A Moveable Feast

Between Fiction and Food

Shylashri Shankar is a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi
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Society and cultural identity in the culinary experience of regional imagination

WRITERS HAVE often used food as a metaphor to convey the essence of an Indianness. Spices (Hari Kunzru), chapatti (Kiran Desai, Amitav Ghosh), pickles (Arundati Roy, Salman Rushdie), etcetera, have been used to create a link between the flavour of the past and its values, and the present. These authors use specific dishes to highlight an ‘Indian’ identity; to portray the identity of a migrant, of an Indian abroad, of an exile who has left behind a multi-course gastronomic lavishness for a frugal, fast-food, and microwaved food existence. They tackle an India versus a non-India. It would be interesting to examine the identities that show up in the use of food by an author of regional Indian fiction whose challenge is to draw the contours of a much more local identity.

Gabriella Ferro-Luzzi describes the cultural uses of food in modern Tamil literature. While most Tamil writers pursue didactic intentions, and are thus likely to exaggerate an unsatisfactory situation to make a point or to express the ideal rather than actual behaviour, these exaggerations also portray values and beliefs, says Luzzi. Food themes, however, are incidental to the message the writer wants to convey, so he or she is less likely to have distorted them for didactic purposes, she says, in a review of 40 literary works by 14 Tamil writers. So what are the identity-characteristics associated with food in Tamil fiction?

First, unlike the Big Man of the Trobriand Island or the potlatch of the American-Indian where a wedding feast is an orgy of excesses to demonstrate the power and status of the person to the feasters, the Hindu wedding does not include wanton destruction of property or sacrifices of animals. Rather, sumptuous wedding feasts tend to be vegetarian even among those who eat meat.

Second, generally in most cultures, food expresses the hierarchy in a family, either through the type of food eaten by family members or through the order in which they eat. Little divides Homo sapiens from animals in the way power is expressed. The lion eats first, even though it is the lioness who tends to hunt for food. So in tribal communities, the chief eats first, and within families, the father eats first. However, in Hindu India, the quality of food eaten by the different family members, she says, has little relevance for ranking purposes. For instance, in some families the husband may eat meat, but the wife does not, but since meat does not have prestige associated with it, this fact does not express the man’s superior position. In fact, the wife’s vegetarianism expresses her concerns with purity, and hence with greater refinement. But precedence of the man in eating food first is given more weight and is reflected in Tamil literature. Breaches of this dictum reflect the rule. In a story by Rajanarayan, the breach serves a positive purpose—after the wedding, the longer the bride resists the groom’s advances to consummate the marriage, the greater her prestige. The story highlights her initial refusal of the husband’s wooing where he offers her the first rice ball he has made with his fingers. He goes back to work in the field, renouncing his own meal. In another story by Janakiraman, the father of a child bride runs with food after his daughter who is leaving with the in-laws (with whom he has fought). The father feeds her first to show his love, and then consumes some of the meal, but throws the rest away, indicating his anger at the in-laws for the sorrow they have caused him.

Third, the vegetarian/non-vegetarian divide, while not a clear indicator of caste rank, is a broad line between the highest and lowest castes. In one story, a Brahmin drunkard marries a Shudra woman, who feeds him meat when he is drunk. He gets accustomed to the taste, and the author comments that the Shudra wife has succeeded in making her Brahmin husband into a Shudra. Another divide is in the use of spices; in a marriage between a Velaja man and a Christian woman (probably a low-caste convert), the husband’s digestive tract cannot cope with the hot spices she uses in the food. The marriage ends in a divorce. However, the distinction between pure and impure food, she says, is more important for Indian culture than caste. In a modern retelling of an ancient Tamil poem, after a heroic and victorious battle with an elephant, the hungry tiger refrained from eating the elephant because it fell on its left side. The Hindu preference for the right side, for eating with the right hand, is projected on to the animal kingdom. One of the most polluting elements is saliva. In a humorous story by Putumaipittan, Siva in disguise accepts an invitation to a restaurant by his chosen devotee. Siva helps a fly extricate itself from the dregs of coffee left on the table by the previous patron. The devotee admonishes Siva for having touched coffee polluted by saliva. The term ‘eccil’ in Tamil is used for both saliva and for polluted food.

Fourth, like in other parts of the world, medical properties are attributed to food in the incidental mentions in folk tales and poems. In Rajanarayanan’s story, a doctor tests the severity of snake bite by making the victim chew pepper and soap powder. In another tale, which demonstrates the belief that eating meat is indispensable to creating strength, a demon blames his present weakness on the vegetarian diet. The demon has been transformed into an Indian bat, which unlike its European counterpart, is vegetarian.

Fifth, rituals and practices can be transgressed, and the penalties are highlighted by the stories. Some foods are intimately linked to rituals, and are mentioned in these stories. Tamarind rice and milk with sugar are offered as prasadam in south Indian temples. Coconuts are offered to deities. Any offering to divinity, naivedya, becomes polluted if it is consumed before it has been offered to the deity. This happens to a fictional beggar who steals some milk rice prepared for the village deity. The angry villagers go to punish him but find him dead. They attribute it to the wrath of God. But the stories also highlight some infractions that do not carry a penalty. A Vaishnava priest, in a story by Jeyakanthan, is shocked when he discovers an old beggar woman secretly enter the temple and offer her meal to Krishna before eating it. The God seems to like it and even loses weight when he is temporarily deprived of it. The implication is that cultural rules can be broken especially when done for the love of a human being or a god.

These cultural peculiarities are brilliantly captured by Tamil fiction authors, says Liuzzi. For instance, a poetic image created by Jeyapprakasam pays tribute to the Tamil custom of eating rice with the fingers and to rice: ‘When God had finished eating he shook away the rice grains that stuck to his fingers. They spread and transformed themselves into the stars.’

In other regional fiction too, as Utsa Ray in the Culinary Culture in Colonial India points out, we find that a region’s cultural tropes—the relationship between food taboos and caste and colonialism—emerge from how the characters handle food on the page. Inspector Sundar Babu, one of the chief characters in Hemendra Kumar Ray’s (1888–1963) detective fiction, would often assert emphatically that he adored the British because they had brought the chicken cutlet to Bengal, but he also celebrated the invention of sandesh and rasogolla by Bengalis. In Ray’s fiction, Bengali domestic servants could cook excellent potato salads and tea cakes. For the Bengali Hindu, the use of salt had the potential of making a food shakri, or unpalatable for anyone outside of one’s own caste. In the satire Debganer Martye Agaman, gods who had come to travel the earth note with astonishment that while Brahmins still held on to their sacred thread, they had no qualms having bread and biscuits prepared by Muslims. A 19th century advertisement for Bengal Milk Bread stated proudly that it was ‘machine made, untouched by hand’, meaning that Muslims had not touched it. Here the ‘other’ of a Bengali middle-class Hindu was a Muslim or a lower caste.

The Muslim literati too, in their novels, highlighted the difference between the simple meal of a middle-class Muslim as compared to that of a middle-class Hindu. In addition to rice, fish and vegetables, meat was highlighted as a staple for a Bengali Muslim. This ‘obsession with meat dishes in Muslim cuisine was often a reaction of the Bengali Muslims to the new vegetarian traits of the Bengali Hindu middle- class,’ says Utsa Ray. Eating beef became a major tenet of tracts that wanted to fashion a Muslim identity.

Utsa Ray highlights the point that the narrative of Bengali cuisine is as much about the celebration of domesticity and regional cosmopolitanism as about the fissures (between upper and lower castes, between Hindus and Muslims, between upper and lower classes) that helped in the self-fashioning of the Bengali middle-class.

What emerges from these explorations in regional fiction is the way food is used by authors to display social and political fragmentation, to draw boundaries of ‘us’ and the ‘other’, and to highlight the hybridity inherent in the lives and memories of the characters. The diversity and pluralism at the core of cuisine in India makes the use of food in regional fiction also echo Naipaul’s description of the country as ‘a million mutinies’.