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What’s cooking? Demystifying food practices across India

Director Vani Subramanian speaks to Richa Kaul Padte about her documentary, Stir. Fry. Simmer, which examines how food practices perpetuate differences and hierarchies.

Richa Kaul Padte  28th Sep 2013

Above: A still from the film showing a cinematic depiction of the Musahar community’s diet.

hat led you to the topic of food, and what did you aim to achieve with Stir. Fry. Simmer?

A. I've been looking at how we deal with difference. It's one thing to talk about political mobilisation, but at a personal level, how does one understand it? I've tried to look at the many levels at which difference operates, and one of the strongest things for me has been food. Food is something in which we enact our family, our community, and whatever sense of identity we have. Let's say I eat something and I feel like I'm home - it means that I belong to a certain kind of context, which I then relate to. But much as food builds bonds, it also demarcates those outside the bonds. It is a recognition of what is ours and also of what is not ours. In this day and age - when there is such a lot of talk about food - I wanted to ask questions around what it really means.

Q. The text over one still in the film reads, 'The vessels in my house are all my mother's. Yet the name on the pans are all my father's'. What does this say about the gender politics of food?

A. I didn't want to make gender a large segment, but it's obviously something that has to be addressed. Some of the film's characters are male, some are female, but every one of them has a relationship with food. Yes, everyone has an opinion, everyone has likes and dislikes but I wanted to use this quotation, which is a line from the Telugu poet Vimala's poem The Kitchen, as a reminder of how naturalised our gender dynamics of food and cooking are.

Q. In the scene pertaining to the Osmania University Beef Eating Festival, Professor Kancha Ilaiah equates Hindu nationalism with vegetarianism. Do you think this is true?

A. I think it is true and I also feel that this is a somewhat Gandhian notion of Indian national values. There is a Hindu vegetarian model, which sets in motion a particular idea of what India is: an idea which drops from its margins certain kinds of castes and communities. So even though the Dalits aren't actually a minority, they are seen as one because the models that have been set up in everything - whether it's a certain kind of literacy or a certain kind of food – are Hindu, upper caste models.

There is a Hindu vegetarian model, which sets in motion a particular idea of what India is. So even though the Dalits aren’t actually a minority, they are seen as one because the models that have been set up in everything - whether it’s a certain kind of literacy or a certain kind of food – are Hindu, upper caste models.

Q. Speaking of the margins, in the film, a man from Manipur describes the construction of Naga identity through the food they eat – namely beef and pork. Can you talk about this?Image 2nd

A. In a lot of ways this film is not about food, but about food practices. The letter the man reads this idea from is one that the Naga elders wrote to the Planning Commission when the country's borders were being drawn. The Nagas were never a part of India or the British Empire: they battled the British and then they continued to battle India. And in that [written] articulation of saying 'We are different,' I think it is extremely telling that they are talking about their food practices. Another thing the same man later articulates is: 'Everyone says, "You're chinky, you guys eat everything."' It's the sort of stereotype with which the Naga as the non-Indian is seen. To look at this letter in 2013, so many years after it was written, you realise it is exactly the premise within which we are working today.

Q. Stir. Fry. Simmer talks about the politics of rat-eating and rat-catching amongst the Musahars in Bihar. How is this linked to caste discrimination?

A. A lot of caste discrimination is to do with practices, which includes food practices. Caste also determines what you can and cannot eat, both in economic and social terms. Rat catching is the Musahars' primary occupation, without which paddy farming suffers. They aren't the only community that eats rats, but they are discriminated because they are known for this: it's in their name. What happens as you keep stigmatising certain kinds of food practices is that people try to escape that caste stigma: they stop eating rats, or snails or other 'dirty' things. But they don't have the resources – either money or access to better food – which leads to an increase in malnutrition within these communities. Today, a lot of Musahars have stopped catching rats, and farmers are chucking toxins into the land instead.

Q. The Food Security Bill is being criticised as one which puts national profit before farmers' rights. Is this Bill helpful or harmful in its approach to agriculture?

A. I think we are living in a situation where we need a lot of vigilance around food. We're talking about the Food Security Bill, yes, but we're also still talking about a government who went to the Supreme Court two years ago (when grains fromVidharbha were being wasted) to say they couldn't afford to sort the grain out and distribute it. Until the definition of BPL [Below Poverty Line] is questioned, until the wastage of grain is questioned, you can't have this conversation. I think there's a larger, basic set of questions, and I'm not sure how many of these the Bill actually addresses.

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