October 16, 2011 11:30:24 pm
Whats Diwali food for you? Ever wondered why you cant quite think of anything specific?
Like everything else civilised,this begins with the Romans. As befits an imperial state which needed to keep its grumbling citizens happy,the calendar was stuffed with festa: days of religious or civic significance. And when Romans were gathered together,food would happen. Mountains of it,in fact. Festivals and feasting thus originate from the same word,and thats as good a reflection of how archaic language can reflect experience lived even today.
As the heat of summer dies away agonisingly slowly,our own festive season begins,and we gird ourselves for a season of feasting. When I was a child in Calcutta,and the third week of September rolled around,I knew the season had started; I knew the months ahead were dotted with celebrations and with treats. The food stalls of Durga Puja pandals,the sweets of Diwali,the salt meat and cake of Christmas were steadily drifting on the horizon.
I didnt,at that time,consider a question that has come to bother me since,though: we know festivals are for feasting. But why is it that,in India,so few of our indigenous festivals have traditional foods associated with them? Yes,I,know,there are exceptions. Navratra thalis,for example,are quite ingenious creations,as they cannily avoid regular flour and use,instead,amaranth (rajgira) and even buckwheat (kuttu).
But,even so,theres something odd about it. Whats Diwali food for you? The chances are that youll name something that your family traditionally cooked,not something that everyone associates with the festival. Is there a particular sweet that everyone knows is a Diwali-time special? No.
Now why could that be? And should we care?
I definitely care. Festivals give us something to look forward to with excitement,something to look back on with satisfaction (or regret). They anchor our memories. Think back to Diwalis past. You will remember,no doubt,the time you were first allowed to light an anar,or perhaps the time you won at teen patti and everyone else lost. You will remember,perhaps,the clothes you wore,the relatives who travelled to meet you. But do you really remember what you ate,except that it was sweet? Only,rarely,is there something special served,a dish that sets that night apart from all other nights.
That is oddly true of festive food in general here. The worlds cultures celebrate with cakes and dishes and roasts and grills,each for a special day. The greatest example,of course,is Christmas,with its roasts and puddings and cakes; there is no chance that you can go through Christmastime without tasting something unique to that part of year,and there is no way that if you happen to run across that raisin-and-cinnamon-and-nutmeg flavour by accident,you dont think of the last week of December immediately.
But you dont have to go as far as the West Asian/European traditions that built the modern Christmas. Our closest civilisational links are with Iran. Navroze,as spring begins,for example,is when they have sabzi polo va mahi. (Its herbed rice with fish steaming,fragrant deliciousness.) There are also heavy omelettes with veggies; the table,itself,is decorated with eggs.
Nor is it a question of religion. Iranian New Year is not in itself religious,transcending those fraught lines with ease. Consider America,home of the purely secular festival. The Fourth of July is about more than fireworks and parades: it is about barbequing in the sunshine,about the sizzle of fat dripping on coals,the scent of frankfurters,the cool texture of a potato salad. Thanksgiving,shorn of its Puritan religion,is now about football,family and food,the point at which Americans thank fate for depositing them in the land of plenty by overeating horribly and dozing on the couch. And what do they eat? Fall foods: pecan,pumpkin,and turkey with cranberry sauce.
Do you begin to see a pattern here? Festivals that have food are grounded solidly in the time of year that theyre celebrated. Iranian New Year or Easter is about the spring; and so those festivals look it,with flowers,with eggs,with yellow and green,and they taste it,with food that emphasises eggs and fresh sabzi. On Thanksgiving,youre being thankful first of all for the harvest,for the pumpkins and sweet corn and squash that youre also stuffing into pies and slathering across your turkey drumstick.
Harvests,above all,have always been festival-time. When there isnt a harvest festival,its sometimes necessary to invent it. The Christian calendar didnt have place for a fall harvest festival,so the North Americans adopted a Native American celebration and made it their own. In England,over the course of the nineteenth century,the lack was noticed,and now churches have special harvest services at this time of the year,specially-written hymns with names such as We Plough the Field and Scatter.
So wheres our fall harvest festival,huh?
Actually,Diwalis probably it. Like all fall festivals,youre thankful for the year gone by,and hope for protection against the encroaching darkness of winter. The second part you do by lighting lamps; but in our observance of it,the first part has withered away. The kharif crop is in,but the symbolism has vanished. (Well,not entirely. Theres a lot of poha,made from freshly harvested rice,served in some ceremonies. And in Maharashtra,poha chivda is an integral part of this time of year.)
But so divorced are our traditions from the original purpose of festivals,to mark the passing of the year,that little remains of it. Even obviously harvest festivals in the north Sankranti,Lohri,Baisakhi dont quite have special food associated with them.
I dont know why this is,or has come to be. I dont know,in particular,why we think the passing of the year is best remembered as the closing of account-books instead. That sort of new year might give you a tradition of trying to win money at cards,but it rather definitely doesnt give you any food.
We cant know with certainty why it is that our festivals are so divorced from what has made their feasting possible. But why here,and not in any other part of the world? Like so many Indian exceptions,it seems fairly likely to be something to do with caste. Those who created our modern festivals werent those who ploughed the land,but those who,by sanctified tradition,emphasised their distance from it the wealthy urban elite of the nineteenth century,mostly either brahmins or from trading castes.
That search,therefore,for the perfect food memory from Diwalis past is likely to remain fruitless. But not dried fruit-less. The one way in which Diwali today is rooted in the natural world is through those endless boxes of raisins and kaju and walnuts,traditionally eaten at this time to build reserves for winter. And that,in the end,is the only real food memory that I can summon for Diwali: of arriving,post-Durga Puja,in a Delhi that appeared to have turned into a huge mad machine for producing and circulating red-and-yellow patterned and segmented boxes of dried fruit. Some of it would trickle down to me.
You could eat raisins and nuts through an evening,and mildly regret it the next morning. Or you could raise the stakes,Diwali-style,and pile into the kaju ka barfi. I remember the time when I could eat an entire box without noticing it.
Now theres a festival feast memory worth holding on to.
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