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The Internet Personified: Cooking, driving and early noughties feminism
When I thought being a woman meant being a man and other bad ideas
Beloved bendy straws,
I am SO COLD that it’s surprising I’m able to type at all. In Delhi, we’ve had what the newspapers have described excitedly as a “cold wave” only a “wave” implies a sudden dropping of temperature and I haven’t really noticed it rising. It’s a bit better than it was week before last, where I was wearing two pairs of socks inside the house. Now I’m down to one pair—toes still cold—but wearing a massive amount of layers on top. No one looks sexy in Delhi’s winter, but I look like the Michelin Man. I went to a house party this weekend, and the guests were divided into those that made an effort (my friend, the host, looked particularly sexy and I guess she’s immune to the cold because there was not a single piece of Heattech on her. Not even a jacket!) and those who stayed properly bundled up the entire evening. Ugh, I hate winter, as soon as my birthday is over I’m ready for it to be summer again. Compensating by eating my body weight in snacks so I’m truly a Michelin Man, inside and out.
My timing is also not great, because Delhi gets warmer next week and off I go, back to Berlin, to plunge into their cold wave, a thrilling MINUS FIVE. More fattening snacks for me! This is me putting a ring on Berlin, so I’m not expecting my honeymoon period to last forever, however, I’m pretty excited about returning. The cats, after one startled look at K, have resumed their winter cuddles as though no time had passed at all. He suspects they did forget about us when we left, and as soon as they smelt him, they said, “Oh yeahhhh, this guy” and the love fest begun.
I sent him back with one stainless steel masala dabba and one works-on-electric-stoves tadka pan so my Indian-in-Germany kitchen is coming together nicely. I keep thinking about my kitchen—I got so into cooking the last year or so that it’s really nice to have all this equipment and all these spices (for Indian cooking, I bring most from home like a good desi housewife) and this year I’m expanding to get better at “conti” stuff, mainly Italian and French (inspired by the TV show Julia, I’ve decided to also do a little Julia Child stuff in the kitchen), and our stint in Bangkok has made me very curious about cooking Thai food as well. (Ingredients a little hard to find, but there’s this large Asian market not far from us).
Back when I first started living alone, say age 21-22-ish? I had just found a job with a city tabloid which paid me the grand sum of Rs 7,500, and I had been itching to leave home and set up on my own anyway, so I decided this financial independence was the sign I needed. No matter that my new job’s office was closer to my mum’s flat in East Delhi than the tiny railway compartment style flat I shared with two others in Malviya Nagar, I was still going to strike out on my own! (Until I realised after I paid for rent and fuel, I was basically left with zero money and reluctantly returned to the parental home until I got a new job and a dramatic 50% raise and a flat close to the office in a most definitely illegal construction fourth floor walk-up that swayed whenever anything heavier than a scooter drove past.) Anyway, this was the time where our feminism made us declare proudly that we couldn’t cook. “Can’t even boil water,” we’d say, smugly, looking over at other women who cooked with a certain amount of patronage. We were meant for grander things than the kitchen! We would never need to learn how to chop an onion or, god forbid, roll out a roti because our lot was Higher Things. I remember the first week we moved in, we didn’t have any way to boil water so I made instant coffee with the water from the geyser, god, it was awful and probably not very hygienic either. What did it matter, we hired a cook, who deep fried everything and it all looked so unappetising that we ate out most days, but I was always never very house proud, so I poked at unappetising meals after unappetising meals, from Delhi to Bombay, and thought this was just my lot. I didn’t know what was wrong with the food, just that I didn’t like it. Only once, several years later, I stumbled by pure chance upon an excellent cook in Bombay who happened to be looking for a new job and her meals were just elevated. I still had no words of instruction to give her, but she made everything really well. (She ruined me for future bad cooks who were delighted by my lack of agency, but also, now I knew it could be done in my kitchen on my budget, I started to take a little more of an interest in how to make things the way I liked.)
