From a big kitchen to bigger ones: Manila Tamrakar

I can only imagine how happy my family members must have been when I was born. I was the first grandchild to be born in my house. A Laxmi is born, someone must have said. In an extended family, led by grandparents, I must say that I definitely grew up pampered. But I wasn’t spoilt. At a very early age, I had started to take care of all my younger siblings.

We grew up playing in the little courtyard of our house in Dhokatole, Kathmandu. I had to be my sibling’s parent and friend at the same time. We’d play, study and eat together. I remember, each lunch and dinner was like a feast. Fifteen family members eating at the same time turned any ordinary meal into a Newar jho-bhwe style feast. My mother and aunties would prepare food and I’d help them by going to the market, buying vegetables and essentials.

Looking back, I’d say that my family was not that conservative when it came to educating the girl child. I was sent to the neighborhood girls-only school where I completed my school leaving certificate. I also completed my intermediate from Shankar Dev Campus. My brothers and cousins went to co-ed schools. Back in those days, parents would worry about their girls ‘reputation’. They believed that educating girls too much would make them ‘spoilt’ – their way to describe independent women those days. I was a decent student and doing well with my studies. I had plans to enroll into a bachelor’s study.

But I raised my concern over my study –
they said I could continue it after my marriage.

Meanwhile, a wedding proposal arrived from a well-to-do family. One evening, I was taken to the market in the pretext of buying clothes for Dashain. But the motive was that the man would get to see his probable wife-to-be. I had no choice of agreeing or disagreeing to it. But in my head, I was clear that I should focus on my studies. ManilaTamrakar_sheisthestory_1My birth astrological chart was taken to match with his. It matched perfectly they said. We weren’t raised to question our elders. In those days, you could not even raise your eyebrows to your parents. The wedding got fixed. But I raised my concern over my study – they said I could continue it after my marriage.

I was just 19 years old when I got married and moved from one giant family to another. I felt everything emotionally that a 19 years old ambitious girl would think to be sent to another family all of a sudden. I can’t even express the level of anxiety, pressure, embarrassment, nervousness that I had on those days.

I became another hand to help in the chores of this new unfamiliar house. I became another assistant in the kitchen where they’d cook food for another big family. I got scared to see the rice-cooker my in-laws would be cooking rice in. I remember the first day in the kitchen quivering until I finished making cauliflower curry for them. Although I grew up in a big family, I never had to cook at home. I would often make mistakes. Miscalculating portions, adding less or more salt, under or over-cooking kept happening. Gradually I got accustomed to it and life in the big kitchen got normal.

ManilaTamrakar_sheisthestory_3True to their word, my in-laws let me join college for my bachelor’s. I’d wake up in the morning at 4am to not miss any classes. I’d try to focus on my studies in-between my family responsibilities. Regardless of having too much chores to do, I completed my bachelor’s. I promptly enrolled myself into a Master’s program as well but I got pregnant and gave birth. A girl. Laxmi is born in the house, someone had said. After the child, it became impossible to continue my education. I had completed a semester of the Master’s program too but that went in vain. 6 years passed being a mother and then we had another baby. This time a girl child again, but not a definite Laxmi this time. Some of my in-laws were not that happy with a second girl child. I heard them saying “Oh no, not a girl again!”

But it didn’t matter to me. What mattered most, was my husband being happy about it. I knew I would be forced to have another child and try for a boy next time. Various nonchalant ways of putting pressure on me didn’t stop. Right then, my husband got transferred to Pokhara to work in the industrial estate, in a bakery factory. In one hand, it was a blessing to stop being pressured to have another child, on the other hand – I’d have to leave my families behind. We moved with two girls, one was only six-months new, to this new city to start our livelihood from scratch, with heavy hearts far away from all familiar faces. It took me a couple of months to get used to life in the new city but I adapted. Slowly my kids adapted too.

ManilaTamrakar_sheisthestory_2Years passed, we upgraded from our bakery factory into the restaurant business. I had both my children going to one of the best school in the city. I wanted them to get better education than me under any circumstances. Amidst all those days of business going up and down, we made sure their education wasn’t hindered. Today, both my girls have completed their bachelors and are successfully working in their respective fields. And I’m sure they’ll pursue an even higher level of education soon, unlike their mother.

Big utensils, same big rice-cookers, lots of food and vegetables.
It is a nostalgia I’m living in here even after so many years
of leaving my born place.

My husband and I own a chain of restaurants now. I am a supervisor in the cafeteria of Manipal Teaching Hospital. I make sure the food provided in there is healthy. I overlook and take care of 70 staff members who help us run the business. I feed doctors and nurses nutritious food so they can take care of others. But even today, after all these years, whenever I go into the kitchen, I feel like a small kid peeking into the kitchen of my house. Big utensils, same big rice-cookers, lots of food and vegetables. It is a nostalgia I’m living in here even after so many years of leaving my born place. It’s sentimental how I see my regular customers as my family members sharing their food experiences. I listen to their compliments and grievances about our food. I answer them, “not everyone has the same taste, we’ll make sure to match up to yours next time,” like I’d answer to my in-laws back in my Kathmandu home.

I never thought I would be in a position of leadership, entrepreneurship, and independence as I am now. After I was married off so young, I thought my life would be spent inside the 4 walls of my house. But here I am, successfully leading an army of staff.  I’m 52 now.  If I have to define life, I’d say – Life is like a hot-and-sour soup. It’s filled with sweet and spicy memories together. You keep stirring and sipping it, once spoon at a time. At times I step back and appreciate the life I have today, blessed with a supportive husband and two aspiring girls. Aspired to become ‘spoilt’ women – their way to describe independent women these days.

 

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Laxmi – a hindu goddess of wealth.
Jho-bhwe – a traditional feast where people sit on the floor and eat.
Dashain – a hindu festival.
Pokhara – a lake city in the western Nepal.

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Photo Credit : Manila Tamrakar, Bikkil Sthapit

 

 

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