A Bitter Aftertaste

The great Greek conqueror Alexander’s soldiers are said to have marvelled, in 326 BC, at Indian cane sugar — “honey without bees”, as they put it. Several Hindustani sayings link the consumption of sugar with auspicious occasions.

Written by Shahid Amin | Published: May 12, 2018 12:11:28 am
 indian express book reviews, a bitter aftertaste, indian sugar history, food history, uttar pradesh sugarcane A sugar mill by the Shamli rail station in Uttar Pradesh. (Praveen Khanna)

Sugar, the Sanskrit sharkara or shakkar, from sugarcane, the ikh or ukh of the northern tongues, is indigenous to India. The great Greek conqueror Alexander’s soldiers are said to have marvelled, in 326 BC, at Indian cane sugar — “honey without bees”, as they put it. Several Hindustani sayings link the consumption of sugar with auspicious occasions. “May your mouth be filled with ghee and shakkar” is the proverbial response to the harbinger of good news in North India; Diwali can be imagined, at a stretch, without Chinese crackers, but would be literally insipid without the ritual exchange and consumption of large amounts of sweets.

What sets India apart from the rest of the cane-sugar producing world is the peasant nature of sugarcane production: “As elephants are to merchandise, so sugarcane is to agriculture” — in other words, the acme of peasant production. Yogi Adityanath, went a popular saying in the Gorakhpur region, like his predecessors, would soon have to deal with the problem of outstanding dues owed by sugar mills to lakhs of petty producers.

In the rest of the cane-producing world, notably the Caribbean, Brazil and Cuba, sugarcane cultivation from the 16th century to the mid-19th century meant hundreds of thousands of African-origin slaves, transported over long distances to work on large cane plantations run by European planters: evidently, slavery and sugar went together.

James Walvin, who spent several years in Jamaica researching and writing the long history of one such plantation, in this book, turns his wonderfully researched ire on two related developments: human degradation and ecological depredations in sugar plantations in large parts of the world. Also, the bodily harm that the spike in sugar consumption — increasingly used in pre-packaged convenience foods, fizzy drinks, and candies — has brought to large parts of the Western world.

The first belongs to the dark history of European colonisation and enslavement, and the latter to the increasingly obese, dentally challenged, cavity-filled existence of the US and Europe. The second theme also has to do with the looming future of the Coke-and-fast-food guzzling children and parents of our own aspirational new middle class — the I’m-loving-it people. Walvin shows that fast food and Coke, infused with sugar and caffeine, go hand in hand all over the world.

Written from the vantage point of the immediate present, The World Corrupted from Slavery to Obesity shows in eye-popping detail how “a simple commodity” that was, till the early 18th century, a rare and “prized monopoly” of European kings and princes, became “an essential ingredient in the lives of common people — before mutating yet again into the apparent cause and occasion of major health problems.” One link was the large-scale import of Chinese tea, which was brought to England over long distances in the ships of the East India Company, and its development into a common drink, transformed by the addition of increasingly cheap sugar sourced from colonial possessions in the Caribbean. The other factor was the use of preserves and jams — even sugar sprinkled on bread.

Which was, of course, the staple energy-giving sustenance hurriedly ingested by men, women and children during the short lunch break allowed to them from the relentless mechanical work in the factories during the Industrial Revolution.

Over the last 120 years, major lifestyle changes have taken place in the West, and these are spreading to a large segment of the affluent middle classes worldwide. The increasing consumption of pre-cooked convenience foods which have only to be unwrapped and popped into the microwave, the discernible tendency to eat such dinners out of a tray while sitting before a TV set, watching commercials for such quickly assembled two-minute fast foods, the special targeting of children, the preference for tetrapacked fruit juices sweetened to our taste — all this has resulted in transforming the way sugar enters our bodies.

Conscious about weight and pre-and-post-prandial sugar levels, some of us may be reducing the amount of sugar we put into our tea and coffee, but the processed foods that we eat already come sugared. Walvin puts it dramatically: sugar delivers its most extravagant hit in breakfast cereals: 30 percent of the cereals at our breakfast table are pre-sweetened, and some cereals contain 50 per cent sugar. What passes for a nourishing breakfast may require us to sweat it out in the evening at a gym on expensive body-toning machines.

While Walvin presents a thick description of sugar and its entanglement with slavery, he alludes only in passing to the large-scale shipment of Indian peasants under the indenture system, orchestrated by the colonial Indian government after the abolition of slavery in the British empire in 1834. They were sent to the sugar colonies of the empire in the Indian Ocean, the Caribbean and the Pacific Ocean, and even to Dutch possessions such as Surinam.

Meant to replace the slaves who were unwilling to toil in the cane fields any more, Indian peasants, mostly from depressed districts like Gorakhpur, Basti and Bahraich, went under a contractual obligation to work for wages for a limited period, after which they were free to return to India.

They had the option either to pay for their passage home out of their earnings, or at the planters’ cost, after labouring for 10 years. It was backbreaking work, but the opportunities to improve one’s lot over just two generations were much greater than in the overpopulated villages of north India. The much-maligned King Sugar has also given us a VS Naipaul and a Shivnarine Chanderpaul, the prolific West Indian batsman who retired after 164 Test matches only two years ago.

Shahid Amin is a Delhi-based historian

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