By Dr Rajagopal Soondron
Coming from a joint family, well surrounded by mother, two aunties, five sisters and three cousin sisters, it was never expected of the boy to go and help in the kitchen. That would have been a blatant attempt to introduce a spy in the female’s realm. In those days boys were meant to help the uncle at the shop or the grandmother at the market place.
University life did me no good either: with a student mess to cater for food, I was shut off forever from any good culinary philosophy society might have had in store for me.
After marriage my wife monopolized the kitchen – to my great relief, while after tying the knot my cousin D discovered the obsessive pleasure of doing the dishes… to the utter joy of his better half. My indifference was palpable, not ready to sanction that fellow’s attitude. But what to say of his nephew K, my son-in-law? He takes after his uncle; I just closed my eyes, looked away for my daughter’s sake. Being of the modern generation maybe they belonged to another permissive hippy, freedom-loving feminism era.
Fancy my astonishment and utter embarrassment years later during my overseas visit to my friend G‘s place; having been my faithful doppelganger since our bachelor days when the kitchen was persona non grata to us, he had somehow negotiated a 180 degree turn, becoming a wonderful cook; and who says cook also means an addiction to kitchen and house cleaning. All this was to my great apprehension – for my wife might raise her eyebrows, airing what this good-for-nothing hubby of hers was waiting for to imitate his pal. She would never appreciate the excuse that my professional commitment always pushed me towards economizing my energy when at home!
The straw that broke…
…the camel’s back: For New Year’s Eve, the other good friend N invited us for an end of year party. And about one hour before 2020 peeped in, my faculty of surprise was put severely to test when the groggy N announced he would go to the sink for a much awaited session! Sure enough he soon headed to the kitchen enthusiastically, challenging my speculative theory that men who love outdoor gardening, like N, would stay far away from indoor activities — just to keep God’s good world in perfect equilibrium. Like his brother G, he was out to prove me wrong. Feeling my basic convictions going down the drain, I finally made my way to the kitchen to make a last attempt to save the day — but lo! There was my smiling chump happily soaping, rubbing, twisting, plunging vessels and dishes under the opened tap – as a duck would take to water.
I experienced a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach – lest my wife should walk in and fall into a plaintive, comparative study of husbands; I guiltily had to reckon that I might after all be out of phase with my generation. But my stubborn bias drove me to a final attempt to restore my failing equanimity, so without hesitation I told N jokingly: “To pe gate travaille – mon cher”! But that would be as good as throwing water on a duck’s feathers. N was happily enjoying the last minutes of 2019.
Convinced that such a U-turn in my behaviour would never happen, especially in my eighth decade, I resolutely stuck to my old concept, secretly and bitterly feeling that I have been let down by my buddies — while promising myself that I would never become a kitchen worm. Little did I know that Time and Mother Nature were out to get my skin – coronavirus decided to strike!
Confinement reduced our activities by about 75% – so that home life and its multiple well-known hidden traps swept me into another reality. Our maids were intelligently kept away; and my better half found herself loaded with work – not that this frightened her. Far from it. That should have made me feel relaxed and comfortable. But instead a guilty conscience started seeping in – the very same that has so often prompted me to hint to my wife that one day she would be awarded a Nobel Prize for perpetually inventing house chores. Which guilt finally had the better of me and burst the cocoon I was living in. It drove me to the kitchen sink.
Everyday saw me there sponging utensils, plates and cutlery – that I have taken for granted for some 70 years; not that I was enjoying myself as D, N or G — but I was nearly there, taking some sense of duty and mild pleasure to execute the job. Perhaps my subconscious had found the right formula to satisfy the health authorities’ recommendations: keep washing the hands regularly with soap. And here I was – killing two birds with one stone three times a day.
Should you would giggle that soap and water have at last wrecked my archaic, biased philosophy you would be forgiven. For I had lucidly started the hand washing ceremony when I was about 3 years old: building one’s immunity by running bare-footed, playing in the soil of the compound. I had to take an evening bath with soap under the only tap below the longan tree there. And my faculty to compare had already gripped me at that age. I could never understand why my motherly ‘modiste’ neighbour – ‘Tantine Marazine’ – had such clean, huge white hands while mine looked dirty and puny. So every day at dusk after my overenthusiastic rubbing and washing with soap and cold water with a “Coto Maiye” below the tree, courtesy mum, I would run to my lady neighbour to compare my hands with hers, much to her amusement and delight.
Was the scene set for later obsessive-compulsive behaviour? Maybe. And fate did drive the nail further. Decades later I found myself in a professional speciality where I wash my hands 5 to 10 times daily, most times with alcohol and at others with soap and water! This practice was further encouraged by my ex-boss’ anecdote of his postgraduate days. It appears that his consultant – a world authority in the subject – challenged him to anaesthetize three patients to the best of his capacity. He did it brilliantly and was congratulated by the supervising professor; except for one reproach – he did not wash his hands in-between the cases!!!
So finally that ritual of hand washing is stuck to us forever. Too much alcohol would rob them of beneficial protective secretions; so stick to soap and water, Covid-19 oblige. And as for those who could go to the kitchen sink twice or thrice daily: pray continue – for two birds are always better than one. While waiting for the second wave of Covid-19 — God forbid!
* Published in print edition on 30 June 2010
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