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Maneeta Kahlon - Food & Dining in IE Literature



South Indian Dosa. Image credit - hyd.co.in




Food and dining in selected contemporary Indian English literature

Food is the most important and basic need of man and this primary need is expressed by various authors of Indian Writers in English. It is reassuring to talk of food, which is linked to our socio-cultural heritage and gives a sense of identity to our lives. This paper attempts to analyse the motif of food, eating, dining and hunger in the novels by authors of Indian writing in English.

Manju Kapoor in her books inhabits her characters drawing sustenance from food, infact food and life are interlinked and there are numerous descriptions of food throughout the novel. A girls accomplishment and her future happiness according to the protagonists mother depended on “all the breads she could make puris with spicy gram inside, luchis big as plates, kulchas, white and long, tandoori rotis, layers of flaky flour, paranthas, crisp and stuffed with morrabas, never soggy, and dripping juicy sweet with seasonal pickles of lemon, mango, carrot, cauliflower, turnip, red chillies, dates, ginger and raisins. With sherbets of khas, roses and almonds, with hot and cold spiced milk, with sour black carrot kanji, with lassi, thin, cool and salty, or thick and sweet. With barfis made of nuts and grains soaked overnight, and ground fine between two heavy stones. With sweets made of thickened milk. With papad, the sweet ones made out of ripe mango, the sour ones with raw mango” (Kapoor,63). 

The knowledge of these would make her the perfect wife and mother and this would qualify as her real education. The kitchen is the bonding place where the entire family gathers, the mother and daughters, amidst all the peeling, grating, slicing, cutting, chopping and then the process of eating, gulping, swallowing, the family structure is woven. Despite the calamities food has to be prepared and the family fed. The politics of the family between Virmati and the wife Ganga is played through food. Ganga has lost her husband to another woman but not the control of the kitchen, the power continues to be wielded through the manipulative use of food. Food and eating can bring people together, but they can also keep them apart (Makela,20-21). Virmati is given food which is either too salty or too sweet or too fried, always imperfect and at the same time conceding that the domain of the kitchen and its reign would ever remain with Ganga and her place would be that of the outsider. When she is supposed to give birth to the light of the clan, to the new generation again the acceptance of her is shown through food, milk replaces tea and there is a sweet dish made of milk everyday to placate and humour the young bride. Food thus serves many purposes and signifies both acceptance and rejection .Food plays the important part in power politics and those in positions of power and authority are served the best pieces and those in inferior positions are served last and the worst. The phrase, kitchen politics comes from the turmoil and rivalries of the kitchen. A women’s attribute is her ability to cook and serve food “Puris and paranthas wrapped in Britannia-bread waxed paper, aalu ki sabzi in mithai boxes, mango pickle, lemon pickle, little packets of chopped onion and cucumber….after the food, their life stories will be spread and consumed” (Kapoor,2). She talks of gaajar mooli and the familiarity of food which gives warmth to the soul “to the glass of hot milk she could sip comfortably and slowly while warming her hands around it” (Kapoor,44) this is sharply contrasted to the elaborate tea ritual of drinking tea separately and formally in a way explaining the relationship of the professor and his wife. Food and the manner in which it is cooked and partaken reveal the relationship of the characters among themselves and in society at large. Virmati is treated like an outsider by the manner in which food is served to her. She is made to feel like a guest in her own home.

Rupa Bajwa’s The Sari Shop, also has lot of references to food. Milk hot and creamy is poured in steel tumblers and served to the son as worthy food. There is a detailed description of the samosa to arouse the appetite by its very description “Think of it. Just think of a big, fat, hot samosa. Crisp outside and hot mashed potatoes inside. Spiced with chillies and coriander and onions. Oh, and the chutneys. The red chutney with imli in it, and the green mint chutney. With a hot and crisp samosa. Fresh from the kadhai. Ah ha ha ha.’ Hari closed his eyes in rupture.” (Bajwa,19).There is a lot of talk of oily puris, ginger and elachi tea, dal makhani, tandoori roti but the gruesome description of death and food brought together by Bajwa is both horrific and arresting “The glass jar of pickles had broken too. A film of mustard oil began to spread towards the blood. The two mingled. Pieces of pickled lime and carrots were strewn around in the blood-oil puddle like pebbles.” (Bajwa,142) .We experience a sense of horror that the woman is dead and wonder why is food linked to it?

