Exploring the usage of food as a symbol of distress and political violence in Bengali literature.
The first time the appearance of food in a book shook me was when I read Om Prakash Valmiki’s Joothan more than a decade ago. I read the book in English translation, which retained Valmiki’s original Hindi title. This wasn’t, in all probability, merely a stylistic decision; it seems to have been a necessary one. For, the word joothan, like its Bengali equivalent eNthho, does not have a satisfactory English translation. The closest word that describes it -- leftovers -- is way too short of what joothan actually means -- scraps of food left on one’s plate after a meal meant to be thrown in trash. In the autobiographical book, Valmiki describes how members of the Chuhra community -- the caste he belonged to -- would be served joothan by their upper caste masters as wages for manual labour. Valmiki describes, in excruciating detail, how the Chuhras would collect the remains of the meals left behind from an upper caste wedding, dry the bits of pooris they collected in the sun, and how he had to guard those pieces from crows, hens, and dogs. These dried bits, half-eaten by other people, would be saved for the rainy season, when they would be soaked in water and boiled, to be had with chili powder and salt or jaggery.
I was shaken by Valmiki’s account because in my personal experience, even when we had less, each family member had the dignity of a serving of food on their plate, untouched by others. Joothan would be my first experience of seeing how food, often celebrated in literary texts, could also be a symbol of extreme violation and violence. As Valmiki says in the book, “When I think about all those things today, thorns begin to prick my heart. What sort of a life was that? After working hard day and night, the price of our sweat was just joothan. And yet no one had any grudges. Or shame. Or repentance.” [Translation by Arun Prabha Mukherjee]
Reading Joothan would make me acutely aware of not only how social inequity can determine one’s eating practices, but also make food a traumatic memory instead of a pleasurable one. It told me that the reasons the poor and marginalized eat what they do are radically different from those experienced by the more privileged. Here, survival is the key driver and hunger the ultimate trigger. As Manoranjan Byapari, one of the biggest names in Bengali Dalit literature informs us in his autobiographical work, Itibritte Chondal Jeebon, the life of a Dalit faces further peril when he becomes a refugee. He remembers having survived on things like wild figs and yams, the pith of unripe dates, wild berries, mahua flowers, boiled leaves of the charota (Cassia tora) plant -- practically anything edible his family could find -- once they became refugees following India’s independence. He describes how amidst the growing food crisis of the 1960s, his family couldn’t afford buying rice and would have to purchase khood, or broken rice, which came mixed with sandy gravel. Byapari’s mother would sift the gravelly rice bits for an hour before she washed it in the pond and boiled it into a porridge that the family swallowed down with salt and chilies. He also remembers eating broken husks of corn, which was typically fed to poultry.
Even before the exigencies of Partition, poverty and food scarcity had haunted Bengal. In 1943, the state experienced one of its worst famines, an event that would leave a lasting impact on the eating habits of the region. The famine, not caused by a natural disaster such as a flood or a drought, but brought on entirely by the politically motivated decisions of the then British prime minister Winston Churchill, aimed at stemming the advancement of Japan in the region. Under its Denial Policy, the British government routed more than 40,000 tons of rice from rural Bengal to Calcutta to cut off food supplies to a Japanese army approaching India. This created a forced scarcity in Bengal’s villages, pushing starving villagers to the city of Calcutta, where they would be found begging for some phain, the starchy water left behind after cooking rice, off the city’s residents. I remember relishing phena bhaat -- a gruel of cooked rice that retained the starchy water -- with a glob of butter as a child.
I also remember that in our house food was rarely wasted. Following my grandfather’s posting to New Delhi from Calcutta in 1948 for his government job, our family had to practically begin from scratch. With the loss of property and belongings that were left behind in what became East Pakistan in 1947 came financial hardship and the necessity to live frugally. I grew up seeing the many inventive ways in which my grandmother prevented food wastage. She turned spoiled milk into chenna (soft cottage cheese); dried out daal that had gone bad to drain it of its moisture, to which she added chopped onions, green chilies and a dash of raw mustard oil for extra zing; make bawras or fritters with nearly any kind of leftover food -- stale rice, bits of potato bhaaji, flowers like pumpkin blossoms and amaltas clusters; batter fried the leaves of the shiuli or night jasmine plant; reserved the peels of potato, pumpkin (kumro) and bottle gourd (lau) to julienne and stir fry them with nigella seeds to serve as a side dish with rice and daal. While I enjoyed each of these “invented” foods as a child, only later would I understand their genesis. As a refugee family picking up pieces in a new universe, food became a part of our changed political dynamic -- one that demanded pragmatism and economy. Interestingly, the consumption of vegetable peels -- another practice that emerged from the Bengal famine -- has endured long after the tragedy.
In my debut novel, Victory Colony, 1950, centred around the influx of refugees from East Pakistan in the 1950s, a ‘found’ family of fellow refugees are caught in a similar situation as they set up a colony of their own and begin life anew free of government assistance in refugee camps. When Manas, a volunteer who had worked with them visits the colony, he’s invited for lunch, which is described thus: “Tea turned into lunch, which Malati insisted the boys stay for. Manas tried his best to resist the idea; he could see their hosts’ resources were stretched. But Malati would have none of that and made them an elaborate meal: mashed pumpkin served with a dash of mustard oil, fried pumpkin peels, and khesari dal, grass peas cooked in a thin, runny soup, and thick grains of rice, malodorous with age.”
