I am a terrible cook, a life skill I am not proud of missing out on. I routinely shame myself for not posting curated selfies of home-cooked cuisine, but my mother couldn’t be happier about my impediment.
When I was a young girl growing up in India, my mother, Shashi Dutt, forbade me from entering the kitchen, making me an anomaly among my peers, who were expert cooks by age 7. Most of my classmates from the all-girls school I attended would also be married before they graduated from high school. My inability to cook, clean and take care of babies made me an unfit candidate for my imminent career as a housewife.
This was my mother’s covert resistance against the parochial family she had married into herself in a small town, Ajmer, in the desert state of Rajasthan. A rustic tourist attraction, the state has one of the worst male-to-female sex ratios in the country, with 888 women to every 1,000 men, according to the 2011 census.
The number of females has been progressively depleted in the state, which registered 562 cases of female feticide in 2013, the highest in India. The reaction to a girl child is no different now than it was in 1986, when my birth as a first-born girl was welcomed with muffled sighs and despair. Or in 1991, when my sister’s birth caused my father’s side of the family, an educated, second-generation family of bureaucrats, to openly declare my mother a “witch who only gave birth to girls.”
Luckily for us, my father and mother (on her insistence) soon removed us from the toxicity of my paternal grandparents’ house, but not before a desperate third attempt at a child, which resulted in the arrival of my brother. My mother stopped there, but several rural Rajasthani women can go up to six or seven girl children before a boy is born. Or if they are urban women, they have six or seven sex-selective abortions to remove female fetuses, since selective abortion and female infanticide routinely show higher numbers in urban centers than rural ones in Rajasthan.
In rural areas of Rajasthan, there were 866 girls per 1,000 boys from birth to 6 years old reported, compared with 789 in urban areas, according to a March 2014 study, reportedly reflecting easier access to fertility and abortion clinics in cities.
I was 6 when my sister was an infant and my mother was pregnant for the third time. “Pray for a brother this time,” I remember her repeating. I had stubbornly “prayed” for a sister earlier, envying my friends who played with their similar-aged sisters.
“What if he had been a girl?” I asked my mother more often, as I grew older. Her answers varied over the years. “I don’t know. . . . ,” she’d say, panic undulating across her face when I was a teenager. When I got hired by a leading newspaper in Delhi in my mid-20s, it was: “I would have dealt with it. I raised two girls, a third would have been no different.”
My sister had just graduated from India’s top hotel management school and was looking to start an assignment in Pune, a bustling metropolis 92 miles from Mumbai, where my brother had been accepted at a high-ranking state university.
Dealing with “it” must seem easier in retrospect. I never asked how my mother coped with finding no support from my father’s family or from her own when she sent my sister and me to a boarding school. The questions posed to her by the family suggested she lacked practical judgment. “Why are you wasting money on girls?” “Save it for their dowry, what will you do then?” “Why should the son study in a local school while your daughters enjoy all the privilege?”
My brother, then aged 3, went to a pre-prep school and routinely wet his pants, like most of his classmates. That, of course, had little bearing on “well-meaning” relatives, friends and neighbors who freely dispensed advice through our academic years.
“They’re just jealous,” my mother would say dismissively, even as she and my father sold some small piece of real estate to cover our fees. This information wasn’t disclosed to my sister or me till months later. I was 11 and didn’t take kindly to being kept out of such important decision-making.
But she did let slip that almost no one was happy with us studying at the boarding school. “Why do they hate me? I am so well behaved,” I wondered, even though no one would go as far to describe me that way. I soon discovered it wasn’t me they disliked but my gender. Not being a girl would save my family from the burden of feeding, raising, educating and paying a dowry for a daughter who would leave the house anyway. It’s still common in India for the daughter to live with her husband’s family.
Rajasthan is not alone in its skewed preference for sons. Upala Devi, a gender expert at the United Nations Population Fund, also lists Punjab, Haryana and Tamil Nadu as the states with the lowest female-to-male sex ratios in India.
“But its impact is visible in states as far as West Bengal, Orissa and the Northeast, where there’s an increase in trafficking of child brides for older men. There are almost no women left to marry,” Devi said in a telephone interview.
I can cook marginally better now than I did at 7, when I was emotionally paralyzed in the proximity of a stove. A few months ago, my mother sent me one of her first-ever emails. It contained recipes with “For when you don’t want to eat out” written in the subject line. My chances of finding an Indian husband who doesn’t care if I never step inside a kitchen remain slim and my career prospects as a full-time housewife even slimmer. But I’ll take those prospects any day over the possibility that I might never have been born.