Caste is a crucial factor in Indian socio-political scenario as the politics of social stratification and exclusion is operated on the basis of it. A number of cultural aesthetics emerge that help perpetuating the caste hierarchy and policies of social exclusion. Food aesthetic has emerged as such a factor that is employed in constructing an individual’s socio-political as well as cultural identity. In 1910 the Census Commission used food habit as a marker in demarcating the Hindu population. On the basis of the Savarna aesthetic of food some foods are labeled as tabooed and a particular section of the people is stigmatized over their choices of food. In his writings, Ambedkar tries to trace from when and why food starts functioning as a marker of socio-political identity and how it is related to caste identity. In this paper, focusing on Sharankumar Limbale’s autobiography The Outcaste and Manohar Mouli Biswas’ autobiography Surviving in My World: Growing Up Dalit in Bengal, I have tried to show how the choices of food is politicized and used in constructing Dalit identity and how that very choice of food is used in resisting the politics of stigmatization and social exclusion.
Key Words: caste, food, identity, savarna aesthetics, aesthetic of food, politics of exclusion, resistance
The choice of food and the practice of having some specific food-items play the role of socio-political marker in Indian scenario. A person’s or a certain community’s dependence on or inclination towards a specific food no longer remains confined to the realm of personal choice, when the practice or choice of having that very food starts defining or marking that individual’s or the community’s socio-political position.
In a society where what we eat, when we eat, how we eat and how what we eat is produced, is marked by gender, caste and class; the question of food can not be pushed under the carpet as a private question (Rege 69).
In Indian socio-political scenario, the choice of food stopped functioning only in the realm of personal choice, when in 1910 The Census Report prepared by the Census Commissioners used food-habit as one of the markers to classify “Hindus into (1) those who were hundred per cent Hindus and (2) those who were not” (Ambedkar 198). The circular that the Census Commissioner issued for the purpose of classifying Hindus under “three separate categories, (i) Hindus, (ii) Animists and Tribals, and (iii) the Depressed Classes or Untouchables” (193) has mentioned ten tests based on ten criteria; one of these ten criteria is “Eat beef and do no reverence to the cow” (199). The Census Report prepared by the Census Commissioners explicitly considers a certain food-habit as a criterion of classifying people as Hindus or as Untouchables, and thus qualifies certain food-habits as socio-political marker. Sharmila Rege states:
Eating habits and foods starkly mark the boundaries between the pure and the polluted, as well as between the upper and lower class, male and female, humans and god. Conversely, what kinds of food are ‘permitted’, ‘tolerated’ and ‘enforced’ for consumption and the ways in which they are consumed are structured primarily by the caste, class, gender inequalities in society (63).
Ambedkar tried to search the root of the connection between food-habit of a certain community and that very community’s socio-political position. Hindu society is divided into a number of factions on the basis of its people’s food-habit.
Even a superficial view of the food taboos of the Hindus will show that there are two taboos regarding food which serve as dividing lines. There is one taboo against meat-eating. It divides Hindus into vegetarians and flesh-eaters. There is another taboo which is against beef eating. It divides Hindus into those who eat cow’s flesh and those who do not. From the point of view of untouchability the first dividing line is of no importance. But the second is. For it completely marks off the Touchables from the Untouchables (Ambedkar 218-19).
But the ‘dividing line’ on the basis of beef-eating was not always existed in the Hindu society. Even the Brahmins and the non-Brahmins were initially not vegetarians. In this context, Ambedkar quotes Mr. Kane:
As observed by Mr. Kane:
“It was not that the cow was not sacred in Vedic times, it was because of her sacredness that it is ordained in the Vajasaneyi Samhita that beef should be eaten.
That the Aryans of the Rig Veda did kill cows for purposes of food and ate beef is abundantly clear from the Rig Veda itself. In Rig Veda (X.86.14) Indra says: “They cook for one 15 plus twenty oxen.” The Rig Veda (X.91.14) says that for Agni were sacrificed horses, bulls, oxen, barren cows and rams” (231-32).
It is vividly clear from Mr. Kane’s observation that the practice of sacrificing cows and eating beef was very much in vogue in the time of Rig Veda. Later, in the changed socio-political condition, the very practice of sacrificing cows and eating beef has become a tabooed practice and is prohibited. In trying to find out the reason behind the implementation of such a prohibition on the practice and the consequent taboo on beef–eating, Ambedkar observed that neither King Asoka nor Manu prohibited the killing of cow (264-67). He also rejected both the theory of Advaita philosophy and the doctrine of the Transmigration of the soul as the reason behind the origin of such a prohibition on sacrificing cow and consumption of beef (318-20). According to Ambedkar, the practice of worshipping the cow and the giving up of the practice of animal sacrificing as well as eating beef developed due to the battle between Buddhism and Brahmanism. Buddhists never supported the Brahmanic way of worshipping by performing Yajna and animal sacrifice; and so “The Brahmins in all probability had come to be hated as the killer of cows in the same way as the guest had come to be hated as Gognha, the killer of the cow by the householder…” (324-25). Thus to regain their lost position, the Brahmins moved a step forward. They not only stopped performing Yajna and killing of cows, they gave up beef-eating, rather, the practice of meat-eating altogether. With the passage of time, the non-Brahmins also follow the path of Brahmins and give up the consumption of beef as well as meat of dead cattle. The reason behind the non-Brahmins’ following the food-habit of the Brahmins lies in the desire of imitating those who are in advantageous social position (in this case the Brahmins), and thus being marked as ‘pure’ as per the new socio-cultural norm.
