There is a scene in Amit Masurkar’s 2017 film Newton. Anjali Patil’s Malko tries to get Raghuveer Yadav’s Loknath bitten by ants. It’s a local cure to reverse the effects of a mosquito bite that might lead to cerebral malaria. When Loknath declines, Malko throws away the ant nest but not before picking a couple of ants for snacking.
Newton looks at her with surprise and inquires, “Yeh kha sakte hai? (Can we eat these?).” And she tells him that they make a chutney with these ants. And Newton, the educated, upright man who has come to conduct fair elections in this corner of the forest responds with “interesting”. In response to that, Malko says, “What’s interesting is the fact that you live a few hours away from this place, but know nothing about it.” It’s a sharp comment. As acidic as the red ants she has just eaten.
And it isn’t just a comment meant for Newton, but everyone sitting in the audience, feeling gratified that they have come to watch this film that not many would. In one way or another, we are all Newtons. We share his ignorance. Our caste privilege comes in the way of seeing the not-so-obvious kind of violence that is meted out day-to-day on Dalits, Bahujans, and Adivasis.
And there are several ways of practising privilege: one, and perhaps the most effective method of them all, has been invisibility. Caste is largely invisible in mainstream, popular culture. Be it music, be it cinema, be it television, be it literature. You don’t see Dalit characters unless you are making a film about them. And when you do make a film about them, you more often than not, get it wrong — Prakash Jha’s Arakshan being a glowing example.
Caste on your plate
This article aims to focus on one particular form of invisibility: the absence of Dalit foods from our popular discourses. The ant chutney, that we started with, sets a good example of what we all should have known from the beginning, but we don’t. A recent Marathi movie called Gulabjaam, made by director Sachin Kundalkar, positioned itself as a film that pays tribute to Maharashtrian cuisine.
As a woman born into an upper-caste, Brahmin, Marathi family, a lot of the foods shown in the film are certainly the foods I have grown up with. So, yes, they are a part of the Marathi culture and cuisine, but can we say that they represent all of Maharashtra? Maharashtra is a huge state, and most certainly not a vegetarian one. It is also a diverse state, with people belonging to different castes inhabiting it, so how can pure vegetarian, upper-caste food be touted as Maharashtrian food? Where is the food that belongs to say the Koli community? What about the Mahars? Where is the Dalit food?
The dominance of upper caste is propagated through this silencing. Every culture, every community has its foods, and when you deny them that representation, you marginalize their existence. Which is why we haven’t even heard the use of ‘Dalit food’. The nomenclature is always based on what region one belongs to, and there too the dominant caste determines what we eat, and what we name it.
As researchers Deepa Tak and Tina Arhana write in their paper published in Sahapedia, “Popular discussions around food reflect the brahminical understanding of what constitutes good food/taste, as argued by experts like Veena Shatrugna who point out how the government-accepted Required Dietary Allowance (RDA) in India reflects an adherence to an ‘upper-caste nutritional regime’ that maintains India is vegetarian.
In states like Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka, eggs are not served as part of mid-day meal schemes, on the plea of budgetary constraints. This too points to the institutionalisation of a vegetarian model as the state version of acceptable and adequate food requirements. This when only 31 per cent of India is vegetarian and when vegetarianism is often a result of inherited cultural practices rather than individual belief.”
Think about it, when was the last time you saw any food item that presents a Dalit community of a certain region? Our foods, are always upper caste. In the 2001 romantic-drama Rehnaa Hai Terre Dil Mein, there is a scene where R Madhavan’s Maddy, a Brahmin boy in love with Diya Mirza’s Reena (we don’t know her caste) eats chicken because he is hiding his identity from her, and the man he is playing is probably a meat-eater. We can hear Maddy’s inner monologue where he says, “Ladki ke liye dharam bhrasht karega?” You are corrupting your religion for a girl? But of course he corrupts it, and it’s supposed to be a cute, funny scene. But is also a loaded one. First of all, the girl whose caste we don’t know is a meat eater, however the meat she eats is the acceptable kind.
In another scene, where Maddy is reading Reena’s palm, he tells her she’ll marry a Brahmin boy and goes on to explain that Brahmin boys are those who have to step out of the house to eat the good stuff like chicken and mutton. Chicken and mutton and fish are the only forms of acceptable meats and therefore have made it to popular culture. When was the last time you saw a character eat pork? And let’s not even talk about beef.
The only memory I have is from Nagraj Manjule’s Fandry. However, we need to keep in mind that Fandry, an extremely powerful film, was made by a Dalit filmmaker, and highlighted the Dalit plight. A Karan Johar, or even an Anurag Kashyap, won’t go beyond chicken and mutton in their films. Indicating the mainstream exclusion of an entire community of people from cinema, from life.
Violence of exclusion
There could not have been a better example of this violence of exclusion than the 2015 Indian Masterchef. As Tak and Arhana write in the same mentioned article: “Masterchef India  was all veg. Produced by Amul and Adani Wilmar, it promoted itself as celebrating the rich Indian heritage of vegetarian food, with its celebrity chef Sanjeev Kapoor claiming ‘We are primarily a vegetarian country.’ Executives from Star Plus claimed vegetarian menus would make the show more ‘inclusive’, even as the show had meat preparations in its earlier versions, its winners prepared meat dishes and 60% Indians eat meat.”
In Konkona Sen Sharma’s critically acclaimed 2016 directorial debut, Death in the Gunj, we see two servants lurking largely in the background of the film. They exist to establish a local color. We see the members of this dysfunctional family demand mahua, a locally made alcoholic drink, from them and that is the extent of inclusion they get in a film.
In Neeraj Ghaywan’s beautiful portrayal Masaan, we get a Dalit protagonist, Deepak, played by Vicky Kaushal. The film tackles the issue of caste rather poetically, and gives us a few scenes where we see Deepak’s family share a meal. However, we never get to see, what is it that they are eating. On the other hand, Richa Chadda’s Devi, who plays the wronged daughter of a Pandit, is shown eating kheer and halwa in two separate scenes.
We can’t keep putting the onus of this exclusion on ignorance. Food, perhaps, isn’t in a high list of priorities, especially if a film isn’t about that. It’s why it is easy to show people eating chicken, or eggs, or kheer, or gulab jamun, because that is what the mainstream eats. But what about the others? Which is why we need to remember this: Dalit food isn’t mere sustenance. Dalit food is culture, and it is high time it got its accurate depiction.
You can begin your journey of unlearning and learning with this recipe found here.
Ingredients: Oil, Goat Blood, Onion, Red Chilli Powder, Salt
Method: Clean the blood well. Heat oil in a pan. Add onion and roast it till it turns brown. Add rakti until it is cooked. Add chilli powder and salt and fry.
Isn’t it time that Dalit food earned a place among the cuisines across the nation, and the world?
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