The scenario, particularly pre-liberalisation, pre 6th Pay commission, and Maruti car influx, was that of a restrained, moderate, and frugal socio-economic life. Womenfolk, particularly mothers, were found to be overstretched beyond their chores. From cooking to attending to elders, children and spouses, then to store household items – the list would be open-ended. This would get compounded on account of prevalence of joint family system, harsh winters ,non-availability of washing rooms & kitchens. Arranging for morning tea and bread, with simultaneous cooking of lunch meals, with stuffing of brass/aluminium tiffin boxes required extra presence of mind, especially in a joint family.
In a joint family, in absence of attached bathrooms, mostly with a single common bathroom, sleeping late & rising early was a painstaking effort for them, particularly during winters. “Women first” credo would see a reversal.
They used to undergo an arduous task of firewood burning in earthen chulahs (stoves). Usage of large & heavy copper utensils would further add to their discomfort not to forget the gruelling exercise of grinding & stirring of black beans or mincing of meat/spices. There, however, would be no end to the extra striving regimes with late night routine of daubing of chulahs & utensils from underneath, besides preserving of charcoal cinders for subsequent use in nun chai (salt tea), storing samovars, preparation of which used to be another time consuming & patience testing process. This has now been a forgotten practice thanks to pressure cookers & plastic kettles.
Sparing time for attending children, particularly in a joint family, would ask for an indomitable spirit which they were endowed with. This would involve them in facilitating blackening of wooden tablets (takhtiyan), glossing these with broken ceramic cup pieces/green leaves, line marking by strings dipped in grey coloured clay mixture, sharpening of reed-pens with dexterity from trimming to nib-cutting to splitting with occassional stress of these becoming stumpy or imbalanced. Maintenance of hygienic conditions for the children used to be another challenge.The irritating exercise of ridding children off the louse used to be an agonising stress upon them as it would invariably involve their physical interventions constraining them to get their hair shaved off during winters in particular. The evening fomentation exercise to address the complaints of frostbites & frost nips with datura/baking powder laced warm water used to be an anguish during winters followed by applying of vaseline/glycerin gels, salt floated warm mustard oil.
In view of limited & time restricted transport facilities, besides the culture of longer stay of relatives and friends,tending to them would be an additional toil.
Evidently out of faith, they were supposed to prepare tehri , jeera milk rice (doudi veigri), especially on Fridays, besides sustaining the practice of serving rice mixed with sheep trotters/head meat(tathil batti) in a wooded trough (for children of near ones and neighbours) every time a child would recuperate from smallpox.
In absence of washing machines, laundry was another strenuous task eventually taking a heavy toll on their physical agility. The rinsing of clothes in freezing water during winters, beating of linen on washboards with washing paddles, physically applying home made/local soap cakes instead of sprinkling of powders – all this was were undisputedly exacting.
In some areas womenfolk used to ferry loads full of chestnut (Trapa natans) leaves (mainly for cows) over their scarf covered heads & in rural areas the firewood with subsequent storage for rainy days. Aching scenes of a beeline of women carrying water filled pitchers precariously rested over their heads with head-ring supports would be a regular feature in some areas.
To forestall the wear & tear besides sprucing up of clay house walls, regular daubing of these with clay/mud & straw mixtures & with grey coloured clay would add to their responsibilities, specifically on eve of festivals/marriages.
It used to be an unfailing exercise for them to ensure hay filled cattle pens, arranging for cattle large water troughs, tending cow while calving, getting relieved at the sight of the delivery of a female calf (heifer calf). Cleaning the cowsheds, and in some cases making dung cakes for subsequent fuel usage, would also fall in their task rosters.
Masterly use of mortars & pestles for grinding & crushing of ingredients, a task ideally incompatible with their physique, but eased by their dexterity & mental strength, cannot be forgotten. Their complementary role in rice thrashing & winnowing would lead to the fructification of the yearly labour of the entire family.
Interestingly they would seldom let the perennially worn Pheran come in the way of these pursuits.