Those who have been able to achieve some material success and stabilized their food recipe could become the part of the cultural aspiration of the upper-caste/upper-class and would use the metaphor according to their new cultural taste…Why did they stop eating the meat of dead cattle? It was because consuming this food folded them into what could be called a ‘Savage Identity’” (Guru 6-10).
The Brahmins and upper-caste non-Brahmins tried to establish their “new cultural taste” (Guru 6) as norm, and the section of the society, ‘The Broken Men’, (in using Ambedkar’s term) who failed to follow the norm, were labeled as ‘Untouchables’. According to Ambedkar, the Broken Men failed to change their food-habit as per the norm set by the upper-caste (‘The Settled Tribesmen’ as Ambedkar refers them) because
In the first place, imitation was too costly. They could not afford it. The flesh of the dead cow was their principal sustenance. Without it, they would starve. In the second place, carrying the dead cow had become an obligation though originally it was a privilege. As they could not escape carrying the dead cow they did not mind using the flesh as food in the manner in which they were doing previously (359-60).
The upper caste politicized the food habit and used it to determine the social standing of both who conform to their norm in giving up the practice of eating tabooed food and those who do not. Thus the very choice of food is used as a tool of socio-political exclusion and marginalization.
The Savarna politics of excluding a large section of people because of their tabooed food-habit and consequently marginalizing them as untouchables is vividly delineated in Sharankumar Limbale’s autobiography The Outcaste (translated from his Marathi autobiography Akkarmashi by Santosh Bhoomkar)and in Manohar Mouli Biswas’ autobiography Surviving in My World: Growing Up Dalit in Bengal (translated and edited from his Bengali autobiography Amar Bhubane Ami Benche Thaki by Angana Dutta and Jaydeep Sarangi). Though set in different social context, these autobiographies are testimony of how a certain community’s socio-political identity gets intricately weaved with the very community’s choice and dependence on certain food. In this paper I have tried to show how the Mahar’s and the Namashudra’s preference for and dependence on particular food-items compel them to face socio-political complexities, and how the practice of eating of that very food-items is used as a resistance to the socio-political discrimination based on food choices and a way of assertion of their cultural identity basing on Sharankumar Limbale’s autobiography The Outcaste and Manohar Mouli Biswas’ autobiography Surviving in My World: Growing Up Dalit in Bengal.
In ‘The Outcaste’, the author Sharankumar Limbale portrays how the caste-based work-division exists in orthodox Hindu societies like that of Maharashtra and how it attaches the Mahars with the performance of the disposal of dead animals:
If a cattle died in the village one had to drag it away, skin it, and sell the skin. For such a job the owner of the dead animal would give eight measures of jower. Then everyone had a share in it and it helped to satisfy our hunger in a small way… Whenever an animal died in the village, its owner came to the Maharwada to ask the one under contract to remove the carcass after which three people would accompany the one who had the contract to fetch the dead animal. If the animal was young it was slung on the shoulders and brought to the Maharwada. If it was a big cow or a buffalo it was brought in a cart. Two people pulled the cart and two others pushed it (Limbale 13-14).
Their engagement with the act of disposing of the dead cattle provides them the opportunity of satisfying their hunger with the meat of the dead cattle; and as all the inhabitants of Maharwada take part in the distribution of the meat, the very act of sharing and distributing meat becomes symbolic of their community identity:
Everyone in the Maharwada appeared, one after another, bringing their vessels or plates with them. They almost leapt on the slaughtered animal to get their share. The one with the contract, who had fetched the dead animal, had the right to the first share and he always chose the best part of the meat. Others took away the remaining parts like the heart, spleen, intestines, and legs (15).
The inhabitants of Maharwada are relegated to live in such stark poverty that they fail to arrange adequate food grains to satisfy their hunger. They leave no means untried to collect food grains:
During the harvest when cattle grazed in the fields, they passed undigested grains of jowar in their dung. The grains were yellow and swollen. Santamai picked up such lumps of dung and on the way home washed the dung in the river water, collecting only the grains.
She then dried them in the sun…When Santamai came home she ground the jowar grains into flour (10).
The deficiency of food grains and the severity of foodlessness lead them to depend on meat; they also devise ways of storing meat for future use:
She always preserved pieces of meat which she placed on the water troughs on the roof to dry…Chandamai would select a few pieces of dry meat, cut them into smaller pieces with a sickle and roast them on a hot pan which melted the fat in the meat, causing it to sizzle (16-17).
The stored meat is not adequate to satisfy their hunger throughout the year, and they have to devise plans to get meat:
In a month when many animals died, we had enough to appease our hunger. But a month in which no animals died passed with great difficulty, like the intercalary month. At such times an animal was usually poisoned to death. Mankunna and Pralhadbaap went to a distant village to steal a buffalo and we spent the whole night slaughtering and cutting up the animal. In the morning, meat was cooked in every house (14).
