’s competitive gifting. Each family believes it is their duty to gift you essentials to start a home, so ten sets of this and twelve of that is not uncommon. Like looting the entire Ratna stores in Mambalam or those Panipat bed-covers as a baseline and a Godrej arriving at your doorstep unannounced. We wanted to surprise. This is a Woody Allen film, I call a friend and she says I am ungrateful. What has gratitude got to do with space – I am missing something. I don’t need designer bed linen – I use draw sheets, the best thing after penicillin. A friend who lives in a furnished flat got a washing machine and a dryer as a wedding gift and they stood at the entrance for months. Overcome by guilt, she took them in and now uses them to store her files – adjusting, like that. Italians adjust like Indians, like moving into a train compartment where you can’t fit a pin. Prego.
B for bureaucracy and C for Corruption
Let us not even go there. Suffice to say that a combination of Indian and Italian bureaucracy and corruption is the kind of stuff that makes the mafia in Napoli and Bihar look like fumbling idiots.
Kitchen and food
You may live in a palace, but the central focus of activity will be the kitchen. There are as many Italian spices in my kitchen as there are Indian spices and over the years I have learned to mix and match. We take in food with our eyes and smell them before cooking and eating. If the avial does not have that drop of coconut oil or the spaghetti sauce where the sauge leaves have stayed too long, I know from what remains in the utensil. I have learnt to enjoy cooking and discovered a side to myself that I didn’t know existed. My kitchen is music, it is physics, it is gossip, it is politics, it is maths, chemistry, a railway station and an airport lounge. It is where people can come at all hours of the day and night and there will be food. It is where my children bring in friends at the last minute knowing there will always be more than extra. It is where we smell food as we cook it, it is where I chop my vegetables in a certain way, it is the place that is left spotlessly clean after every meal, ready for the next one, it is where I think while stirring stuff, it is where I come to when I am sad and when I am happy. It is where my friends come over for a coffee when they want to share in confidence or laugh in celebration. This is so Italian, my Italian friends tell me. The tumbler coffee here is the best, my Indian friends say. No George Clooney for us. My coffee is real with freshly ground seeds – like in Bangalore. Have you eaten is the first thing my children ask when someone comes home unexpectedly. It’s the place from where peals of laughter ring around the house. I don’t trust people who cannot enjoy a good meal. A good musician’s spices are the notation.
Decibel and teeeveeee
You hear the music before you spot the car. You think you are in Gurgaon. No you are in an Italian village or a city waiting for the lights to turn green. You think it is impossible for people to speak on top of each other and across drowning out not just the noise of the television but also another television from the next room. Italians love to watch television just as much as we stick to our ridiculous sit-coms. There are millions of channels all competing for the last place owned almost entirely by one family. Like in India. If there is a football game or a Formula 1 race, all screens are aligned as if in a trading room. What is cricket? Is that a fog horn?
Pop gyaan. I started this piece with questions in my mind about stereotypes. They are real, that’s why we call them stereotypes. The least we can do is to not judge people so as to fit them into our own insecurities or strengths. Pasta or avial for dinner?