Food and Women’s Labour: Navigating Intersections during Pandemic

Rutuja Deshmukh - India

Rutuja Deshmukh is currently a visiting faculty of Journalism and Cinema at Flame University, Pune and History of Indian Cinema at Savitribai Phule University, Pune. She is also lectures on Culture and Communication at Flame University. Her research areas include popular cinema, popular cultures, and questions of gender and representation at the intersection of neo-liberalism. Her work has previously appeared in The Feminist Review, The Wire, Countercurrents, and Himal SouthAsian. She is the author of a book chapter - Film Viewing and Netflix: An Enquiry into politics of Internet and visual pleasure (forthcoming from Edinburgh University Press). She is also co-author of a book- Historicizing Myths in Contemporary India: Cinematic Representations and Nationalist Agendas in Bollywood (forthcoming from Routledge, India.)


On March 24, 2020 India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared on national television that the nation was going under lockdown. Over 1.3 billion people were given less than four hours’ notice. It was a curfew-like situation in the most areas of India’s major cities for next three weeks. The lockdown was ill-planned and viciously executed, with cops inflicting corporal punishments on the helpless poor on the roads. It once again opened up the internalised colonial hierarchies that inevitably permeate into already oppressive policing systems.

In a completely chaotic and haphazard implementation of the lockdown and all the market food chains coming to halt in an abrupt manner, this lockdown started to change the relationship with food many Indians had till now.

The neo-liberal food markets in developing and postcolonial economies like India, had already introduced diet globalisation with income-induced preference for fast food. Another kind of pursuit of dietary exotica had been a part of Indian urban upper middle class households where staples of other regions become global super foods. Quinoa and avocado are leading examples of how peasant foods of certain geographies are sold as exotic super foods in the supermarkets of elite neighbourhoods elsewhere. Every high-end supermarket or food mall in Indian cosmopolitan cities display this shiny bottle green Mexican fruit lined up with other exotic produce in their fresh vegetable and fruit section. The quinoa grain, another health food obsession passed on from global North, sits comfortably in the food markets of many wealthier neighbourhoods in India. The presence of multinational supermarket chains in every big city in India has been reshaping the local food habits for more than a decade to reflect global influence. On the eve of March 24, 2020 thousands of middle and upper middle class men and women lined up the grocery shops and food malls trying to hoard as much as milk cartons and sliced bread as possible leading to further shortages and price hike. There was sudden shortage of dry yeast in the relatively well-off neighbourhoods, as a lot of people started baking their own bread. A trend that picked up during this lockdown. As opposed to this, the fault lines of wage gap between the rich poor started becoming more and more blatant, when thousands of migrant labourers started walking from the Indian metropolitans towards their villages, without any food or drink to sustain them. They took the roads back to their villages, bearing administrative indifference and police brutality, a path full of risk and helplessness.

A daily wage labourer earns somewhere between INR 350/- to 400/- per day, which is somewhere between 4 to 4.5 euros per day! From the lockdown onwards these earnings were stalled indefinitely. With no employment benefits and lack of food security the working class was left to cope with hunger and uncertainty. Inequality in wealth distribution has always existed in South Asian societies and are further divided along caste lines. The Indian middle class was witnessing it profusely after decades. The neo-liberal language of development has changed the very definitions of progress thereby contributing to the widening of the gap between rich and poor. Moreover in the last three decades of market liberalisation in India, poverty was garbed in the rhetoric of development and the projection of new emerging economy was rife. This lopsided narrative of development and emergence of IT hubs in India created a whole new array of urban spaces that glossed over the predicament of the working class. The years that preceded the economic liberalisation in India, unionisation of labour has seen a consistent decline, thereby lending absolutely no space for the issues faced by the workers. The boost in the economy during the initial years of liberalisation, which continued nearly for a decade, gave emergence to a new middle class in India with increased purchasing power. In this gambit the working class became invisible entity in the popular culture or even everyday language. Only after the economic crash of 2008, when many belonging to the middle class lost their jobs, these fault lines started to emerge. The pandemic exposed the wider gaps of income and plight of working class, as they walked on streets to reach their native homes in absence of the meagre wages as offices, factories and warehouses shut down. As a consequence, the Indian middle class to which I belong witnessed dehumanising hunger and brutality on the streets.

