ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Muttering Women and the Talking Kitchens of Bengal

Muttering relieves women, even if only momentarily, of the stress of caregiving and patriarchy, and helps organise a soft politics of resistance.

When I was at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), a professor once noted how social science research topics from the subcontinent mostly begin with the grandmother or the aunt, in the kitchen, at home. These spaces lack the easily distinguished and abundantly theorised dramaturgy of the formal curated sites of theoretical enquiry—the field that we visit with a predefined toolkit to gather proofs to our hypotheses—where we play our parts and enact our rehearsed “objectivity.” But the field could just as easily be these informal sites of inquiry, ones that are deemed too banal and immediate for serious research.

Growing up, I was always surrounded by women who muttered while working in the kitchen. This tendency to mutter or talk under one’s breath—bir-bir kora as it is called in Bangla—somehow was always confined to spaces of solitary secrecy or homosocial safety, like the kitchen. Dramatic, contemptuous and often exaggerated, this act was suitably supplemented by the piercing cacophony of utensils. I would find Ma having self-sustained conversations by herself while the onions she diced made her tear up more than usual. Curious about the performative capacities of this bir-bir kora, I was intrigued that nobody who seemed to be around and could get a sense of its occurrence cared enough to listen. And nor would the women speak up so they could be comprehensible. It lay somewhere in the thin auditory space between hearing and listening and the vast sea of intent that kept them apart. I would often hover around the kitchen asking what was being said, as emotions fumed in unison with the vapour from multiple curries, creating an indistinguishable cloud of concentrated spicy aromas. Thakuma, my paternal grandmother, would discourage my presence and curiosity with an air of concern and authority and mimic the nonchalance of the men. She, however, had her own script for muttering—jhaanjh, a word very commonly used to describe “temper” in Bengali women. Interestingly, the same jhaanjh—smoothly translating to pungent in English—is celebrated when found in the quintessentially Bengali mustard oil. Dinner table jest in Bengali households compares the jhaanjh of intricate fish dishes with that of the cook, most often the comic’s wife, making snide reference to the temper of the woman who prepared it. This preference for the pungent in cooking stands in contrast to the undesirability of the same in a wife.

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Updated On : 17th Aug, 2021
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