Monday, 30th October 2017

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  • Published 25.05.07

The Table is Laid: The Oxford Anthology of South Asian Food Writing Edited by John Thieme and Ira Raja, Rs 595

When we were young and reading Shahaj Path, I wanted to grow up and serve a powerful zamindar-type of man, so that I could, like Akram in the Shahaj Path story, go on hunting trips and eat chatni with ruti (chatni being my favourite food at age three). It struck me only much later — and after several revisions of my palate — that Shaktibabu, Akram’s zamindar-type master, eats the real feast of luchi, alur dam and pathar mangsho. There was a further revelation. When the master and servant lose their way in the forest, a group of woodcutters take them to their modest home and feed them — both of them — chnire, goat’s milk and honey. Fallen on adverse times and among innocent forest-dwellers, the differences of station are temporarily erased.

Food is political. All possible forms of power-games are played out through the eating, cooking, serving, feeding, selling and wasting of food, not to forget the craving for it. A.K. Ramanujan’s essay, “Food for Thought: Towards an Anthology of Hindu Food-images”, which really works as an umbrella piece for this anthology, translates from the Taittiriya Upanishad: “From food, from food/ creatures, all creatures/ come to be// Gorging, disgorging/ beings come/ to be// By food they live,/ In food they move,/ into food they pass//…And what eats is eaten:/ and what’s eaten, eats/ in turn.”

For Ramanujan, food as metaphor brings together the home and the temple. In the former, the orthodox wife eats in the unwashed plate of the husband to express her devotion; in the latter, the leftovers of the food offered to god are received back and eaten by the worshipper as prasada.

A similar theme informs Vivan Sundaram’s installation, The Table is Laid (picture), which provides both the title and the cover of this book. Sundaram juxtaposes the Western meal table — Germaine Greer calls it an altar — with the Eastern practice of eating on the floor. The pristine white table is bereft of food, but underneath it are twelve leaf-plates laden with rice and an earthen bowl of curd, “suggesting an Indian last supper,” according to the editors, John Thieme and Ira Raja, “with Christ and his disciples as conspicuously absent as food is from the table.”

The absence of food, forced rather than willed, is sometimes a greater reality in the Indian context than an excess of it. If Bijan Bhattacharya’s Nabanna is about the man-made famine of 1943 in Bengal, human agency is writ just as large in the skipped meals of Pari (“The Curse”, Pratibha Ray) and Patoler Ma (the eponymous heroine of Chitrita Banerjee’s story). Needless to say, missing meals and going hungry (and still remaining invisible) are largely gendered experiences, captured best in Geetanjali Shree’s “Mai”. But class too often colours the picture. Piya, the NRI heroine of The Hungry Tide (Amitav Ghosh), nibbles on protein bars to whet her appetite, but Kshenti of Bibhuti Bhushan Bandyopadhyay’s “The Trellis” cannot get enough of pui-and-shrimps chachchari. Latika in Narendranath Mitra’s “A Drop of Milk” spins a web of lies around a cup of milk she has drunk. Perumayee, in Githa Hariharan’s “Gajar Halwa”, quickly pops into her mouth the last stubborn bits of the carrots she has been asked to grate by her mistress.

When women get greedy, they face the direst of consequences. In Vaikom Mohammed Basheer’s “Poovan Bananas”, Jameela Bibi, BA and wife of Abdul Khader Sahib (who is only half as educated), has a sudden longing for Poovan bananas. Braving inclement weather, her husband crosses the river, but the particular variety of fruit proves elusive. He gets oranges instead, but Jameela Bibi appreciates neither the act of love, nor her husband’s labours. Then, Abdul Khader Sahib beats her and makes her eat the oranges thinking of them as Poovan bananas — his heart breaking at the sight of his wife’s tears. And the incident passes into the couple’s private joke as they grow old together, revealing the mysterious and enigmatic nature of human relationships. Ismat Chughtai’s “The Rock” is a more straightforward tale of cruelty, where a young and beautiful bride, hemmed in by a hundred strictures, overeats and sacrifices the slimness of her form so that her husband does not feel threatened. Soon enough, the husband falls for a slimmer, younger girl and leaves her.

But for worse cruelties, one must turn to the stories where food becomes a weapon with which to torture the aged and the infirm. There is endless fuss over Nibaran Chandra’s favourite dishes after he dies a neglected and unfed man (“Nibaran Chandra’s Last Rites”, Ashapurna Devi). In “The Devoted Son”, by Anita Desai, a father’s preferred foods are snatched away, one by one, by his “devoted son”, all in the name of concern for the old man’s health.

To read about Indian food in English is also to realize the alienating effect of the foreign language. It makes the ordinary daaler bora turn into unfamiliar lentil cakes, as Buddhadeva Bose pointed out in a delightful essay on Indian food, but cannot distinguish the fried nuggets from the sun-dried daaler bori.

A number of poems — by Dom Moraes, Nissim Ezekiel, Agha Shahid Ali and others — are included in the anthology, but they tend to lose out to the short stories for no apparent fault of their own. Can a few works by Sri Lankan authors make the anthology adequately “south Asian”? What about contemporary Pakistan and Bangladesh? There are many from these countries who have greater claims on the anthology than V.S. Naipaul. Of the works included, the best translations have not always been selected (Bibhuti Bhushan’s story readily comes to mind). And surely Shashi Deshpande’s story could not have been translated from Bengali?