The concept of communal cooking has always interested me. When I was 8, my father took me to visit a gurudwara, where the mechanism of langar fascinated me immensely. I found it difficult to understand how and why people from different walks of life would eat for free at the gurudwara, and in return offer to wash dishes, cook or provide raw ingredients for the next meal. As I grew older, my understanding of communal cooking extended from the gurudwara to community kitchens in the global West. Community kitchens allow groups of people to pool in whatever resources they can, to meet regularly and cook healthy, inexpensive food, either to take back home to their families or to distribute to disadvantaged communities. Providing an opportunity to “share skills, socialize and reduce costs by purchasing collectively”, community kitchens have benefits ranging from feeding the poor and homeless, generating jobs, popularising nutritious foods of different ethnic and indigenous origins and finally, offering a space to laugh, bond, meet new people and enjoy good food (Priesnitz, n.d.).
The AIF Clinton Fellowship journey for me, is akin to the concept of community cooking. Innumerable people, from the Clinton Fellowship Program (CFP) team, my cohort, my host organisation, my family and I, are bringing resources to the table, to make this fellowship journey productive and complete. In the first-ever virtual start to the fellowship year, our Orientation was reimagined in an online format, wherein both the CFP team as well as my fellow cohort members attempted to make the most of our learnings, both professional and personal, during the limited time frame of a Zoom meeting stretched out over two weeks. Having lived in a hostel, away from my family for the past four years, I was also apprehensive about the new temporary ‘work-from-home’ norm. And yet, as I scrambled from one online session to the other, my family provided nothing but steadfast support, from cups of coffee to even just reminding me to drink water. My project supervisor attended online sessions with me, patiently waited as Zoom links failed and new ones had to be made, and very kindly asked me to rest well after a long day of sessions. During my first meeting with my host organisation, the entire team at Prajwala Sangham went out of their way to make me feel welcome, by sharing inside jokes, translating bits of Telugu for me and sharing personal stories. Despite the many miles separating me and the team, I already felt at home.
If the fellowship is a community kitchen, what, then, am I ‘cooking’? While different fellows from my cohort head out to work in a variety of geographical and thematic settings, I will be working with Prajwala Sangham in Hyderabad, an organisation that focusses on gender sensitisation using alternative media such as theatre, music and art. Conducting workshops with women prisoners, police officers, school children, women from urban low-income groups, orphanages, etc., Prajwala Sangham spreads their message of gender awareness across a diverse set of communities. While most gender trainings in India are court or employer mandated and are conducted with rote-learning, non-participatory methods, Prajwala Sangham’s approach is different. Their form of delivery is primarily playback theatre, a powerful medium of storytelling that provides workshop participants deeply personal insights, moments of empowerment, and ways of connecting and learning from their own stories of trauma, discrimination, violence or sorrow.
The benefits gained from conducting gender trainings in this manner are many. As personal stories are shared and enacted, a policeman ends up reflecting on his own actions with, and stereotypes about, the women at his workplace and at his home. A female prisoner opens up about her loneliness in prison, how she doesn’t have an outlet for her emotions and sorrow. A school child spontaneously performs a mime depicting her fears of growing up female in India, meanwhile, her male classmates pause and reflect on their peer’s story – realising how their lives are so similar and yet, a world apart. Would this level of insight have been possible had these trainings been conducted in the usual way, with the trainer droning on in front of a PowerPoint presentation on gender? I am inclined to think not.
If gender sensitisation is what’s on the menu at our community kitchen, the questions that remain with me are, what can I bring to the table? What can I take away? During my college years, my understanding of gender drew from the works of subaltern feminists such as Angela Davis, Toni Morrison and Shailaja Paik, to my own experiences facing intimidation and humiliation as one of the few female students in the debate club and football field. I don’t claim bravado, here, on the contrary, I quickly gave up both these pursuits, feeling quite out of place in the midst of so many boys. Feminism is easy in theory, not so much in practice.
With my work at Prajwala Sangham, I hope to be able to break down my somewhat ‘textbook’ understanding of gender inequality, mobilising feminist theory out of academia and making it accessible and usable in everyday interventions. And, after a long day (or eight months rather) cooking in the community kitchen, there will be much I can take back with me at the end of the fellowship journey – from new skills and the confidence gained from these (I am only a few more Zoom playback theatre sessions away from losing my camera-shyness!), long-lasting connections with the wonderfully talented people at Prajwala Sangham, and insight into some of the ways in which gender inequalities are being tackled in ‘the real world’. Of course, in a blog piece on kitchens, I would be remiss to not mention the many plates of Hyderabadi biryani I hope to consume as soon as I am deployed to my placement site. For now, let’s get cooking!
Priesnitz, Wendy. n.d. “Communal Food: The Community Kitchen Movement”. Accessed November 19th, 2020. https://www.life.ca/naturallife/0306/communal-food-community-kitchens.htm
 A langar, in Sikhism, is a community kitchen of a gurudwara (a Sikh place of worship).
 For more on playback theatre, read: