Khichdi-fictions: Thought for Food
Goods books should to be chewed and digested, Bacon once remarked. Words are savoury, aromas waft through pages and the nuggets of meanings hidden in-between lines can sustain one for a life time. But then, there is an insatiable hunger – for more words, aromas, more of those life-sustaining nuggets. The ancient raconteurs and the modern writers have cut, marinated, and sautéed words; seasoned them with human emotions, and have served on the platter ethereal philosophies through edible matter. We have consumed with gusto pages in which culinary nostalgia abounds and have relished passages where fictional food appears on imagined tables, the literary belch reminds us of the sumptuous text that was fed, and yet we don't really give it a serious thought. Several scholars hint that the reason why food is so widely narrativized, yet mostly trivialized, is because the Western philosophical tradition upholds the mind over matter. Food is too concrete, too carnal to be taken seriously, and when transposed into the realm of symbolism, food could be too elusive, it evades categorization.
A K Ramanujan, one of the early scholars to sense this inherent paradox in food, identified food as a system of signification, not different from language itself. Writings from India seem to be embedded with food along with its inherent paradoxes. With such astounding diversity of customs, variety of languages, stark contradiction in the social class in the country, and influences of the ancient and the post-modern, we are a khichdi ('kedgeree' of the British Raj) of cultures and our writings represent the khichdification (khichdi-fictions?) of our identities through food.
It may seem a little simplistic to deduce that authors writing about food are inadvertently writing about identity formation. However, writing about food is definitely one of the most effective ways to comment on the sexual, social, ethnic or (trans)national identity of the author and to some extent of the corresponding community. The images of food scattered in literatures from India have different stories to tell about the subcontinent – of surpluses and of starvation, of the feeders, the eaters and the consumed.
This feature explores not only multiple sites but also sights and smells of food scenes in Indian writing. Literary functions of food are variegated, but it constantly underscores identity, especially identities of the marginalized or minority individuals and communities. Almost all the assorted items in the feature try to show this in different ways. In the email interview, the noted writer Esther David remarks that she uses food in her fiction to preserve Jewish heritage in India. Anshu Kujur in her analytical article explores David's Book of Rachel even further to see how food empowers females of this minority community. While Vetri Selvi delves into Parsi food customs in the fiction of Rohinton Mistry, Stuti Goswami analyses the significance/signification of food in the Karbi community in the Assamese novel Rongmilir Hahi superbly. Kameshwari Ayyagari has presented a meticulous social history of food documented in a wide gamut of literary and non-literary Indian texts from the ancient times to the 19th century fiction. Amrit Sen re-reads the famous chemist from Bengal Prafulla Chandra Ray's treatise on food as contributing to the formation of the Bengali culinary identity before independence and Anwesha Chakraborty looks at the changing tastes of the Indian middle class through food writings after Independence. Debashree Basu looks at the socio-cultural conflicts as depicted by food in some Hindi and Indian English short stories. Article by Maneeta Kahlon covers food images in several Indian English fictional works, while Barnali Dutta and Debarati Bandyopadhyay focus on theorizing Jhumpa Lahiri’s and Arundhati Roy's works respectively. If the scholarly articles are the main course of the feature, review of Mita Kapur's The F-Word by Ambika Ananth, food poems by Jeya Kirtana and Sumana Roy, two endearing short stories by Anjali Gera Roy and Rumjhum Biswas can be treated as dessert of this food fare. Finally, the essay by Maryam Ala Amjadi adds a freshness to it, like aniseeds after meals.
Enjoy wholeheartedly the sumptuous spread !