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Debasree Basu - Gastro-Cultural Conflicts

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Food for Thought - The Gastro-Cultural Conflicts.

In its social capacity, food functions to comfort its recipients in a variety of ways: as a diversion from unpleasantness, consolation in distress and proof of order despite apparent chaos all around. But food also provides a measure for social functioning and conditioning. It gives entrance to human commonalities and particulars of individual characterizations. Examining such social issues of food in certain texts of Indian literature, this paper shall attempt to provide an insight into the cultural nuances of plot and subtleties of interpersonal dynamics.

Food may serve as symbol for our intimacies, but the subjects of consumption are often necessarily the Other. Any transgression in that context, risks fundamental social censure as embodied in the figures of ageing bodies, widows and pregnant females. The scarcity of food becomes the sole focus for characters so afflicted, disabling their social functioning. Perpetual hunger, whether out of poverty, deprivation or sheer denial, leads to obsession with food: always thinking about it, dreaming of it, talking about it. The object is consumed, but the subject is fed. Food then no longer remains a source of sustenance alone it gets transformed into a locus of conflicts meted out in the act of eating. The eating figure becomes a territory constantly challenged by the invading food and intruding hunger. 

Food figures prominently in fiction about old people. The theme of food may not be pivotal yet numerous narratives acknowledge old people’s desire for rich and fine food. Such narratives often signify the expression of displaced desire as opposed to old age which is stereotypically considered to be a desire-free domain. Food provides a point of entry into the contestation between the various sets of binary opposites staged at the site of the ageing body.

In his well-known story “Burhi Kaki”, Munshi Premchand tales an unnamed elderly aunt, a childless widow whose nephew Buddhiram ceases to care for her once she writes over her property to him. She suffers because she has no one. Her two great grand nephews would persecute her, one would pinch her and flee and the other would douse her with water. The aunt would shriek and start to cry. But it was assumed that she only cried for food, so no one paid any attention to her grief and cries of distress. 

The aunt is reduced to a voice identified solely with her demands upon her family for food; she is not heard otherwise. Though she is marginalized, the aunt remains conceived by her relations as an active competitor in the chapati wars within the contested economy of the hearth. Premchand notes that old age is often a return to childhood which is manifested here as a return to the mind’s identification with the mouth and its paired functions of eating and lament. 

Buddhiram organizes a feast to celebrate his son’s engagement ceremony or tilak. The old aunt smells all the food being prepared. But she is afraid to incur the wrath of her grand niece-in-law if she steps near the hearth. She cannot control herself however, and twice comes out of her room at inappropriate times to ask for a puri or a piece of bread. Both the times, she is soundly scolded and sent back without anything, and in the end she is forgotten about. Her great grand niece, the only family member sympathetic to her in the family, leads her during the night to the soiled plates of the guests, where the old Brahman aunt stuffs the polluted leftovers into her mouth. The story ends not in the chaos of the voice and then death, but towards a reclaimed adulthood, when the daughter-in-law horrified by such a sight, feeds the aunt with proper decorum. 

The invader who causes the disgust is food, which is seen as something dirty and repulsive surfacing the dehumanization of the female body. The moral quality of food gets highlighted where the aunt’s perpetual “assumed” cry for food is treated in terms of sinfulness her urge to eat is viewed as a fall from grace. The image of an animal associated with her depicts hunger as a wild beast, tearing, clawing and going berserk in the stomach. It captures both the physical pain of hunger and the picture of a predator savagely tearing its prey into pieces. 

Gita Hariharan’s “The Remains of the Feast” is a first person narrative account of a young woman’s memories of the last days in the life of her great-grandmother, a ninety year old Brahmin widow, whose entire life has been dictated by the rules of class, caste, gender and religion. It begins with the discovery of a suspicious lump on her neck. This confirmed vegetarian, who had never eaten anything but pure home cooked food, develops a craving for the forbidden foods from the nearby bazaar. Her all-consuming appetite becomes a mission that confronts the authority of a religio-cultural discourse concerned with self-control and salvation. She burps, she farts: transgressing all ‘serious’ social manners, marring her community esteem. With these gestures, she bestows upon her a status of a non-conformist. Pulling her arm free of the tubes and needles, she screams, “Bring me peanuts with chilli powder…onion and green chilli bondas deep-fried in oil”. (p.15). Her choice of food and subsequent consumption become two of the most significant manifestations of the ‘grotesque’ mode of representing the body, transgressing its own limits, enriching itself at the world’s expense. The cancer which consumes her triggers within her a counter-appetite for reclaim. 

