For every Sharmaji who finds a sense of purpose in the kitchen, there are many who have perpetually laboured at the ask. It is true at least for the many Sharmajis in my life, including of course my father.
Food binds India, its many cultural shores, unlike maybe anything else. It is the one self-preserving artefact that finds ways of aborting its own demise. But to a majority of India, its men at least, it also defines their life choices and the politics they eventually come to embody.
In Sharmaji Namkeen, a lighthearted film about an ageing man who satisfies his heart by filling others’ stomachs, the desire to provide is celebrated. But for every Sharmaji who finds a sense of purpose in the kitchen, there are many who have perpetually laboured at the ask. Like any form of art or maybe survival tactic, the kitchen just is not everyone’s turf. It is at least true of most Sharmajis in my life, including of course, my father.
The way to a man’s heart they say is through his stomach. It is an idiom that you could argue also illustrates the perverse nature of masculinity’s obsessions with itself – manly diets, beer bellies etc. Women are of course the assigned gatekeepers of the kitchen in our homes, and men have rather cunningly referenced their role as a sort of divine birth right for centuries. As if it is the thing most women are lucky to be born into despite it being pretty much the only thing they are born into.
There is then, of course, a gendered lens to the method at play here. It is what The Great Indian Kitchen feels like a rushed retort to. Sharmaji Namkeen, besides championing the charms of the late Rishi Kapoor, finds virtue as it should in the fact that a man embraces the graft required to run the kitchen, after being let go of his duties of running a factory. It is a subtle switch of gendered proportions that Sharmaji unresistingly embraces. The only catch here is that he is good at it.
It was, mind you, the pre-internet age, where the ordinary – making a dal or tea – was not as elaborately listed on the web as a five-minute influencer video. All learning happened via word-of-mouth or through the many accidents in the kitchen that could not be predetermined. It was not that dad did not want to, because he tried. It was just that he was horrible at it.
Everyday cooking may not seem as imaginative but it does require portions of inspired calm, patience, and delivery to execute the bare minimum. It is probably meme material now but I have actually seen friends consistently spoil things as rudimentary as Maggi and tea. My father was not as inept but he never really managed to make a meal worth remembering as opposed to the many misadventures that we remember fondly. Some fights you just accept you will lose, I guess.
Both my uncles from my maternal side are terrific cooks. The kind that automatically take control of the spatula at get-togethers. Their abilities in the kitchen enjoy a richer history of travel compared to their prowess in the family businesses they run. Maybe, it is because this adulation comes from the women around them – including my mother. Maybe it is programming that every time column A of gender meets an unanticipated or rather under-recognised role in column B, we register it as an accomplishment.
For my father and many like him, both columns have rarely thrown up surprises that make him sound anything but the man who spent his life earning and providing for his family. It is hard to romanticise the oldest, most common script in the book, but perhaps men like him eventually outlive egos we associate masculinity with. For these egos are susceptible to the superficial, but do they also, I often wonder, feel belittled by something they struggle to care for or undertake, let alone master?
My father has lived in several cities and towns in the country. Every time he was transferred, he carried the pressure cooker as form of assurance. The cooker is the solution to everything you can undercook or spoil because it turns almost everything into edible broth. It is the mother plan A to most men who are limited by their reluctance to give to food, what food in return, gives to them – vampiric love. After a point, we would stop asking dad what he had eaten because it would either be the miserable pulao or the inevitable khichdi.
Years later, when I started my own journey as a lone man in a far-off city, the pulao and the khichdi came to rescue every time I did not have the heart or the enthusiasm for something more sophisticated. I often wondered if cooking, like poetry, was as exacting in its interpretations as it was abstract, or maybe even clueless, in its structure and motivation.
Popular culture tries to tell me that I ought to enjoy food and more so, the art of taking an academic interest in its preparation, in its existence, its history. And yet, I have neither become the Sharmaji who loves himself a tub full of assorted delicacies nor the Sharmaji who took joy in putting them together. I guess, sometimes you just do not care enough to be good at something. It does not make us any less namkeen, though, I hope.