Shabana , Radha, food and desire on International Women’s Day – Rukmini Sen

There is something about the women domestic helpers in Mumbai. They don’t eat.

They postpone eating .

Till my father died …which was in 2016 …we had some people working for us. I used to commute long distances for work. My father was diabetic and not always mobile. So we had a system in place where my father felt functional and independent.

We do all our work now. Cooking, cleaning, washing clothes etc. Something I have always wanted to do.

My lessons on food habits of Mumbai Mausis (domestic helper is fondly called Aunt or Mausi) started with Shabana. A Muslim, Marathi, thirty something woman. She was thin. Almost anorexic. My father and I would request her to eat with us. Shabana always had a reason to snot eat with us. She would tell us she hadn’t eaten a single meal through the day but she would shy away from joining us for a meal.

We started bonding over long conversations. She had many life lessons to offer. And then she gradually started eating with us. The discussions around food and gender took another turn with her.

One day she shared her daily routine with me –

  • She wakes up early morning. Cooks for the family. Rushes out to work at 6 am. Has her first meal at noon. A meal consisting of a cup of chai and two slices of bread. Sometimes one slice. Some times two biscuits. The next meal was at 7pm. At home. 2 rotis or chawal with one dal or sabzi.

Is that what the rest of her family members eat too?


The men and the children eat three meals.

Why didn’t she eat three meals? or at least two proper meals?

“Kaam rehta hai!” There is so much work.

Why and how do men eat three meals?

“Kaafi kaam kartey hai na.” They have to work so much.

Then there was Radha.

A Marathi, Hindu woman in her late twenties.

The first day I offered her lunch she said she was not hungry.

Radha was a space cadet (always spaced out) and disoriented.

She dropped things left, right and center. Very badly coordinated. She maintained she was generally careless.

She was my soul sister. We had a lot common there:)

Radha used to continuously chew a black tobacco to kill hunger. Shabana did that too.

Its an unsaid and not discussed training.

May be women abstained from food in some cultures because there wasn’t enough food at home.

The hunters, the earners and the masters wanted their share of food intact.

The servants and women ate less. Ate last. Ate the leftovers.

The food training is such that most Bais and Mausis feel there is something not cool, good and feminine about eating so many meals….about desiring and savoring a meal.

Till they start eating.

And then they eat. They eat good. They relish every morsel.

They crack jokes about their men and how they eat!

They ask you to admit their kids in best of schools.

They ask….They demand… food, holidays, money….and they make you feel uncomfortable about your privileges…every day…

That is when we are compelled to accept that a single meal is indeed charity…

But a meal every day is a commitment.

Right to education, right to food, right to safe work space, health care, weekly offs, vacations are our basic rights.

(Written in 2018)

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