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Sumana Roy
Free Verse

Food for the Eye: When the Gods dine and men break fasts

llen J. Grieco's The Meal is one of my comfort books. From the 'Themes in Art' series, it is a collection of paintings centered on the representation of meals in European art. Like the pressure-cooked chicken soup that my fever demands as cure, my eyes feast on the meals in this book when I feel unwell. Needless to say, I like my food. There are also those who think that the gluttony of my eyes exceeds that of my tongue. In defending myself against this charge, I choose the Hindu gods and goddesses as those who have set a precedent for this, for eating with the eyes alone. For how else is bhog eaten?

If the gods eat with their eyes, why is there such a dearth of art and literature about bhog in our cultural history? The filmmaker Rituparno Ghosh once made an important criticism of Bengali cinema when he showed, with exceptions from the films of Satyajit Ray, how people are rarely seen eating in our films. Ghosh then went on to talk about the elaborate details in the eating sequences in his films, and how the act of opening the mouth, biting, chewing, the direction of the eye (at the plate or those one is sharing the meal with) are crucial to the way we understand the men and women in his cinema.

In Hindi cinema for instance, where there is more ostentatious display of religiosity, we only see the men and women with folded hands and closed eyes in front of the gods, ringing bells, puja thalis in hand, throwing a flower, swaying their heads to the neo-devotional song that is being choreographed. When so much food is offered to the gods, first for them to eat, and then for us to partake, why is it never shown? The occasional concessions on view are when these beautiful men and women show themselves as virtuous by offering fruits and sweets to the poor beggars who live outside places of worship.

Is bhog food for the poor alone then? Our cinema, for nearly the first two decades after independence, often brought us scenes like these: the ravenous – even scavenging – eating habits of the hungry poor, the exaggeratedly fast hand-to-mouth movements, the food eaten lacking completely in character, existing merely as bolus. Is it possible that our gods, their appetites worked up after all the intergalactic travel, also eat the bhog offered to them like that? But the wealthy, making these offerings of fruits and sweets, khichdi and vegetables, should not be shown eating this food?

oing through the paintings in The Meal, the many ways of looking at the act of eating an apple or The Last Supper, all the while making mental notes about how food is inextricably linked to the representation of a Christian culture, I look for similar pegs in the art and literature born out of Hinduism. Yes, heaven must have its amrit and hell its roasted and deep fried humans, but what about our devotionals? The words 'prasad' and 'bhog' occur often in these songs, but only in a metaphysical way, so that they are always part of a moral system that survives on the discipline-and-punish mechanism that keeps society in order, the 'as you sow, so you reap' or karma and the 'fruits of labour'. (I am always amused to find the word 'bhog' in the names of brands of flour: 'Amrit Bhog' and 'Chhapan Bhog', for instance.)

Will the bhog become less ‘sacred’ if a photo of it is taken and then broadcast among friends?

There are no representations of bhog in art, in our literature, and also not in Facebook photographs of the genre. Will the bhog become less 'sacred' if a photo of it is taken and then broadcast among friends and followers? Or does such eating not merit a photographic moment? It is a belief-box that even the new Hindutva, with its many imaginary narratives, has not been able to put a coin into.

In late September, out with family on a Saturday evening, we found ourselves in a new eatery in a shopping mall in our small town, Siliguri. Only vegetarian fare was served there: momo, samosa, phuchka. My brother suddenly pointed out to me one of my favourites on the wall menu: 'bhog khichdi with labra (vegetables), papad and tomato chutney'. This was a first, and I have to confess a most delicious surprise – imagine finding 'temple food' (as I found the woman at the counter explain to a white woman) on a restaurant menu. Perhaps this was the bhog's rite of passage at last, I wondered?

A month later, I heard my mother read from the Lakshmi Panchali: in rhyming couplets over what must have taken her an hour, I heard her read about how all women should be 'lokkhi', the 'good girl', but it was the rich catalogue of 'bhog' that interested me more. For all purposes, it was a banquet. What is it that prevents us from saying so, in making us stick to bhog instead of bhoj?

In front of my mother were the very same things that the Panchali had asked of the good devotee: the uniform of white that marks our prasad, batasha, nokuldana, banana, apple, coconut, rice, naroo, milk, curd, payesh, the white flowers shiuli and tawgor, and then my favourite, the moong khichdi bringing in colour and the much needed salt after the overdose on sweetness.

And suddenly it struck me that this in itself was art – Bhog: Still Life.

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