The last item mentioned in that meal -- rice -- is probably the most crucial when it comes to a Bengali meal. That the refugees must do with rice that has become malodorous with age clearly points to the inferior quality of the grain. Despite that, being able to eat rice at all is a sort of privilege for the Victory Colony or Bijoynagar residents. In literary texts, the absence of and the concomitant craving for rice is a giveaway of a person’s extreme penury. In Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay’s iconic novel, Aranyak, written between 1937 and 1939, based on his work life in the forest areas of northern Bihar, the author writes about a group of people who, upon hearing of his visit to their area, throng him on a chilly winter evening. Flummoxed, when he asks an official what their purpose of visit is, the man tells him they had come to eat rice. Being dirt poor, all they could afford was gram or corn flour, which they ate all year round. The possibility of eating rice amounted to a feast for these men, and the only way to make that happen was to gatecrash an official’s visit.
Byapari narrates his own memory of hungering for rice as a young boy in Itibritte. When a Brahmin doctor offers to employ him to work in his house to feed his cows and clean the cowshed in exchange for bhaat -- cooked rice -- it’s an opportunity Byapari simply can’t refuse. As he writes, “Bhaat! Ah! I struggled to recall when I’d last had some. How wonderful it had looked and smelled and tasted. The scent and taste of it soothed the spirit. At the mere mention of bhaat, a starved boy bent down and began following the man to his home.”
Bengali author Syed Mustafa Siraj uses this scent of rice bubbling in a pot as both the symbolic and structural plinth for his short story, Awghraane Awnner Ghraan (The Scent of Rice in Winter). In this layered and stylistically rich story, he tells us about Chiruni, a young woman who fervently desires to visit her aunt in a neighbouring village so she can taste bhaat made from the freshly harvested winter paddy crop. It’s a long trip on foot, and she decides to tag along with Dhanahari, the village headman headed in the same direction. The elderly man sees in this journey a lascivious opportunity. Chiruni who is only used to eating items like a runny curry of gugli or periwinkles, wild greens, fermented rice that contains more gravel than grains of rice, and wholewheat flour boiled into a porridge can barely contain her excitement as the scent of the steaming winter rice she once had sitting in her aunt’s verandah keeps surfacing to her mind. Despite intimations of Dhanahari’s lewd intentions, she finds herself being pulled along by the memory of that delicious scent. Fortunately for Chiruni, a kind benefactor appears just as Dhanahari attempts to molest her, and the girl is safely taken to her aunt’s home. This is how the story ends: “(Behind the man), the girl takes flight. The thought of sitting in Mashi’s polished verandah as the sweet scent of steaming winter rice rises, seizes her mind again.”
In The Poisoned Bread, a viscerally told story by Bandhu Madhav, one of the pioneers of Marathi Dalit literature, the narrator and his grandfather, both from the Mahar caste, are not only mistreated by their upper caste employer Babu Patil, but denied wages at the end of their backbreaking toil. Crestfallen, the old man begs Patil for pieces of “stale, rancid pieces of bread (that) lay scattered on the ground in front of the oxen,” which even the animals seemed to have refused. This is how the narrator describes the food scraps: “They were smeared with dung and urine. Grandpa collected them all with happy excitement and neatly put them into his sackcloth. And he left the place but not before blessing the Patil.” [Translated by Ramesh Dnyate]
Byapari also shows us the viciousness that food can be made to convey. When giving him his daily wage of food, his employer’s wife would literally throw rice and vegetables from a height on a misshapen, hollowed plate so it didn’t come in contact with her. Young Byapari had to sit in a corner of the uthhon or courtyard to finish eating and wash his plate, which he had to keep in the cowshed as it wouldn’t be allowed entry inside the house.
Recently, I discussed the subject of the role food does and can play in literature with a novelist friend. We both felt that when posited in wider contexts -- social, political, economical, environmental -- food transcends itself and comes to represent something entirely different. By sharing their heartrending personal narratives, writers like Om Prakash Valmiki, Bandhu Madhav and Manoranjan Byapari draw our attention to the not-so-innocent face of food. Chiruni and her real-life counterparts force us to rethink our perceptions of food -- hygge inspired, snug in sufficiency if not in plenitude, and show us the very antithesis of what has come to be known as “comfort food.”
[All translations by the author unless noted otherwise]
Bhaswati Ghosh writes and translates fiction, non-fiction and poetry. Her first book of fiction is 'Victory Colony, 1950'. Her first work of translation from Bengali into English is 'My Days with Ramkinkar Baij'. Bhaswati’s writing has appeared in several literary journals, including Indian Express, Scroll, The Wire, Literary Shanghai, Cargo Literary, Pithead Chapel, Warscapes, and The Maynard. Bhaswati lives in Ontario, Canada and is an editor with The Woman Inc. She is currently working on a nonfiction book on New Delhi, India. Visit her at https://bhaswatighosh.com/