1 Apr 2023

Vanita bit her already mangled fingernails again. And again. Her teeth had gone past the nail, almost into the finger. She saw someone coming, and she hid her hands with furtive guilt. She was sitting in the family circle of supposedly supportive women: mother, aunts, sisters-in-law, neighborhood women. They were all casting fulminating looks at her; even her mother looked both angry and embarrassed. “Have you no shame,” she had hissed at her, “ your husband is taking care of your child, while you are sitting here, eating?”
An older woman came over. She nodded kindly at her mother and sat down beside Vanita. She rested an arm around her shoulder and told her kindly, “Look, my dear, you are a woman, and women should only eat last, after their husband and children have eaten. That’s the sacred duty of women. And taking care of the child is always the woman’s duty. Not the man’s! So why don’t you go and take the child from your husband, and let him have lunch? Otherwise everyone will make fun of him. See, how everyone’s looking at him!”
Vanita knew that. She knew they were casting mocking looks at her husband. She knew both men and women were looking at her with a mix of contempt and scorn. But how would she tell these preservers of family values and women’s duties that she had not eaten anything since last night? That she had fallen asleep before it was the ‘woman’s turn’ to eat after the religious festivities of the previous night? That she was starving? That her son preferred being with his father than with her? Her anxiety always transmitted to her son, making him edgy and irritable, that he wouldn’t sleep if she tried to soothe him.
How could she say all this without it being another black mark against her? In a place among people where women were NOT supposed to be hungry, who could you tell that eating was her only source of comfort? She was tired of everything she was supposed to do for the ‘good of the family, even when it meant starving herself, doing without, and not being able to tell people what she was going through.
All her life, in the bosom of her supposedly supportive family, she had been brainwashed into believing that no girl or woman from a ‘good family’ ever ate before the menfolk did. She used to be happy going to her friends’ houses because she was allowed the luxury of eating when she was hungry. Sometimes, in her own house, she had to go through the ignominy of being caught ‘stealing food from her kitchen. She had to listen to taunts about how she was ‘always eating!
’Shame and fear were, therefore, her first companions growing up.
Sitting, trying to rock his son to sleep, Girish heard snatches of the monologue behind him and sighed. He got up from where he was seated, with his son in his arms, and approached his wife and the older woman trying to talk ‘sense’ into her and sat beside them.
Auntie,” he told her gently and kindly, “I have told my wife that she has the freedom to do what she wants, when she wants. That includes eating when she wishes to. I am rocking my son to sleep, to show him that a man has an equal share in taking care of his children. I want him to know, as he grows up, that his mother is a person, not his slave.”
The woman began to bluster, but he cut her short. “As for the other men looking at me, it doesn’t bother me. I live by what I believe in: they live by what their mothers believe in.”
The woman’s mouth had dropped open. She closed it with a snap. Rising to her feet, in high dudgeon, she stalked off.
Girish moved so that he was nearer his wife. He drew her close and dropped a light, chaste kiss on her forehead before smiling at her. “Eat when you want,” he told her, “I will answer everyone’s questions.”
She was overwhelmed. Smiling tremulously at him, she nodded, her heart in her eyes. “Thank you,” she said: and it was an affirmation of trust and love.
This is a response to a discussion with Maria Garcia about hunger shaming. My story is not autobiographical: but I have had the same comments, snide remarks, and scornful asides thrown at me after I married into a ‘traditional’ family. ‘Hunger’ was a bad word there. It was a far cry from the Bohemian family I grew up in.
I LOVE eating.
I also cook and feed people.

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