It was a wonky sort of feminism, my first book You Are Here, contains a recipe of the kind I’d make in those days, “potato pickle surprise” which was just fried potato with a green chilli pickle garnish. I described Arshi’s roommate Topsy’s cocktails in far more detail, because we took pride in our drinks—see, post-feminism, women drinking like men!—but I skipped over the food. In my newest book, Soft Animal, I’ve flipped that, now my protagonist Mallika is frequently to be found in the kitchen, finding some sort of order in her days through cooking, because she doesn’t have much else. People took you less seriously as an author if you wore nice clothes or lipstick, for the longest time, you attempted to dress down for book events so everyone wouldn’t talk to you like you were a complete idiot. Well… some people dressed down, and I dressed up and grumbled that I had just as much right to be taken seriously as everyone else, and probably paid the price for my clothes because they patronised the hell out of me, but who cares, right? I’m forty one and I’m still here, many books later.
Cooking took a while longer to reach me as a feminist act. I was rejecting it because I didn’t want to be like the generation of women before me who seemed to learn how to cook whether they wanted to or not, it was just one of their skills. Even my mother who was a journalist at the time cooked a lot for a working woman. A lot of us wanted to be free and easy, like, well, like the men, never lifting a finger, never learning to do anything. And then things like Masterchef Australia started airing and people started getting snobby about food and suddenly everyone was a home chef and talking about their ingredients and their ovens and their knives, and women of my generation who had always cooked, always enjoyed cooking, were raising an eyebrow at all this but the rest of us just jumped into it. And it was fun. (How privileged can you get, right? Only dabbling in the kitchen as a hobby while your cook did all the scud work?) Of course, it is an essential life skill—feeding yourself, but you can do that with toast and eggs just as well. You don’t need to be a cook-cook. But what I learned consequently over these past few years is how creative it is, how soothing. I work from home, I work in my pajamas, I’m not much of a cleaner-upper unless the place is truly a mess and it takes a while to get there, so what adds order to my days? Cooking. I may not get pages done that day or go out for a walk, but I can make something out of raw ingredients, something appetising and interesting. Sometimes I wonder: is this turning back into being the kind of woman I rejected? Am I, in the end, as fond of nourishing others as my ancestors were before me? No one likes to admit they’re getting older, and I think this is an age thing for me, not a feminism thing. I need to eat, I’m a picky eater, I cook well, I cook our meals. (K does most—if not all—of the cleaning. I feel like I’ve gotten the better part of the bargain so I’m actively trying to get less lazy about vacuuming and so on.)
Which reminds me, please send recs for cookbooks you personally use and love. [Nothing with a zillion ingredients each of which I will only use once, thank you, which is why most of Ottam (I’ve forgotten how to spell his name and I’m too lazy to look it up) is out.]
I’m in the process of selling my car. It’s only the second car I’ve ever owned, and the first I could afford to buy myself. Over the years, my friends got fancy new models, but I was always somewhat attached to my little white Alto—especially because a) I never drove much anyway and b) it was really easy to park, being so small, I could squeeze into any space.
I gave up driving some time ago, a crippling phobia suddenly overtook me. It’s surprising to even describe, it snuck up on me. One day I was driving over a flyover and traffic stood still and I couldn’t stop imagining all of us collapsing to our deaths, because the bridge could surely not hold all our weight. This fear mixed with another one I had, what if someone knocked into my car as I was driving and shot me off the edge? So I had to avoid flyovers. After that it became slopes: what if my car slid slowly backward and I hit the car behind me? After that, highways. Once again, what if a truck just sort of drifted off its lane and squeezed my car, smashing us both into a pulp? I couldn’t—can’t, still—differentiate the what-ifs my brain was coming up with from actual fact, I just started feeling like every time I was behind the wheel of my car, I was going to die horrifically and painfully. My palms would sweat, my heart would start racing, I spent the entire drive gripping the steering wheel. It wasn’t pleasant, and so I started avoiding driving more and more. If K and I weren’t going together somewhere (he usually drove us), I’d take a taxi, it was so easy. I tried to fix it with mindfulness meditation, and affirmation stuff when I was driving (“you are a calm and comfident [sic] driver,” said the English accent to me, soothingly.) But it never did get fixed, so in a calm and comfident way, I declared that I was just giving it up. Fuck driving. There are many other ways to get around.
