Go back to article: Refrigerating India

Work migration

Another source of changing ideas about the appropriateness and uses of household appliances is Kerala’s extensive work migration. Anthropologist Arjun Appadurai (1996) coined the term ‘workscape’ to capture the expanding geographical space which encompasses home and work for many people in the Global South. The practice of finding work outside Kerala yet maintaining a house and household in Kerala has a long history, partly due to the state’s high priority on education. Many of Kerala’s doctors, nurses, engineers, teachers and administrators have found work in the Oman Gulf countries (such as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia), and more recently in places further afield such as Singapore, Europe, Australia and North America. In Trivandrum in 2002, forty per cent of all families had at least one close family member (spouse, sibling, aunt or uncle, cousin) working abroad. Migrants typically maintain strong ties with their family in Kerala, travel back to Kerala often and in many cases split the nuclear family between geographically separated households, with the male head of household working abroad while his wife and children remain in Kerala.

In their places of work abroad, migrants encounter new household practices involving the routine use of appliances such as refrigerators and washing machines. I found that these work migrants often bring both the appliances and the associated practices with them back to their Kerala households. They are distributed through the migrant’s extended family through dowry and other forms for gifting expected of work migrants. The following graph shows ownership of selected household appliances in families with or without a close family member working outside India.

Some description

Graph 2: Ownership of selected appliances comparing families with a family member working outside India (overseas) versus families with no family member working outside India (no overseas), based on a survey of 408 households in four neighbourhoods in Trivandrum, Kerala, in 2002 (Wilhite, 2008a)

The graph shows that families with a close member working abroad are 19 per cent more likely to own a refrigerator. Interviews revealed that the families of work migrants were much less concerned about potential health problems associated with storing cooked foods or imbibing of cold drinks. They were more likely to purchase ready-made and frozen foods. Gopal, a Hindu Ezhava who had spent much of his life in Kuwait with his work migrant parents, found it puzzling that there was still reticence in Kerala households towards exploiting the full convenience potential of the refrigerator. He said this in an interview (Wilhite, 2008a, p 101):

The refrigerator, the tradition over here is that you prepare for the day and you try to finish it or you throw it out. So there is a lot of wastage. We in the Gulf, we preserve. Both my parents were working and they made the food for a week and we utilised it each day. They used to cook on a Friday which was a holiday for them. She [his mother] would take a part for the daily use and then warm it up. So there it was a necessity, so we continued that necessity back here. But my wife finds it difficult to eat this. Even if they [the typical Malayalee] have a refrigerator in their house it is not put to much use. They don’t think it is a great necessity. So it is a luxury for them and for us it is a great necessity.

The differences in attitude to refrigeration were brought home to me in the tension that the use of the refrigerator created between Gopal and his mother Cavita on the one side and his wife Kahina on the other. Cavita had worked in Kuwait much of her adult life. The apartment furnished by her employer had a refrigerator and several other modern appliances. She had a full-time job working as a nurse. She used the refrigerator to help her save time on meal preparation by preparing large portions of food and storing the rest for later meals. Shortly after their retirement and return to Kerala, Cavita and her husband arranged a marriage for Gopal with Kahina, a young woman from a small village in central Kerala. Kahina had never had a refrigerator in her home and believed fully in the negative health consequences of storing and reheating food. Cavita, as mother-in-law and head of the household insisted that Kahina follow the practice that she had established in Kuwait: preparing large amounts of food for several days of meals, keeping the food refrigerated and reheating small portions for subsequent meals. In a conversation I had with all of the family members present, Kahina told me that she found this practice ‘disgusting’. Differences over food and refrigeration practices became a source of serious conflict that continued throughout my first year of contact with the family. It became so acute that Kahina was on the verge of moving back to her parent’s home. When I visited the family a year later they had reached a compromise. Kahina prepared some dishes from scratch, mainly for her own consumption, but she had gone along with Cavita’s wish to cook food for the rest of the family in large quantities, store it in the refrigerator and reheat it for weekday meals. Thus despite conflict and resistance, a new consumption practice had gotten a foothold in this transnational household.

These new practices associated with the refrigerator picked up momentum in the two decades after the economic liberalisation. Sales in refrigerators in India tripled over the ten-year period from 2007 to 2016. The decline in reticence to buy and use the refrigerator paved the way for an increase in fast foods and frozen foods. The sale of ready-to-eat and packaged food increased at an average annual rate of 32.5 per cent between 2010 and 2015 (Mathews, 2016). A new refrigeration-based cooking regime (refrigerator, freezer, mixmaster, and microwave) is rapidly taking hold in Indian middle-class households. As has been the case elsewhere, this is increasing the use of refrigeration throughout the chain of food provision. The number of food retail stores that have refrigerated sections is increasing as is the total amount of space dedicated to refrigerated foods (Sood and Mishra, 2015). Sood and Mishra report that soft drink sales are also booming. In 2013, India’s population of 1.25 billion people consumed 11,755 million litres of soft drinks, an increase of 170 per cent from 2008.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/180903/007