Food and Society in The God of Small Things
Food is the source of pleasure on the one hand and the potential site of conflict amidst a number of political, economic, medical and moral issues, on the other. Taken in the entirety of these dimensions, food often comes to represent a culture. In
Food is Culture (2004) the renowned anthropologist Massimo Montanari had represented a firm historical and interdisciplinary orientation. Following him, we learn:
We only too readily associate the idea of food with the idea of nature. That linkage is, however, ambiguous and fundamentally inaccurate. The dominant values of the food system in human experience are, to be precise, not defined in terms of ‘naturalness,’ but result from and represent cultural processes dependent upon the taming, transformation, and reinterpretation of nature. (xi)
In other words, it is possible to study multiple aspects of the idea of food in terms of culture. Montanari had specified: “Food is culture
when it is produced … when it is prepared … [and] when it is eaten” (xi) I believe that at the very first stage, the production of food crops indicates the culture of a country. For instance, while in Western, cold countries, wheat is produced as the staple food-crop, in India, except in the dry western part, in the major, humid section of the country, rice, or rather, paddy-cultivation is most significant. Next, at the preparatory stage, it becomes significant whether (and to what extent) indigenous spices are used and the food prepared in the traditional, local method. Lastly, if one uses a spoon and a fork and eats at a table, a certain westernized cultural pattern emerges, because for thousands of years in India, the people, in general, have sat on the ground and used their fingers, to eat. I would argue that these instances further indicate that there is a crucial relationship between food-habit and class, in a given society. Montanari, too, had significantly named a chapter in his book as “Tell Me How Much You Eat and I’ll Tell You Who You Are”. Class and culture then, represented together by means of a society’s as well as an individual’s food consumption-pattern, serve to represent the idea of one’s identity.
In the context of India, food has been discussed in detail from the anthropological perspective. For instance, there is a recent book on
Transactions in Taste: The Collaborative Lives of Everyday Bengali Food (2010) by Manpreet K. Janeja. It is, however, not only the anthropological or social historical perspective that predominates. Asha Choubey’s literary criticism of Jhumpa Lahiri’s work has, as its premise, the idea of food as metaphor in diaspora writing. She has indicated that food becomes the basis of representation of nostalgia, ties and diasporic Indian identity in such literature. I mention these books and articles to show that there are various ways of negotiating the idea of food in the context of Indian culture and also that criticism of literary works can combine interdisciplinary studies in order to produce quite powerful readings in the area.
In this commentary, I propose not to discuss, macroscopically, the presentation of food in Indian literature(s) in a general way, but rather to concentrate on its depiction in one Indian English novel to find out what purpose food serves (other than nourishment) in such fictional representation in our times. I have chosen Arundhati Roy’s
The God of Small Things (1997) for this purpose. In the novel, I find that in terms of all three cultural criteria discussed by Montanari, namely production, preparation and intake of food, the novel critiques the Indian society and its alienation from the culture and ethos of certain sections within it by tracing the lives of the twins - Estha and Rahel - in the fictional setting of the small town of Ayemenem in Kerala from the 1960s to the 1990s.
The significance of rice, in Indian literature, as a cultural signifier cannot be overemphasized. In Roy’s novel, in addition to the usual significance of it as the staple diet-item, rice takes on an additional significance as the means of communication and establishment of ties, however tenuous, among communities, classes and cultures. Mentioning the historical fact, Roy describes the antecedents of Velutha, a scion of the untouchable
Paravan, in terms of rice: “When the British came to Malabar, a number of Paravans, Pelayas and Pulayas (among them Velutha’s grandfather, Kelan) converted to Christianity and joined the Anglican Church to escape the scourge of Untouchability. As added incentive they were given a little food and money. They were known as the Rice-Christians”(74). In the novel, in the 1990s, the significance of rice as staple food for the poor classes had remained undiminished: “Estha walked all over Ayemenem…. Past the ration shop that sold rice, sugar, and bananas that hung in yellow bunches from the roof…”(13).
Traditional food-habits of the local people, in the context of the novel, indicate that they belong to the lower classes, as perceived by upper-class characters like Baby Kochamma, the twins’ grandaunt. In the novel, in 1969, the family had travelled to the Cochin airport to receive the twins’ foreign cousin, Sophie and her English mother. At the airport, people from all over Kerala had come, to greet their foreign-returnee working–class relatives, “[o]n long bus journeys…. Some of them had camped at the airport overnight, and had brought their food with them. And tapioca chips and chakka velaichathu for the way back…. ‘Mostly sweeper class,’ Baby Kochamma said grimly….” (138). In contrast, on this occasion, during their overnight wait for Sophie and Margaret at a good hotel, this is what Oxford-educated Chacko (Margaret’s estranged husband, Sophie’s father and the twins’ maternal uncle) had eaten: “Roast chicken, finger chips, sweetcorn and chicken soup, two parathas and vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce” (114). In addition, in a further revelation of class and culture-based hierarchy, there would be “boiled water for Margaret Kochamma and Sophie Mol”, the foreigners, and “tap water for everybody else” (46). Again, in further contrast, in the 1990s, we find that Baby Kochamma, in her eighties’, would subsist on “cream buns… [and] rice-water instead of ordinary water” (29). Roy shows how the class privileges were not only reflected, but also consolidated through the choice of and ability to produce/procure food-items, over the decades.