But we hung on to the car, we thought my mother might like the use of it, but getting someone to drive her around was more hassle than just getting into an auto, so after much procrastination, I finally got around to selling it. I tried the first of two websites that pop up when you search “sell car in Delhi” and when their home inspection guy didn’t turn up twice I’ve called a second, who should be here soon, but I’ve learned from experience these car website people are notorious flakes. It doesn’t really matter because when I called a mechanic in to replace the battery—dead from not having being used for six months—he offered to buy it himself. Turns out a single owner driven car with less than 30,000 kilometres on the thingie is a valuable asset. Good thing I didn’t drive it much, I’m hoping to now get back most of what I spent on it, minus 50,000, which is great value for a car that is 10 years old.
Thinking of my car and driving, made me think of the song Short Skirt/Long Jacket by Cake, which I used to listen to ALL. THE. TIME. Somehow, my early noughties feminism got tied up with this song—which if you know it is about a man singing about the only kind of woman he wants, an independent one.
I want a girl with the right allocations
Who is fast, and thorough, and sharp as a tack
She's playing with her jewelry
She's putting up her hair
She's touring the facility
And picking up slack
I want a girl with a short skirt and a long jacket
Early noughties feminism was very much about “not being like other girls.” You didn’t believe in a sisterhood, you believed that you alone, out of all the rest of your gender, were this perfect unique little specimen who deserved to sit with the men.
She wants a car (hey) with a cup holder armrest (ho)
She wants a car (hey) that will get her there (ho)
She's changing her name (hey)
From Kitty to Karen (ho)
She's trading her MG (hey) for a white Chrysler LeBaron
I want a girl with a short skirt and a long, jacket
I blasted this song while I was driving. I too wanted a car that would get me there.So what if I was in “soft” or “lifestyle” journalism, so what if ignorant critics called me a “chick lit” writer? I knew who I wanted to be as I wobbled around in my high heels, flicking my straightened hair out of my face or just tying it back in a tight bun, neat and precise with none of the untamed danger that curly hair implies. I wanted to be that girl—girl! he never says woman!—with a short skirt and a long jacket.
There are many things to criticise still about 2023 feminism (let’s start with how it’s still not as inclusive as we’d like, how powerful men are still getting away with shit despite all the hand wringing about woke mobs and cancel culture) but at least, at least we have grown from where we were and are able to acknowledge our internalised misogyny and see how it was perhaps a little fucked up.
Meanwhile, I opened my car the other day for the first time in ages and I smelt, underneath the musty odour of a car that’s been closed too long, just a whiff of my old life. It almost made my eyes misty. Saying goodbye is hard and new beginnings are never easy, but you know I’m stepping into it with flat shoes, a flowy dress and my hair standing up like a lion’s mane around my face, which is a much more comfortable way to be than a short skirt and a long jacket, if you ask me.
I’m book-hopping in my re-reads so I’ve got Adrian Mole: The Cappuccino Years by Sue Townsend (just the most perfect hilarious series) and Doctors by Erich Segal (who I had completely forgotten about but then K was supposed to take a trip to Tel Aviv and I suddenly started remembering Acts of Faith, which I then re-read and now I’m on Doctors and I will probably read his entire oeuvre, which is cheesy but expansive. Doctors is the medical deep-dive, Acts of Faith is the religion one, The Class is academia, Prizes is science. All meticulously researched pot boilers, but I don’t need to tell you, you probably also read all his stuff in your teens along with Sidney Sheldon.) I also re-read all of James Herriot, having watched the latest series of All Creatures Great And Small. Then I’m also re-reading with intention A Dark Adapted Eye by Barbara Vine because it is my book club pick for this month and I’m meeting them for a discussion on Friday.
Plus a new to me book: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce which I came across browsing the Booker Prize website, a useful place to check out every single book that’s ever been longlisted. I like books about long walks, perhaps because even though I’m a fairly sedentary person, a long walk seems like a thing I can do, much like Harold.
My mum and I are watching all of Ted Lasso, which I had abandoned after four episodes, and now have gotten back into. It’s a nice palate cleanser after Trial By Fire which was just DARK but also really good.
Side-by-side I’m watching Southland which is this excellent cop drama shot like a documentary and well, ok, Friends. What? It’s cold and I need mental cuddles.
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Have a great week! I will probably write you next from my Berlin life.
Who are you? Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan, writer of internet words (and other things) author of seven books (support me by buying a book!) and general city-potter-er.
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