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Can we eat our way to a more tolerant society?

Peter Ronald deSouza writes: Fanaticism often comes from the rigid rules we apply to food, with those who eat the food proscribed for us being viewed as the hostile other.

Written by Peter Ronald DeSouza |
Updated: September 16, 2021 8:03:12 am
The fanaticism that food produces translates into social life. (Illustration by C R Sasikumar)

There is a closer relationship between food and fanaticism than we are normally willing to accept. I am not here making the obvious point about goons who walk into private homes to check if there is beef in the refrigerator but the more fundamental point that a person’s socialisation, within a family or community, into the rules concerning permitted and proscribed foods produces a mindset that translates into an attitude of either tolerance or intolerance. Food constructs the dietary other. This then morphs into the cultural other, soon becoming the political other, and further transforming into the hated other. Food in India produces political fanatics.

In a country with such a diversity of food cultures this seems like an outlandish thesis. How can India, which is an archipelago of food islands, produce food fanaticism? Let me elaborate. Each food island has evolved its cuisine based on what is available in its natural ecosystem. As the cuisine evolves, a body of conventions and rules emerge that determine what foods are permitted and proscribed, and when. These rules and conventions come with accompanying explanations. Jains, for example, proscribe foods which grow under the earth, such as potatoes, beetroot, garlic and onions, because, when uprooting them, one could harm the organisms that live on and with them. Uprooting violates the principle of ahimsa. Similarly, there is a heated debate among Islamic scholars about whether foods that have a touch of alcohol, such as vanilla extract, are haram or not. For Jews, only kosher foods are permitted. As communities consolidate culturally, their food rules become more rigid.

My interest here lies in what cannot be eaten because in these proscriptions lie the seeds of social fanaticism. I am not referring to the sattvic, rajasic or tamasic categorisations which link food to gunas since their claims of certain foods producing happiness or indolence is a matter of scientific testing. I even do not have problems with foods that make health claims since all such propositions can be tested. My problem is with foods that acquire a status based on some religious text or cultural practice, the haram/halal foods, or the “hamare jati ke log yeh nahi khate hain” types. For them, some higher power imbues the proscribed foods with inferior qualities, properties that should be shunned, such as dirty pork or dangerous garlic. This attitude gets transferred to those who eat such foods. They are either dirty, or unholy, or oversexed, or just inferior.

The point I am making is, therefore, more than just transference. The processes of food socialisation, from childhood onwards, produce a sense of dividing the world into those who are good, who eat the things we do, and those who are inferior, if not bad, because they eat the things that are proscribed by religion or cultural practice. This is why landlords across India do not want to let their properties to non-vegetarians. It is why entire buildings in Mumbai’s elite Malabar Hill have no non-vegetarian residents and do not allow non-vegetarian restaurants within their premises. The fanaticism that food produces translates into social life. It impacts urban spaces, undermines marriage proposals, and now, in our intolerant India, produces a “politics of othering” where the other becomes a hostile other. Because Indian cuisine is so diverse it has the potential to descend into an uncivil war on food.

The rules on proscribed foods, which are embossed on the minds of young people during their early socialisation, produce a mindset that leads to such fanaticism. Others, who do not conform to these rules, are judged as inferior, to be opposed and even despised. It is this mindset that is gaining power in India. The growing political intolerance is therefore forged not just in shakhas but also in the kitchens of India.

There is, however, another trend that is also growing. If one goes to the centre of Bengaluru or to the Fort area in Mumbai, one will see a mushrooming of restaurants that serve food from across the world. There are restaurants serving Italian, Thai and Chinese food, fusion food, or Asian food, which includes food from Vietnam, Indonesia, Korea and China. Alongside the fanatic Indian, it seems, the food fusionista is also emerging. Such Indians are not just prepared to cross the cultural taboos of proscribed food but are also prepared to experiment with elements from different cuisines to produce a new menu of mixed foods. Fusionistas are cool about food adventurism. Pizza may have begun life as an Italian entrée but has ended up as a Gujarati snack. Only the Indian noodle, a Chinese infiltration, has acquired more popular support. This food fusion can be called multiculturalism. Think of the most multicultural place in the world, New York City, and you will see restaurants from everywhere serving every type of food. Food diversity is what you see in cities making room for cultural tolerance. Diversity of food consumption is a good index of a tolerant society. That is why, I suspect, some people hate Lutyens Delhi.

If large numbers in India are willing to cross over and become food fusionistas, while loving their mother’s cooking no less then, I believe, we will be a more tolerant country. After all, Indian cuisine has evolved through such borrowing that remains inadequately acknowledged. I cannot imagine the cultural nationalists from Nagpur thanking the colonial Portuguese for giving us the humble potato and the fiery chilli. Even our ubiquitous samosa, it seems, has an overseas debt. A tolerant India requires our public spaces to have more diverse foods from everywhere — not just paneer pizzas from Ahmedabad but pork from Nagaland and beef from Kerala. Food festivals such as the beef festival at HCU, Hyderabad, or a pork festival at JNU or an Udipi thali at AMU are the way to go if we wish to become a more tolerant society. I was delighted to hear, some years ago, of a Marwari friend’s son becoming a chef specialising in fish dishes. Think of the mental journey he and his family must have made as they broke the Marwari food taboos. This is the future. I have often wondered if anyone who has eaten and enjoyed that mutton mince dosa, in the 1970s, at the Delhi School of Economics canteen became a fanatic in later life.

This column first appeared in the print edition on September 15, 2021 under the title ‘The mutton mince dosa test’. Peter Ronald deSouza is the DD Kosambi Visiting Professor at Goa University. Views are personal. The book he co-edited with Rukmini Bhaya Nair, Keywords for India was published in 2020 by Bloomsbury UK

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