During the pandemic, for the first time many Indian upper- and middle-class women like myself, were left to tend to domestic chores all by themselves, with no domestic help. The relative access to public spaces and work spaces for women like me is only possible because of the underpaid domestic workers or house-helps. The domestic workers are one of the most unorganised sectors of labourers in India. The wages are hardly standardised and they continue to work within the private spaces without any employment benefits, often enduring gender-based violence, exploitation and harassment.

For me personally this lockdown brought back the memories of another confinement. I was 24 when I was expecting my daughter in 2008. It was my first pregnancy and we were living in a village called Ratnuchak near Jammu. For three continuous months Jammu was under a lockdown. These lockdowns were not new in Jammu and Kashmir, which has been a conflict zone for almost three decades. This meant that every daily requirement like grains, pulses, vegetables and dairy that came to us was rationed. It was my first pregnancy I was alone in a relatively foreign land and that was the first time I missed my mother like never before. Having lost her at 18, I went through my share of grief. Somehow that grief had returned to me afresh during this confinement.

It was during my first pregnancy that I actually felt like I was imprisoned in my own body. Lockdown did not help; I had started craving for something as meagre as a buttered toast. There was no supply of bread. I’d crave a fried mackerel along with my plate of rice, lockdown or no lockdown there was no mackerel in a landlocked Jammu! Pregnancy brought a sea of emotions then, firstly there was a physical lockdown and then there was a lockdown building inside me. I felt like my body was occupied by someone and this feeling continued well in my second trimester. It was only towards the end of it that I started feeling a release of sorts. Lockdown in Jammu was also relaxed by then and I had learnt to carry my bump around.

This was also the time I started revisiting my past, my childhood with a new perspective. The first experience of food shortages in Jammu that I experienced personally made me think of several other such instances that were part of collective family memories passed on through generations. These were not my experiences, but had left a huge impact on my personality as elders in the family narrated these stories during my childhood. Bai (my paternal grand-mother) taught me to eat all vegetables. She would spend hours with me explaining each vegetable, its uses from roots to leaves to actual fruit or bean. Her meticulous ways of cooking, preserving, sun-drying were unique and always had a lesson in sustainable eating! Though we grew up in a privileged household, she knew how to conserve and save up for a rainy day! Her father was also IG (Inspector General of Police) in British India, and she had lived a comfortable life. Yet those were the days when sustainability was a way of life. She was born in 1919, around a decade and half after the Indian famine of 1899-1900 in Rajputana, central India Baroda Kathiavar and Kutch. The recorded mortality in British ruled areas was around 1 million. Human loss in princely states went unrecorded. She had grown up listening to the stories of famine. How entire families were wiped out because of hunger. These collective memories were passed on from generation to generation and women of the families always gave practical lessons in using ingredients wisely. I still remember how she’d tell me that one guava could be cut into thin beautiful slices and presented. Abundance is a state of mind and heart! As a child I would observe her while cooking. There was rarely anything wasted or thrown out in her kitchen. She would peel the vegetable and make two dishes out of one; the peel would be used for a chutney or side dish while the vegetable became the part of main dish. One such recipe from her handwritten cookbook was of Ridge gourd, a tropical/sub-tropical vine of cucumber family. The peels of this gourd serve as a side dish prepared with peanuts, sesame seeds and chillies wherein the gourd itself is used for the main course with rice. Picture 1 &2 (attached)

For many years my husband and me kept moving cities. Since his job demanded frequent transfers, we lived in the smaller towns of India, where neo-liberalism hadn’t still made the dent in the sustainable living as it has done in cities. From 2012 to 2015, we lived in Allahabad, a town in the state of Uttar Pradesh in India. It is also known for the confluence of three rivers Ganga, Yamuna and third being a mythical one called Saraswati!

During the Covid lockdown in March 2020 I recollected several such recipes inherited from Bai, where peels as well as vegetables could be used. Having settled down in Pune for last two years, I had learnt to juggle between two teaching jobs and two children. Lockdown also meant that I had to take care of my in-laws who live in the same neighbourhood as mine. With limited resources available I was cooking for two children and two senior citizens.

One of the habits that I reacquired after having given up on it briefly in the relatively cosmopolitan city of Pune, was to shop at a local grocer. To make a monthly list of all my requirements and rattle it out in front of the grocer and see him work swiftly while packing all my necessities in a cardboard box and do the mental maths at the same time, was fun. This habit stayed with me till now. One of the reasons to stick with this habit was the human interaction. I love talking to my grocer, exchange notes on political and social issues or sometimes meaningless, harmless banter about quality of pulses and edible oil in readymade snacks! At the same time I realized how easy this exercise was on my purse as compared to roaming about with a trolley in a food mall and end up picking up things that I don't need.