In 1969, on the journey to Cochin, the family had crucially encountered a march organized by “the Travancore-Cochin Marxist Labour Union” demanding that “paddy workers, who were made to work in the fields… from seven in the morning to six-thirty in the evening – be permitted to take a one-hour lunch break” (69). However, it is the other part of their demand that revealed why it was inevitable that the poor people should have a food-culture that would be worlds apart from that of the upper classes: “That women’s wages be increased from one rupee twenty-five paisa a day, to three rupees, and men’s from two rupees fifty paisa to four rupees fifty paisa a day. They were also demanding that Untouchables no longer be addressed by their caste names”(69). In other words, it is the study of the history of economic and social causes that can enlighten us about a certain situation with regard to food as indicative of the citizens’ hierarchy. We note that in response to the march, the narrative comments pointedly: “Cardamom Kings, Coffee Counts and Rubber Barons… sipped chilled beer at the Sailing Club. They raised their glasses.
‘A rose by any other name…’ they said, and sniggered to hide their rising panic” (69).
It is not only the ability to buy costly food that marked the difference between the upper and lower classes and indicated the levels of their culture. In the way food is eaten, there is an indication of the social category a person belongs to. We learn, along with Rahel, in the novel, that “Aristocrats were people who didn’t… gobble” (84). Presumably, the poor people did it while eating. The Paravans were also supposed to smell so bad (because of their unhygienic eating and living habits?) that upper class people were not to be expected to tolerate it according to Baby Kochamma. When she learnt of the liaison between the Paravan Velutha and Ammu, the twins’ divorcee mother, her expression of disgust is expressed in terms of smelly food: “She said… ‘How could she stand the smell?...’ And she shuddered theatrically, like a child being force-fed spinach” (78).
If the orbits of power and powerlessness are seen to intersect with catastrophic results in the novel, as in Baby Kochamma’s hatred of the Paravan Velutha since the day of the march in Cochin and her subsequent lie resulting in the condemnation of him as Sophie’s murderer, then it might be said that the seeds of such class antagonism had been planted earlier, with the children Estha and Rahel acting unconsciously to anger their upper-class family-members against their friend Velutha. It must be noted that in conjunction with their mother’s love for him, it is their act of transgression of class and community boundaries in taking food at Velutha’s house that became a root cause and the symbol of class-conflict resulting in the persecution and death of the Paravan.
Velutha… lived in a little laterite hut, downriver from the Ayemenem house. A three-minute run through the coconut trees for Esthappen and Rahel…. They were forbidden from visiting his house, but they did…. His house (on a good day) smelled of… red fish curry cooked with black tamarind. The best fish curry, according to Estha, in the whole world. (78-79)
Sarah Sceats in the chapter called “The Food of Love” in her book, had written that “Food is a currency of love and desire, a medium of expression and communication…. The giving of food is a way of announcing connection, goodwill, love”(11). In a grotesque reversal of this situation, in Roy’s novel, it is the sharing of food between the untouchable Velutha and the upper-class children that is interpreted as an act of transgression. In a novel in which acts of transgression - social, emotional, sexual - form the basis of the narrative, it is the difficulty of keeping within limits that represents a root cause of disharmony. In the first chapter of the book, called “Paradise Pickles and Preserves”, we read of the twins’ grandmother’s homely enterprise of pickle-making turn into a factory run by her son Chacko. However, it is not Chacko’s dream of riches and grandeur that is born of the idea of making enormous profits out of the pickle-factory that is the only significant thing here. Rather, it is the way in which the production of pickles and their problematic classification is presented in Roy’s novel that becomes symbolical of the transgressive relations in the human society.
They used to make pickles, squashes, jams, curry powders and canned pineapples. And banana jam(illegally) after the FPO… banned it because according to their specifications it was neither jam nor jelly. Too thin for jelly and too thick for jam. An ambiguous, unclassified consistency, they said. As per their books. (30)
It is, however, not only the memory of difficulty of remaining within limits or acts of transgression symbolically represented in the banana jam-jelly confusion that remains with us at the end, but rather the children’s innocent love for and acceptance of Velutha’s food, cutting across classes and concepts of untouchability, that form and consolidate the impression of a positive aspect of Indian socio-cultural life. Through this micro-level study of the significance of food in a single novel, various facets of social, economic and political malaise in the Indian society are revealed.
Choubey, Asha. ‘Food as Metaphor in Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of
Maladies.’ The Postcolonial Web. Accessed on 22 Feb. 2011.
Janeja, Manpreet K. Transactions in Taste: the Collaborative Lives of Everyday Bengali Food. New Delhi: Routledge, 2010.
Montanari, Massimo. Food is Culture. Tr. Albert Sonnenfield. New York: Columbia UP, 2006.
Roy, Arundhati. The God of Small Things. New Delhi: IndiaInk, 1997.
Sceats, Sarah. Food, Consumption and the Body in Contemporary Women’s Fiction. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000.