The description of food and eating is something which comes naturally to Indian writing that one cannot turn a few pages without a reference to food or eating Vassanji,in his book In Between the world of Vikram Lall also discusses food, Deepa offers Njorge some Gulabjamuns and he retorts that the Indians eat a lot and this is reiterated by Joseph also “Then food always becomes a major issue and suddenly there seems to be an abundance of it”(Vasanji,93). Even later when Njorge comes back he thanks Deepa’s mother for her Gulabjamuns and Mrs Bruce the neighbor is invited along with her family for lunch and is told that aroma of their food comes from hot ghee and spices.

Kessler says, “Food opens doors to double and triple meaning” (Kessler,156) this is exactly how Arundhati Roy uses the symbol of food to explain the theme of her book that is secrets hidden and not revealed through the powerful metaphor of Paradise pickles and preserves, their family business of preserves and pickles where“ the squashing, the slicing, boiling and stirring, the grating, salting, drying, the weighing and bottle sealing” (Roy,163) is done. Just as the pickles are kept aside and not taken out to eat till later so the family secrets are locked and hidden away. We are told that the family made banana jam, but it was banned because it was an “ambiguous consistency,” “neither jam nor jelly” it does not classify into a set category furthermore, it comes to represent family members breaking the rules “that lay down who should be loved and how,” .The attraction towards food and drinks leads to the sexual abuse and molestation of the child Estha by the Orangdrink Lemondrink Man at the Abhilash Talkies theatre who uses these drinks to lure and seduce the child and later to blackmail him into silence. The child is attracted to the cool drinks but after the incident he bottles up and does not express his emotions, rather he adopts silence “the squashing, the slicing, boiling and stirring, the grating, salting, drying, the weighing and bottle sealing” ( Roy,163)

Adiga in his book The White Tiger talks of all the western foods to express the consumerism of society and the impact of westernizations. There is mention of Pizza which delights the master’s wife and ice-cream which is used by Dharam to blackmail Balram or so he thinks. He admires Dharam’s capacity to ask for milk, pizza and ice creams while he himself as a child often went hungry and the only time he ate to his heart’s content was at weddings.

Tishani Doshi in her novel The Pleasure Seekers, talks about the importance of food in a person’s life, when Babo moves from Gujrat to London he is perplexed that how come food which was always taken for granted could be so important in a foreign land. “Apart from the loneliness, Babo despaired about the food. He couldn’t understand how something that had been so irrelevant to him in the past could suddenly become such an obsession.” (Doshi,24)

He dreams about food that he would eat when he comes back to India, He being a pure vegetarian has a limited menu to select from ,he is also conscious that he is a Jain and his eating habits give him a distinct identity. His decision to start eating non –vegetarian food means that he is ready to give up his traditions and religion and thus begins his assimilation to the foreign land. After his marriage to Sian, and consequent move back to India restarts the process of adjusting and assimilating but this time of the new bride. The acceptance of his foreign bride is based on her culinary skills and perfection at learning to make Gujrati food and rolling faultlessly round chappatis and learning to make Dhokla. Vegetables and certain fruits and foods are supposed to have fertility powers; to keep them close to the genital area would help conception. When Sian is pregnant she is advised to eat specific foods to have a safe delivery. Their children too learn early enough the complexities of food and that what is acceptable at their grandparents house in America is forbidden in their paternal grandparents so even mention of certain foods becomes taboo and they never reveal the secret that they are meat-eaters, so food teaches differentiation of cultures and acceptance of their cross-cultural family. “Bean was petrified that one day, in a moment of confusion, she’d tell the truth; and that the truth would generate disastrous consequences. The mere mention of the words ‘chicken’ or ‘fish’……..exposing Babo,Sian,Mayuri and her as a family of meat eaters! They’d fall into irreparable disgrace” (Doshi,169) “If we are what we eat, we also are what we don’t eat. People moralize constantly about what they will and will not eat. To eat is to distinguish and discriminate, include and exclude. Food choices establish boundaries and borders. In the modern era this process of culinary differentiation may entail major modification of traditional foods; few people today eat exactly what their grandparents ate fifty years ago, and many of us also like to cross group boundaries to eat the “Other.” (Warren)

Food and dining is used extensively and intensively by Jhumpa Lahiri, food and cooking gives a sense of identity to her characters and affects their inter-personal and intra personal relationships with people. Food it’s eating and cooking is both personal and individual and yet it is very social and community oriented process. Food helps the characters to keep their own identity or a hybrid identity in foreign lands. It is seen as a metaphor for homeland, a part of the immigrant experience .the diasporic assimilation of the new place does not include “food of the place”. Food continues to remain intrinsically Indian. 

