‘The bias, prejudice, ignorance, bigotry around food reflects the general intolerance in India’

‘The bias, prejudice, ignorance, bigotry around food reflects the general intolerance in India’
Nandita Haksar

The Morung Express interviewed Nandita Haksar, author of the new book, ‘The Flavours of Nationalism: Recipes for Love, Hate and Friendship’


Q. What inspired you to write the book ‘The Flavours of Nationalism’?

A. I have always wanted to write a book about Indian attitudes to food which reflect so many kinds of prejudices and biases. I wanted it to be a light hearted book, making fun of ourselves but with the present controversies over beef and vegetarianism the book took on a more serious and darker side of the politics of food.


The bias, the prejudice, the ignorance, the bigotry around food reflects the general intolerance in India. That is what my book focuses on. The intolerance on beef is so deep that a film called Caste on the Menu Card was banned from a film festival because it mentioned beef. The film begins with a Dalit poet’s poem in Telugu:


When its udders were squeezed and milked

You didn’t feel any pain at all

When it was stitched into a chappal you stamped underfoot and walked

You didn’t feel hurt at all

When it rang as a drum at your marriage and your funeral

You didn’t suffer any blows

When it sated my hunger, beef became your goddess?


Q. What is ‘nationalism’ in the context of food? Could you share an example?

A. There is so much talk about one national culture, one language and now perhaps even one national dish. There were reports in the papers that perhaps Prime Minister Modi will declare the Khichiri as a national dish of India.


There are so many kinds of khichiri: bisi bele huli anna of Karnataka to the khichiri with minced meat in Hyderabad. The question would be whether if Khichiri is declared as a national dish would we also have one national recipe?


Even those Indians who are proud to be Indians have an equal pride in their particular cultures and cuisines.


There is one example I have cited in the book which illustrates this. There was a long drawn battle between West Bengal and Odisha over the Rosugulla. Each state claimed that the sweet originated in their part and committees were set up to go into the origins and ancient texts were cited and finally after two years GI (Geographical Indication) status was given to Banglar rosgulla. Now Odisha is trying to get a GI status for its brand of rosugulla.


Q. What are some of the ‘fundamental political questions’ you raise in this book?

A. I have raised several political questions but the one fundamental one is: why is it that we in India have still not abolished the caste system? It is the caste system which prevents Indians from sitting together and even sharing a meal. The question of inter-dining was a subject of debate between our freedom fighters such as Gandhi, Ambedkar and Periyar.


How can we hope to build unity in a country when the citizens are graded on the basis of what they eat and some even refuse to share a meal with others?


Q. How does food shape us, individually, and as a society?

A. It is not merely what we eat but so many customs, traditions and attitudes around food we learn as children and it shapes our views. For instance, if we see only our mother cooking, washing and preparing food we think cooking is a woman’s job. In the book I have written one chapter called “feminist furies” about how as a feminist in the human rights movement I had to deal with this issue.


If we are brought up to believe vegetarianism is a virtue then we would look down on those who eat meat. I come from a community of meat-eating Brahmins. But the community does not eat onions or garlic; and even in my childhood onions were not used in our cooking. There was a prejudice against Punjabis because they ate so many onions!


Q. The people of the North East are often discriminated against for their food preference in Indian cities. Does your book engage with this case, why it happens or if attitudes can/will ever change?

A. Oh Yes! Of course the Northeast and food features in my book and I have raised the issue of prejudices against the people of Northeast for their food preferences in many contexts.
An extract from my book shows how I have engaged with the question of attitudes to food even in cases I filed in court.


Q. Could you share one of your most valuable food memories from the Naga areas?

A. There are so, so many. I have described many in the book. My mother used to say that the real reason why I worked with the Nagas was because of the food. I could write an entire book on my memories of food in the Naga areas.


There is an incidence I quote when a French anthropologist, Violette Graff visited our home in Bangalore and my husband, a Naga, had made chicken liver chutney and Violette said it was better than the French chicken liver pate. That was just one example of how sophisticated Naga cuisine is.


I genuinely believe that Naga cuisine is special so much so that I persuaded a Tangkhul friend in Goa, Livingstone Shaiza, to open a restaurant which serves Northeast cuisines. Most of the dishes are Naga and it is called Meiphung.


Naga cuisine has found many fans. Shaiza told me that a Goan client had deposited Rs 15,000 and ordered food every second day! I have written Livingstone’s story in my book Exodus is not Over (2016) which is about migrant workers from the Northeast.


Q. Nagas across borders appreciate each others’ food; Nagas from all walks of life can sit with each other and share food with a sense of equality and respect. Yet, some find that the Nagas are a divided house. Can food, then, build ‘national unity’? How?

A. This is a very important question. It is true that Nagas can sit together as equals and share a meal. But remember, it would be mostly the Naga men sitting together while the cooking and serving is done by women. Patriarchy is as deeply rooted in Naga culture as it is in every other culture.


Even when Nagas are not divided by caste they are divided by tribe and village. And today Nagas are also divided along class and religious denominations. So, what can bring them together?


I believe what brings together people is a shared political vision and determination to fight for that vision. My understanding that nationalism, Naga nationalism included, by itself is not enough. Nagas will have to decide what kind of Naga nation they want? Will it be based on old customs and traditions or on principles of equity and social, economic justice. And all this has to be discussed over a meal.


In the past during the head hunting days the most bitter feuds were often settled with both parties enjoying a feast together.


‘The Flavours of Nationalism’ is available on Amazon.in