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Nilgiris Field Learning Center

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NFLC Student’s Blog: Rolling with the Research

Rolling with the Research

By Deepa Saharia

When I was growing up, my mom would always roll chapattis for our family. Her chapattis were soft and perfectly round and they would fluff up every time. In our part of India, a chapatti must fluff up to be considered good. Despite her warnings about housework and her deeply feminist lessons, I craved the ability to make the beautifully round breads, a staple of North Indian food. I wanted the skill that came so naturally to my mom.

For the past few weeks during our fieldwork, my haphazard chapatti rolling skills have been put to the test. Every night after our interviews, once we get back to our place of stay, our research team has been making our dinner. Sometimes it works out well and sometimes it doesn’t, but every time I stand there kneading chapatti dough as my research partner steps out of the kitchen, I am reminded of my mother. With imperfect communication, I am trying to bring the lens of critical analysis that we practiced in the NFLC classroom to the dynamics in our research team.

You see, when I was little, my mom refused to teach me how to make chapattis. We would have chapattis almost every day and I would watch her kneading the dough, rolling them out, flipping them on the tawa (flat pan in my language). Though she tried to discourage me from feeling like I had to work in the house, I couldn’t help but see the work that she was doing to feed us and felt the urge to try to alleviate this burden, as her daughter. She did not want to subject me to the requirements that she faced as an Indian woman, but a hierarchical gender socialization process still filtered through my mothers protections. I would watch her, working diligently next to her to roll one chapatti as she cranked out ten.

Our research team fumbling with vegetables in the Coonoor office

Growing up, and here during our fieldwork days, I am faced with the internalized need to do more than a fair share of the work within the house. It’s unclear how much the desire to share work was internalized because I have been raised as a girl, because my brother did not feel the same kinds of responsibility in our family home. I am grateful that my upbringing instilled me with the value of equality regarding housework, schoolwork, eating, walking down the street, taking care of money, and pretty much anything else. But in the past few weeks, I have been trying to understand what cultural practices do not fall in line with these ideals and values through the highly confusing process of creating a meal with my research team.

This confusion about something so simple—red wheat flour, a little salt, a little oil, and some water—has only gotten stronger as I spend time with two people with whom my heritage is similar but whose network of beliefs and desires are quite different from my own. In Tamil Nadu, chapattis are different from those in northern India and the staple is rice instead of wheat. Since my teammates have less experience with making chapattis, the weight of this cooking process fell on my shoulders. Even though our translator has stepped up in amazing ways, I found myself taking charge more than I wanted to, as to make up for the gaps left by my research partner. I see the patriarchal patterns of an Indian kitchen replicated in the way that we cook our food. Despite my deep-seated fear of resigning into doing too much housework, the daily dinner plan seems to always involve a distribution of work that feels unfair to me.

The two people I am supposed to cook dinner with are young men who were born and raised in this area. Like my brother and me in my own family, they have not been assigned the responsibility of cooking, but unlike me, they never assumed or internalized that responsibility. Though we consciously agreed between the three of us that we would cook together during this research period, I found myself kneading alone day after day, waiting for my peers to start craving to be a part of the process, the way I craved to be a part of my mothers process. It felt so unequal to me to be doing more work than my male research partner in the kitchen, even though our academic process is based on parity and respect. I wanted him to want to be in the kitchen and to understand equality in the exact same way that I understood it.

When I talked to my partner, though, I realized that my sense of equality was different from his—something that could not be translated with just words but required both of us to widen our lenses and reframe our understandings of our gender roles. Equality is not just breaking up the tasks, but giving a distinct effort to take care of each other and understand the power of housework. I have always seen rolling chapatti as a labor of love, but I didn’t give my research partner the space to step up in the ways that I should have. On the first day, I took away the rolling pin from him because his bread did not fluff up. We both had our imperfections in creating an “equal” distribution of our work.

I think it will never be clear how to analyze the distribution of housework or the complexities of gender in any kind of partnership, but I am starting to understand more about the overlaps and disagreements in the values and beliefs that my research partner and I carry with us in our work. We have been socialized to take on certain responsibilities and avoid others. I will always step up to wash a pan, but I have always passed our bus fare to my partner or our male translator so that he can purchase our tickets. I have been thinking about the gendered events and trying to critique my own patterns around the distribution of labor in our group. I hope that we can explore the misalignment of our perspectives in order to come a little closer to equality and demonstrate our parity even in the highly gendered environment of a kitchen in Tamil Nadu, India.

I taught my research partner how to roll the chapattis this weekend, with a metal cup as our rolling pin and an electric stove that doesn’t properly allow the dough to fluff up. Even though I felt silly explaining gluten and rolling techniques to a male who is older than me and it seemed like he was bored, we both showed up and we both sat down for our meal together. And with hope and a proper rolling pin, we might get some good communication and some good chapattis to go with it.

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