In the story “When Mr Pirzada comes to dine”, the food that is shared is the strongest bond of love that expelled the feeling of homesickness of both the families. Lila, describes the lengths her mother went to prepare meals, infact social relations were maintained through the fine art of dining. “From the kitchen my mother brought forth the succession of dishes: lentils with fried onions, green beans with coconut, fish cooked with raisins in a yogurt sauce.”(Lahiri,30) Mr Pirzada reciprocated by getting beautiful sweets as a gesture of thanks for the narrator. The sweets are treasured by the narrator as something precious given to her and are eaten in a befitting manner “It was inappropriate, in my opinion, to consume the candy Mr Pirzada gave me in a casual manner. I coveted each evening’s treasure as I would a jewel or a coin from a buried kingdom”.( Lahiri,29) Mr Pirzada had a strange habit, every time he starts to eat dinner he winds a special watch which is kept in his breast pocket, set to the local time in Dacca. The process of eating is related to the temporal consciousness of his hometown as if while eating there is no time and space differentiation and while relaxing at the end of the day, he was simultaneously in both places, in America and back home in Dacca. The valuable candies cannot be consumed because they were a special treat, meant for a special occasion and when the reunion of Mr Pirzada with his family was confirmed, the occasion was commemorated and celebrated with food. “To celebrate the good news my mother prepared a special dinner that evening and when we sat down to eat at the coffee table we toasted our water glasses.” (Lahiri,42) Food sharing cut the cultural and geographical divide and brought them together.

In the story “The Temporary Matter”, food is the central concern that joins an estranged couple. There is a notice that the electricity would be temporarily shut down and the couple is forced to eat dinner before the electricity cut. Food and dining then is responsible for regrouping them, bringing them together, adding a new dimension to their lives .Cooking is seen as a reflection of love and care for the other. He reminisces how Shobha cooked for his anniversary a ten course meal and that reflects the love and concern of his wife for him. Absence of food is absence of love in this marriage. Marital bliss was associated with a well stocked pantry and kitchen; love in the marriage was expressed through the desire to please through the medium of food. She was earlier a good host, entertaining guests, holding parties, communicating and then because of a miscarriage sets in neglect. The husband takes care to show his love by cooking for his wife In another story “The Blessed House”, Twinkle is not an accomplished cook but takes the time and effort to show her creative streak in the kitchen even though she does not know Indian cooking. Her efforts in the kitchen to please Sanjeev her husband are lauded by him and reflect his responses to her caring attitude. Food becomes the catapult of love in their relationship, of two very different individuals. Twinkle is self confident, self-possessive, creative like the dish she made while Sanjeev is unsure, hesitant, uncertain wanting to know the exact measure of ingredients if the dish is to be made again. Twinkle has assimilated well to the life in America, content in her life with being a Hindu and comfortable with Christian memorabilia in her house, her menu is an assimilation of Indian and western dishes and she derives happiness from her mixed life. 

"Sexy” is a story of a young girl Miranda who is having an affair with an Indian married man, She thinks she is in love with this man, they are so intimate and yet there are barriers, she is unable to connect and this she realizes when she goes to an Indian store and picks up a packet of Hot-mix that her co-worker Laxmi is always eating. On expressing her desire to buy it, she is told it is too spicy and too hot for her. She leaves the store without buying, feeling disturbed and guilty. It is the packet of hot-mix that gives rise to feeling of guilt, estrangement and feeling of ostracisation from her lover. She is confused about her relationship with Dev and finally makes up her mind to end this relationship. It is food which helps her to realize that Dev does not love her and is using her to satisfy his lust.

In another story “Mrs Sen’s”, there is great emphasis on food. Mrs Sen is looking after a child, a baby sitter she is to look after Elliot who is 11 years old .Elliot is fascinated by Mrs Sen’s preparation of cooking “She took whole vegetables between her hands and hacked them apart: cauliflower, cabbage, butternut squash. She split things in half, then quarters, speedily producing florets, cubes, slices, and shreds. She could peel a potato in seconds.”(Lahiri,114) She explains to Elliot that cutting vegetables together is a binding experience in India where all sit together and cut vegetables. It is a community experience and Mrs Sen sorely misses India She places a lot of importance on the ingredients and recipes and methods of making the exact dish and for this purpose she moves out of her comfort zone to acquire the perfect ingredient (the perfect fish).