Anita Desai’s “A Devoted Son” considers food as a material object. This narrates the story of an illiterate vegetable-seller whose lower middle class life is completely transformed when his only son grows up to become a successful doctor. Problems arise when the son’s obsession towards the physical well-being of his father takes the form of strict dietary restrictions. The father objects to the fact that he is not given enough to eat, loathes the life he lives and subsequently perishes. This pattern of increasing control over the old man’s consumption is legitimized in the name of filial duty manifested in the son’s preoccupation with granting his father a fresh lease of life. The son’s version of health and hygiene, thereafter equated with modern science is brought into conflict with the Other. The son decides on behalf of the father that the prolongation of life is important in itself; the father on the other hand, finds death more desirable than a joyless hanging onto life. 

The generational scuffle over food is one of disputable authority and the father’s appetite a gesture to gain a foothold over his life which has been taken away from him supposedly for his own good. It is through the appetite that the ego establishes its own domain, distinguishing its inside from the outside. But it is also in this assertion, that the father’s frontiers of subjectivity are most precarious. Through his desire for food, the father on one hand resists the regimen enforced by the sun and on the other the traditional belief that in old age the importance of food should be morally appropriate and agreeable. The story shows how power rests on those who consume, control and distribute food. Unable to control what he eats, the father is disempowered and voices his resistance in terms of a spiritual plea for release from life. 

Kabita Singha’s short story “Khudha” (Hunger) presents two women Sumati and Ranjabati located at diverse socio-economic strata of society, whose lives strangely ‘interpenetrate’ and ultimately share a common outcome. Sumati, a part-time maid at Ranja’s household and a “night enchantress” is shown to have experienced the pain of greedy, shameless hunger. Getting up at dawn and sitting on one’s haunches to eat other people’s discarded rice and bread, was something that Ranja had not known. Her household had not yet been afflicted by hunger. Hunger is dressed with a militant metaphor when Singha describes Sumati’s reaction on seeing food, “Sitting in front of Ranja’s room, Sumati felt a strange feeling deep in her stomach, secreting corrosive juices which slowly would drip towards the digestive system and then when they didn’t get any sustenance, their turbulence would hit her nerves, looking for weapons.”

In a dramatic twist of tale, Ranja’s secured domestic bliss is shattered when her husband loses his job. The feeling of hunger that was once alien to her, invades her physiologically when she puts big dollops of food into her mouth in a greedy fashion becoming completely oblivious of the nuances of her status. The thorn of new life that pricked inside the wombs of the women becomes the toughest contestant in the battle of sustenance, so much so that both decide to terminate their respective pregnancies. Their bodies become a territory which needs to be kept barren in order to be kept alive. 

In all these texts, food and food imagery function as signifiers for personal and interpersonal identity. As discussed above, control over food is used to symbolize self-control and control over one’s environment. Indulgence with food is a similar indicator for intimacy- or at least the desire for intimacy. Objects of desire become food for the subjects. Relationships are established, strained and maintained through food. Food heals; wounds, conveys sensuality, provides the substance of intimacy and also shows the complexities of consumption between the subject and the object.

In analyzing cultural representations of consumption, I would like to focus on the figure of the Hindu widow and her unique relationship to food and cooking.

We might begin with Levi-Strauss’ classic premise that food emotions are just a learnt aspect of cultural conduct and member shipping which however, contribute powerfully to the creation and maintenance of social boundaries, kinship systems and power hierarchies. I quote below from an essay by Edmund Leach1 which comments tersely on the Levi-Strauss paradigm:

What Levi-Strauss is getting at is this. Animals just eat food and food is anything available, which their instincts place in the category “edible”. But [amongst] human beings, it is the conventions of society, which decree what is food and not food and what kinds of food shall be eaten on what occasions… And the significant thing about such categories is that they are accorded very different levels of social prestige. Some foods are appropriate only to men; others only to women…….Cooking is thus universally a means by which nature is transformed into culture and categories of cooking are always peculiarly appropriate for use as symbols of social differentiation.

When she loses her husband, the traditional Hindu widow, as we know, is transformed overnight into a living ghost, literally deprived of many of her human rights. She must dress in strictest white and she is allowed to eat only the most limited of vegetarian fare- epitomized by boiled rice. How did an individual Hindu widow then, deal with this manner of surviving in a suddenly harsh de-familiarized world following her husband’s death? I presume that they contrived to beat the system by exploiting the very food taboos placed on them- given that restrictions were placed on their eating and not cooking.

Although I have not historically researched this hypothesis, but I find that it receives encouraging support from Rukmini Nair’s paper Are We What We Eat? and also from Chitrita Banerjee’s perceptive 1995 piece on Bengali widowhood2 where she writes that the appearance in the elaborate Bengali cuisine of lots of utterly delicious items made from vegetable odd-ends such as chorchri3, chechki4, and the like, was a direct, recuperative contribution of the brutally treated Bengali widows to Bengali cookery. 

