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Engels, Great Indian Kitchen and Toxic Indian Households

There’s a peculiar way in which toxic households consume an individual. Carrying with them a despicable history of inherent oppression and male dominance, they normalize attitudes that negatively impact the self-growth of a person and implant such troubling traits that one has to fight throughout their life, sometimes without actually knowing where their roots lie. It took me several breakdowns, innumerable digressions, and a seemingly eternal state of denial to understand the origins and subconscious aspects of my ‘rebellious’ personality. The realization offers a temporary respite because humankind is obsessed with a simple cause-effect relationship and when one has some precise reasons to account for its behavior and actions, the comfort is relieving. But, the same realization has also enabled me to place my mental anguish and emotional chaos in larger societal structures. Every time I stood up for something in my household and took a firm stand in favor of it, I discerned that, at the same time, I also opposed and shed a part of my childhood that had to bear the brunt of unjust, insensitive, and discriminatory practices. These practices, however, are not a part of individual dynamics. They constitute and form  the gendered nature of family itself. It may be a little hard to believe for ‘civilized’ men and women that the very institution of marriage and family is patriarchal in nature and ‘toxicity’ is just another manifestation of this larger problem but it is this discriminatory nature of families that is responsible for a negative upbringing. 

Friedrich Engels, a 19th-century thinker, whose works with Karl Marx still provide the foundations for various socio-economic theories, propounded several path-breaking advances on the ethnographic history of family, state, and private property in his book Origin of Family, State and Private Property. He highlights, on the basis of ethnographic evidence, how the institution of family is based upon male dominance, female subjugation, servitude, and economic control. Three evolutionary stages have been associated with the social unit called family: The Consanguine, Punalun, Pairing, and Monogamous. The first two stages have been identified with a kin-based organization of family, with no single mother or father. A communistic way of living is characteristic of the first two stages and there are few restrictions on sexual intercourse. However, things become interesting in the third stage. With the rise of the Pairing family, the concept of single partners came into existence. While infidelity was acceptable from a man’s side, a woman was expected to follow strict fidelity. Owing to a strict division of labor, men worked outside the home and women exercised control inside the household. However, this control was soon on the verge of extinction. Another major development of this stage was snatching away of the mother right ( tracing descent from the mother’s line) which ‘degraded and reduced woman to servitude, she became the slave of man’s lust and a mere instrument for the production of children.’ Since descent is now being traced on patrilineal lines, woman’s fidelity became a question of immense control. ‘She is delivered over unconditionally into the power of the husband; if he kills her, he is only exercising his rights’, advances Engels. 

The peak of women’s subjugation was marked by the emergence of Monogamous marriage, which is characterized by a patriarchal descent and male supremacy with the only role of women being to produce the progeny. Monogamous marriages for the first time brought two sexes in stark opposition to each other. 

“The first division of labor is that between man and woman for the propagation of children.”

- Marx and Engels in a manuscript from 1846

Engels also argued that the law, which is a bourgeoisie weapon, is both a cause and effect of economic oppression of women. When the organization was in a commune, their domestic and emotional labor was highly valued. However, with the coming up of monogamous families and subsequent commodification, they can either be a part of public production or fulfill their family duties. Monogamous marriages also maintain their oppressive nature by granting the right to dissolve the marriage only to men. Practically, this representation may be viewed as gory and alien to the modern family, immensely misrepresented in popular culture. But, these are not abstract fantasies of a cynic. They are based on diligent studies of ethnic tribes and thus how much ever it makes us uncomfortable, the truth prevails - a family may seem to be based on love, affection, and all those terrible rom-com values, but in effect, it traces its roots back to female subjugation and servitude.  

‘The modern individual family is founded on the open or concealed domestic slavery of the wife, and modern society is a mass composed of these individual families as its molecules.’

- Friedrich Engels, Origin of Family, State and Private Property 

Another saga involving the seemingly sweet daily hassles of family life but inherently oppressive realities inclined towards one gender: Indian Kitchens. A low-budget Malayalam movie, The Great Indian Kitchen, unravels a newlywed wife’s experiences in an upper caste, middle-class household. There’s no violence in the movie, it has ‘decent’ men we all encounter in our workspaces, educational institutions, and homes. Nonetheless, it makes every viewer uncomfortable and asks several discomfited questions. With her mother-in-law (who was in charge of the chores) leaving the house, the newlywed woman finds herself trapped in a disgusting monotonous routine of waking up, sweeping up the flour, grinding, cooking, cleaning, and washing dishes. Her aspirations of teaching dance to young students being reduced as an unnecessary claim and her life being terribly regulated in the course of her menstruation cycle.  However, there was no force or threat of force being used in The Great Indian Kitchen. The cinematic beauty lies in the intricate portrayal of ordinary events of daily life - dinner leftovers being thrown just like that by men of the family, sewage water giving the wife a hard time while her husband constantly ignores her requests to call a plumber, men taking the task of cooking and assuming that they have done all the chores while in effect creating chaos for her to tackle in the kitchen and above all, her interactions with her husband, from her husband’s keenness to have sex on a regular basis while turning a blind eye towards her will to their fights upon the husband’s ‘manners’. They reflect upon the continuity of oppressive tendencies in the institution of family and the very fact that they make us uncomfortable reveals how much we all are a part of such vulgar realities. 

Amidst striking DYFI posters and enthralling depictions of Che Guevara, the wife leaves the household; only after throwing the collected sewage water on the face of those men. A teen facing mental instability and emotional chaos; a pioneering 19th-century thinker propounding trailblazing theories; and finally a Malayalam movie with intricately shot scenes, making every viewer uncomfortable and asking discomfited questions: they all share the tawdry male-dominated structure of families. This structure consumes the teenage years of innumerable individuals, treats a whole group as the ‘second sex’ and marks a blot on the contrary nature of civilization. Will things change? Engels had perhaps given the answer way back in his times:

‘That will be answered when a new generation has grown up: a generation of men who never in their lives have known what it is to buy a woman’s surrender with money or any other social instrument of power; a generation of women who have never known what it is to give themselves to a man from any other considerations than real love, or to refuse to give themselves to their lover from fear of the economic consequences. When these people are in the world, they will care precious little what anybody today thinks they ought to do; they will make their own practice and their corresponding public opinion about the practice of each individual – and that will be the end of it.’

Still hoping for these times!

Srushti Sharma

Delhi South '20

Just trying to strike a balance between personal havoc and societal farce in whatever I write :)
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