The Demise of the south Indian Brahmin Cook

January 17, 2011

For some time now, many of my “Tambram” friends who have ageing parents or relatives have been having major problems trying to get a brahmin cook…or, since they generally want to get women cooks…. in the parlance of old, “shamayalkAra mAmi”. Alas, I have not heard of a single instance where they have been successful.

In the past, there were always “distressed” brahmin ladies to be found…someone who’d been widowed early, whose children were not inclined to care for her. In exchange for food and shelter, and for very small wages, these “mAmi”s would take over the kitchen, and often the entire household, of better-off Tambram homes. Why have they now disappeared?

One of the main reasons, I feel, is the education of women….we have far less women of this communitiy who are not educated, and unable to fend for themselves independently.

Another factor is the rise of various types of catering organizations. Cooks find it easy to go to work for weddings under the aegis of a catering contractor; instead of being at the beck and call of all the members of a family through the day (and often well into the late hours)…they are much better paid for each day’s work, and since there are many small business where they can earn by making fried snacks, they do not want to be tied down to one family, at a small salary and possible ill-treatment as well.

A third factor is the fact that this community has had a sudden access of prosperity, thanks to the IT boom. The family that was struggling for money, a couple of decades ago, is the family where the younger ones have taken computer courses and who are now drawing good salaries both at home and abroad; the mothers, even if widowed, no longer need to be domestic help in other homes.

And all these are allied to our perception of domestic and kitchen work as being somehow “inferior”. A cook or a maid is still thought of as lowly and somehow a “B” grade member of the household….so it’s not surprising that ladies do not want to take up”menial” employment if they can possibly help it. As a community, Brahmins are poor paymasters for such cooks….and when allied to the usual housewifely frugality, there is no financial incentive for any Brahmin lady to become a household cook…“cook” is often a synonym for “drudge”.

It’s all coming down, alas, to the fact that ageing people, who cannot adjust to anyone else but “Brahmin” cooks handling their food, ar unable to find anyone to help out in the kitchen, and both they, and their children or children-in-law are struggling to manage their difficulties in cooking our often elaborate food every day.

One solution is the many “brahmin” catering firms that cook the food in a central kitchen and then deliver the food each day. Alas, many elderly people are not happy with this, either, and are still hankering for the old days of a “mAmi”, reliable, sort-of-part-of-the-family, who would take the burden of the kitchen, and food, off the family members.

Alas, it is impossible to explain to ageing relatives that cleanliness, hygiene and regularity are what matter in a cook, not her caste…so they continue to suffer, and make other family members suffer, too….