Even though Pune has fancy food malls and I do visit them once in a while when the privileged me wants to buy that blue cheese or chocolate buttons, but never for my monthly groceries. Something that bothered me always while making this monthly grocery trip was to come face-to-face with blatant poverty. Rows of homeless people in front of the grocery shops waiting for someone to give them alms. Many of you will agree with me that one feels guilty carrying those bags full of food while you see so many who cannot afford basics. I had got into the practice of carrying change, knowing very well this is not the solution. A sustained food security policy is needed and today in the middle of the pandemic, it has become more relevant and required than ever. Small businesses and vendors lost their livelihoods as the food supply chains broke leading to further push towards poverty. One of the major calamities was the complete disregard of food security of migrant labourers. Those who couldn’t go back to villages were left with no food at all. During this time many students’ organizations and NGOs did come forward to help the stranded labourers, in spite of complete state apathy. At the same time, several farmers have started bringing their fresh vegetable produce to the more affluent neighbourhood for sale for a lower price.

As the lockdown eased and, not so paradoxically, Covid cases soared, poverty has become even more apparent. The pandemic has created unemployment, uncertainty and pushed millions of people further into precarious living. Many domestic workers have wanted to return to their jobs, once the lockdown began to ease. Only a few of their previous employers have allowed them inside their homes. The fear of the virus has made it difficult for them to keep their jobs. With all the available privileges to me, as a working middle-class woman I can always delegate some domestic work to a working-class house help, which sustains gendering and devaluation of this work.

As COVID-19 has gripped country after country, we are also being exposed to the fragility of the neo-liberal order. The sheer inability to organize and collectively a stand against a global pandemic is the outcome of decades of fractured solidarity. It makes me wonder how we might remember these times, where right-wing populist governments are using the pandemic to consolidate power all over the world.

In India, the Hindutva culture’s disregard for science is further fueled as it seeks justification for the Brahmanical concepts of ‘purity’ and ‘untouchability’ under modern social-distancing regimes. To borrow Dr B. Ambedkar’s terms, castes are part of ‘graded hierarchy’, wherein social distancing was used to institutionalize Brahmanical texts in minds of people and practices. In an already practiced caste system that does not value fraternity, social /physical distancing during pandemic is also reinstating the caste system thereby reinforcing the practices of untouchability and purity in the kitchens. Lower social status of domestic workers and economic marginalization is making them vulnerable to the Savarna caste practices where social and physical distance was already a part of their life experience.

Existing inequalities have become more pronounced, with thousands of migrant labourers walking back home on the deserted highways without food or water, exposing the inhumanity of the neo-liberal order and its incapability to deal with crisis. It is becoming increasingly evident that socialized welfare measures work much better for most in our communities. Kerala, a communist-government ruled state in India, on the other hand has shown remarkable response to the Covid crisis. Community kitchens were set up by the government to provide for the migrant labourers and financial assistance was provided for fishermen, artists, craftsmen and other small businesses. Although there is much more to be done, the Kerala example has shown the workability of a social welfare system in dealing with crisis like pandemic.

I have tried to save every little fragment of time from household work during the lockdown to write this piece because far from being an endless reverie of reading, thinking and writing, women academics, like myself, must race against time now to finish lesson plans, prepare lectures and meet deadlines. The mixing of public and private spheres of work for women means added responsibility of children and housework without the boundaries of professional work.

Women’s labour within the domestic confines has the potential of contributing towards the dismantling of neo-liberal food markets. But the constant devaluation of this work leads to class distinction and sustains gendering of work. The pandemic has exposed the inability of global food chains to provide a sustainable model. Women’s labour within kitchens and caregiving jobs needs to be recognized as work and compensated accordingly.

We are not directly responsible for the pandemic, but we can certainly be responsible towards imagining a more considerate, humane and inclusive world order, beyond national boundaries. A world order where men and women from the Global South use traditional wisdoms of sustainability and are able to de-gender domestic work When future generations remember COVID-19, they may talk not only about failed leaders and systems, about the important number of deaths because even nuclear powers couldn’t provide adequate healthcare or deal rationally with the pandemic, but perhaps also about how out of this utterly painful chaos, a new world emerged.