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Did covid-19 push Indian men into the kitchen?

The lockdown has forced Indian men to reckon with a harsh fact of life—cooking and cleaning are hard work

Even in the 21st century, the spectacle of a man labouring in the kitchen draws amusement, especially in Asian societies.
Even in the 21st century, the spectacle of a man labouring in the kitchen draws amusement, especially in Asian societies. (Photo: Getty Images)

Towards the end of our conversation, I ask Vivek Madan, a 39-year-old theatre producer based in Bengaluru, about the most successful dish he has cooked during the lockdown. “The ready-to-eat paneer butter masala was damn good!" he says, laughing uproariously.

This is a semi-joke, really. Madan, who lives alone, has a cook who took care of his meals before the lockdown, though he can get by if push comes to shove. Or just about. “For the first time, I am realizing how much time people spend each day to plan and cook meals," he says. It helps that he isn’t fussy about food. “My rotis aren’t round, or flat, or pretty," he adds. But who cares as long as he can eat them?

With the covid-19 pandemic putting India under an extended lockdown, men like Madan, who live by themselves or depend on another person to cook for them, are in a quandary. They are getting a first-hand lesson in home management for the very first time. In other words, they are “adulting".

Life skills

To another species, it must seem intriguing that a large section of human- kind is unable to feed itself three meals a day without the help of others. But such is the truth, established by the force of patriarchy through millennia. Even in the 21st century, the spectacle of a man labouring in the kitchen draws amusement, especially in Asian societies (some of you may have seen the meme of a man working from home, busily multitasking on the phone and his laptop—except, the final close-up shows him peeling peas as he does so).

The privileged middle-class in India pats itself on the back for sending its children to schools that teach sex education, but it isn’t as bothered about getting the progeny kitchen-literate. The latter matters less still if said child happens to be male. It is presumed that there will always be someone—a hired cook, spouse, mother, or other female relations—to keep him fed while he is busy with the more onerous task of building a career.

There are exceptions, of course. Srikanth Suvvaru, a 39-year-old banker originally from Andhra Pradesh but currently working in Bengaluru, says his feminist mother ensured he was useful around the house since he was a boy. With a cook coming in every day for the last 10 years, however, he didn’t have to think about fixing a meal on a regular basis.

“When the lockdown began, I told myself the choice was between ordering from food delivery apps or to dust off the cobwebs and enter the kitchen," Suvvaru says. Cooking was such alien territory that he wasn’t even familiar with the outlay of his own kitchen. “I would get the ingredients my cook asked me for and leave the rest to her."

These days Suvvaru gets on a call with his mother, figures out the basics of the Telugu delicacies he likes (tomato dal, rasam), backs it up with some research on the internet (“Like all mothers, my mum has the habit of not specifying exact measurements"), and the alchemy of cooking takes care of the rest. It’s as foolproof as a chemical formula.

For some, it has taken a pandemic to shed old habits. Somen Mishra, a professional in his 30s with a leading production company in Mumbai, felt the lockdown—literally— as a rude awakening.

“I used to wait for my cook to come in the morning and bring me bed tea," he says. In the first days of the lockdown, he dithered, like many others, about ordering home delivery. In the end, he decided to choose caution instead of risking any form of outside contact. These days, Mishra wakes up late (“So breakfast is out of the window"), then googles recipes and watches videos on YouTube channels to see what he can possibly make with the stuff in his pantry.

“There are times when I don’t know a vegetable by its name as it is called differently by different communities," Mishra says, “so I have to check with my friends." The silver lining is he’s finally eating hot, freshly-cooked meals instead of packed dabbas in his office. And the crowning glory of his culinary adventure was making a perfect phulka, which now has an afterlife on Twitter as a viral GIF.

After an overwhelming response on social media and from his family to this masterpiece, Mishra tweeted on 7 April: “I have got calls from all my relatives congratulating me after I sent my roti phooloing video to mom. All amazed. Because never had to make anything beyond Maggi at home, so patriarchy + privilege, what a combo! Dad would cook but only mutton. Roti toh matlab lowest in pyramid."

Equal labour

Even as we chuckle (and all of us could use one in these times), Mishra’s tweet does hit the hammer squarely on the nail. Most men (married or single) enter the kitchen when they are feeling magnanimous or need to impress. Confronted with the unromantic reality of putting food on the table, they often have no clue about how to proceed—until the women in their lives tell them what to do.

In a Malaysia under lockdown, for instance, the government has allowed only men, as “the head of the family", to shop for essentials. The result is utter confusion for people who haven’t done a day’s chore in their lives.

But it hasn’t deterred them from boasting about their ignorance online. A man joked on Twitter about being unable to tell pak choi from spinach. One supermarket helpfully labelled the parts of a chicken for the sake of those who don’t know what they are buying. The wave of confusion has caused much sniggering on social media—even among the supposed “victims". The privilege of being male is such that missteps must only be overlooked with fond indulgence.

Of course, there are some who are trying to be useful in other ways. Vinay Singh, 37, who runs a venture capital firm in Bengaluru, had two items in his culinary repertoire all these years: eggs and Maggi. During the lockdown, it has grown. “I can now make Maggi and eggs with tomato," he says. “I learnt to cut a tomato." As his attempts in the kitchen mostly end in tragedy, he decided to help his wife by cleaning the house instead.

Anuj Singh, a 46-year-old CXO based in Gurugram, is married to a professional chef. During the lockdown, he decided to engage in activities he does not usually have any time for—cooking being one.

“I can neither be a chef nor a huge support to my wife because she can rustle up a meal in very little time," Singh says. So he decided to make a meal every evening—an activity that also signals a halt to the working day which, otherwise, can stretch on while working from home. It is hard to imagine a better guide than his wife to steer him through the intricacies of pasta, stir-fry, rice and chicken curry.

Mumbai-based screenwriter Mayank Tiwari, who is in his 30s, also surprised himself (and his wife) with his skills in the kitchen. On video calls with his mother, who lives in Ghaziabad, he has picked up recipes for dal fry, kadhi chawal, shahi paneer and much more.

“I wanted the vibe in our home to be positive. My wife shouldn’t feel she has to do everything in the absence of our help," Tiwari says. “I feel I have learnt a new skill"—apart from discovering the “therapeutic" effect of washing dishes, which seemed to be a hit with most men I spoke to. Unlike writing, which is laborious and time-consuming, washing up, Tiwari explains, involves “seeing something tangible happen in a short time".

Men cooking and cleaning the house is good news for humanity—and for women in particular—but it doesn’t seem to be catching on. Journalist Peter Griffin, who started a Facebook group called “Simple Recipes for Complicated Times" to help out kitchen novices, says only 19% of the members are male—much lower than he expected.

Covid-19 is bound to change the world in more ways than we can imagine but correcting the gender imbalance in the kitchen doesn’t seem to be one of them.

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