Despite deprivations, household drudgery and the imposition of many fasts, widows often lived to great old age, and the gifted cooks among them have contributed greatly to the range, originality and subtlety of Hindu vegetarian cooking in Bengal. In doing so she remains till date, an amazing emblem of India’s emotional and social inventiveness in the face of tremendous odds.

I would like to offer a ‘millenial parody’ as Nair describes it that appeared in a leading newspaper commenting on Monica Ali’s much discussed, Booker nominated novel, Brick Lane but, revealingly, it does so through the medium of food and via-the theme of the culture-wars so bitterly fought out today in down-market immigrant, ‘post-colonial’ restaurants everywhere:

Ei Monica Ali meichele aekebare chomotkar, no doubt. This Monica Ali is a singularly brilliant women, no doubt and I am saying this to you not as some bajetaje, useless-fuseless literary critic…I am saying this to you as one long-time genuine resident of Brick Lane, London…. What to do? I once tried, truly! I tried to start a bonafide Bangladeshi restaurant in London, where I offered typical Bangla delicacies like

shorshe mach (mustard fish curry) and chorchori (mixed fried veggies). How you’re liking our typical Bangla ranna, I asked my customers. And they said: Where is the bleeding CTM (Chicken Tikka Masala) I eat when I always come here? That’s all that Bangladeshi restaurants, which are known as Indian restaurants, are ever allowed to serve in Britain……….This is worse than divide and rule, this is deride and drool……But now, the Bangals of Brick Lane can emerge in their true colors…5 

Food stands at the gateway of nature and culture and needs its own history and analysis: it involves the choice made to penetrate body with otherness, the point where biological given- hunger-meets and becomes indistinguishable from the cultural marker- appetite. And before that appetite terminates, the delicacies should be consumed. But if one succeeds in guiding the reader into the pathway that questions the politics of such sustenance and arouses a greater desire to know about its gastro-political contestations, then it would all have been worthwhile.

End Notes

1 This essay has been referred to in Rukmini Nair’s paper,later cited in the bibliography.
2 Banerjee’s work What Bengali Can and Cannot Eat, is also referred to in Nair’s paper.
3 Usually a vegetable dish of one or more items, where they are cut into longish strips and lightly seasoned with ground spices.
4 Tiny pieces of vegetables usually flavored with paanch phoron(five flavors)
5 Jug Suraiya, The Times of India, October 2003.


Banerjee, Chitrita Life and Food in Bengal. London: George Weidenfield and Nicholson Ltd, 1991

--------------------- “Bengali Boti” Online posting 2 Dec

2003.Gastronomica. 1.2(2001)
27 February 2007 <<>>

Chakraborty,Taponath Food and Drink in Ancient Bengal Calcutta: Gossain & Co. Private Ltd., 1959.

Cohen, Lawrence. No Aging in India: Alzheimer’s, the Bad Family and Other Modern
. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998 Excerpts. 15 March 2007 < >

Desai, Anita. “A Devoted Son” The Penguin Book of Modern Indian Short Stories. New Delhi, Middlesex, New York: Penguin Books, 1991, pp. 92-101.

Goody, Jack. Cooking Cuisine and Class: A Study in Comparative Sociology. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

Hariharan, Gita. “The Remains of the Feast”, The Art of Dying and Other
. New Delhi: Penguin, 1993, pp.9-16.
Leach, Edmund. “Oysters, Smoked Salmon and Stilted Cheese in Levi-Strauss”.
Fontana Modern Master Series. Glasgow, 1970.
11 March 2007 <<>>

Mukherjee, Meenakshi. “Food as Culture” 
16 January 2007 <<>>

Nair, Rukmini Bhaya. “Are We What We Eat?” 
28 February 2007 <<>>

Premchand, Munshi. “Burhi Kaki”, Mansarowar. Vol viii. Allahabad: Saraswati Press, 1966, pp. 147-156.

Raja, Ira. “Ageing Subjects, Agentic Bodies: Appetite, Modernity and the Middle Class in Two Indian Short Stories in English”.
The Journal of Commonwealth Literature. 40.1(2005): 73-89.
-----------“Desiring Daughters: Intergenerational Connectedness in Recent Indian Fiction”.
Women’s Studies. 32(2003): 853-74.

Singha, Kabita. “Hunger”, trans. from Bengali by Bashabi Fraser. 27 February 2007

Sogani, Rahul. “The Older Widow”, The Hindu Widow in Indian Literature. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2002, pp. 149-174.
------------------ “The Widow in Post-Independence Fiction”, Ibid, pp. 209-248.

Vatuk, Sylvia. “To Be a Burden on Others: Dependency Anxiety Among the Elderly in India”, Divine Passions: The Social Construction of Emotions in India. Ed. O.M.Lynch. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. 17 March 2007.

Women Ageing: Changing Identities,Challenging Myths. Ed. Miriam Bernard, Judith Phillips, Linda Machin and Val Harding Davies.London: Routledge, 2000.



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