Ray in his book ‘The Migrant Table’ quotes Alice Water, a chef “If you see the same ingredients every place you go you lose a sense of time and place…that is exactly why immigrants crave some of the distinctive products of their homeland, not withstanding time or place”(Ray132) Food is the link to her homeland that she sorely misses and by cutting and chopping she is reassuring herself of staying connected with family and tradition .Food is to be eaten and served ceremoniously as a mark of respect and kindness. Food cooked by Mrs Sen is a ‘labour of love’ and she believes that Eliot’s mother not cooking is a sign of a careless parent and neglect towards her child. Mrs Sen believes that food is what defines her identity, other than being the spouse of a ‘mathematics teacher at the university’ .Food is directly linked to herself esteem; she understands her worth and autonomy. She is able to proclaim herself self dependent because of her ability to connect to food.

Food is rich, evocative, and visual with mention of Dal, sabzi, rice, chutney and pickles and of course tea, which is a time honoured tradition .It, is a link with the past while coffee is instant, immediacy and is consumed by people in a hurry. In her new book, The Unaccustomed Earth, a young mother is embarrassed by her son’s refusal to eat Indian Food and only wants cheese and macroni and her Father associates the biscuits with his dead wife. “Upstairs, Ruma was serving tea on the porch. She had brought everything out on a tray: a pot of Darjeeling, the strainer, milk and sugar, and a nice biscuits. He associated the biscuits deeply with his wife-the visible crystals of sugar, the faint coconut taste-their kitchen cupboard always contained a box of them.” (Lahiri,23) Food is remembrance of his wife and nostalgia for the past times; he remembers that his wife was a good cook and even Ruma realizes that her cooking does not come close to her mothers, yet her Father appreciates her cooking and they eat with fingers, which even her young son wants to do but is unable to, thus establishing the fact that his upbringing is different from his mother and he is not in touch with the Indian way of eating.

“Hell-Heaven” is a story that is based on friendship which started due to the shared cuisine, remembrance of Homeland in an alien place .The narrators mother takes great pride in serving him food, “but now I would find her in the kitchen, rolling out dough for luchis, which she normally made on Sundays for my father and me” (Lahiri,63) and enjoyed looking after him while her father was a functional eater, having no demands or cravings. Thus the desire between the narrator’s mother and her Kaku grew due to shared intimacy of food and care intermingled. Also in another story, Once in a lifetime, the narrator talks of her mother and the friendship formed with another lady based on joint association of food, “They shopped together for groceries and complained about their husbands and cooked at either our stove or yours ,dividing up the dishes for our respective families when they were done.” (Lahiri,225) from the start of this story, to the end, she is thinking of her lover again in context of food “ I was still jet-lagged, hungry for meals we were used to eating together, for the taste of good coffee and wine.” 

In the novel Jasmine by Bharti Mukherjee, Jasmine the protagonist like Lahiri’s protagonists lives life trying to assimilate her life to America but at home she tries to be the perfect Indian hostess serving dishes of authentic India to please her American friends. She sees herself as a caregiver, holding power as she is involved in the process of cooking “Food is a way of granting or withholding love”(Mukherjee,216) Food thus plays a defining role in all the works citied above and helps to define and shape the characters ,their dreams, disillusionment and desires through the use of food literally and metaphorically.


Works Cited

Adiga, Arvind.The White Tiger:New Delhi:Harper Collins, 2008
Bajwa, Rupa.The Sari Shop. New Delhi: Penguin,2004 
Doshi, Tishani .The Pleasure Seekers.London: Bloomsbury,2010
Kessler Brad “One Reader’s Digest: Towards a gastronomic Theory of Literature” Kenyon Review 27.2 (2005):148-65
Lahiri Jhumpa.Interpreter Of Maladies.Noida:Harper Collins,2008
Lahiri Jhumpa.Unaccoustomed Earth. .New Delhi: Random House, 2008
Kapoor, Manju.New Delhi:India Ink,2002
Mukherjee, Bharti. Jasmine.London:Virago, 1991
Ray,Krishnendu.The Migrants Table:meals and memories in Bengali-American households.Philadelphia:Temple UP,2004
Roy,Arundhati.The God of Small Things.New York:Random House,1997
M.G Vassanji,The In-Between World of Vikram Lall Doubleday Canada.,2003 
Warren Belasco, “Food Matters: Perspectives on an Emerging Field,” in Food
Nations: Selling Taste in Consumer Societies,
ed. Warren Belasco and Philip
Scranton (London: Routledge, 2002), 2 (Lahiri42)

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