Hunger becomes such a living reality for the people of Maharwada that procurement of meat by performing criminal offence like poisoning animals becomes meaningful moments of community engagement to them as these acts bear the promise of appeasement of their hunger.
But this very act of appeasing hunger with the meat of dead animals lead them to be tagged and treated as tabooed people:
When I was in the seventh form, Maula Jamadar’s young ox died. Its flesh tasted so fresh. The Mahars didn’t waste even the smallest piece. They cleared off everything and not even the smallest bit fell to the ground. Pieces of its flesh that hung drying in every hut looked like buntings.
One day, soon after this, when I reached school, Ismillya, Maula’s son, was teasing Umbrya calling him ‘base born’. As I reached there he said, ‘Here’s another base born who swallowed our ox’ (15-16).
The author depicts how the teacher of his school scolds him by saying “You like eating an ox, don’t you?” and calls him as “a son of a bitch and a beef-eater” (4).
Gopal guru states: “The upper castes have not only prescribed food for themselves, they have designated foods for other castes as well” (11). And the failure in adopting the prescribed food practice leads the untouchables be tagged as impure and ‘base born’ (Limbale 15).
The discrimination and insult meted out against the Mahars because of their food choices give birth to a sense of shame and inferiority in the mind of the author:
I developed an aversion to dead animals and detested those who ate their flesh. This hatred spread like an epidemic among our gang of boys. Whenever an animal was being skinned we deliberately went there and grabbed its legs. When it was skinned we pissed on it, threw soil and dung on it so that no one would eat the meat. Even so Keramai used to carry off the meat, and wash and cook it. We felt that no one should eat the meat of a dead animal (19).
Such aversion to so-called tabooed foods on the part of the Dalits is a kind of unconscious participation of Dalits in the Savarna politics regarding choices of food. The Savarna food aesthetic with repetition of their food practices and with condemnation of Dalit choices of food continues its hegemony. Through the creation of binary (of purity and pollution, of acceptability and unacceptability) the Savarna food politics relegates the Dalit food habits to the margin. These gradual succumbing of the Dalits to the Savarna norms and practices erases any possibility of resistance that could arise from the Dalit community. Thus the author’s and his companions’ aversion to meat of dead animals only strengthen the hegemony of Savarna food aesthetic. But as the author revisits and relives his experiences and feelings through the writings of his autobiography, he actually shows his resistance to the Savarna politics/ploy of erasure that in the past he failed to perform.
However, using food for freezing some social sections into a cultural box is not specific to Maharashtra. In fact, non-vegetarian food is also used by the upper-caste from other parts of the country to construct the “Savage Identity.” Thus, in parts of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, a section of the so-called Untouchables is called Musahari (the rat eaters) (Guru 14).
The practice of constructing “Savage Identity” on the basis of a section’s food choices is also prevailed in Bengal. In his autobiography Surviving in My World: Growing Up Dalit in Bengal, Manohar Mouli Biswas depicts how the people of Namashudra community are treated as of “Savage Identity” (using Gopal Guru’s term) because of their practice of eating porks. Interestingly, the cultural context of Bengal is a unique one as in Bengal the upper caste people are not vegetarian; and the reason behind this food choice lies in the region’s distinct historical and cultural past as well as the region’s distinct geographical position. Due to the abundance of rivers in Bengal and the presence of Bay of Bengal, there is ample supply of fishes, and naturally people of the region are dependent on fish as a prime food source. The cultural scenario of Bengal is shaped by its colonial past because during the British rule, Bengal, specifically Kolkata, was the hotbed of the economic, cultural and educational activities of the British. But interestingly in Bengal, the British cultural domination operates in binary. The macho, masculine British officers consider the “Bengali Bhadralok” as “effeminate Babu” (Das 111) who may make successful economical venture with the British, and who may even prosper in educational fields, but cannot be counted as equal of the British soldiers in might. So in the context of the rise of the anti-British Nationalist Movement, it appears as a challenge before the Bengalis to represent themselves as strong, able-bodied man.
In a series of writings, political tracts and essays, books and public lectures, most eminent names of the colonial Bengali middle-class society in the 19th century stressed the need for protein-based dietary formats that would help Bengali men build muscles. Starting from Rajnarayan Basu’s Se Kal ar E Kal (1879) to Swami Vivekananda’s Bharat Kalyan or Prachya o Paschatya, there seems to be extremely obsessive concern with the muscular body. The muscular body that is required to dislodge this colonial projection and to throw the British out of India had to consume meat (111).
The socio-cultural history of Bengal faces another interesting juncture. In the pretext of Partition of the country, the fear of being dominated by the Muslims (the numerically majority community in Bengal) and being equated in the food choices with Muslims bring change in the thought process of the Bengali Bhadralok. They tried to alienate themselves from the Muslim cultural identity so while they continue to eat meat, they represented beef as a tabooed food. They attach Muslim cultural identity with the practice of eating beef and of performing the slaughter of animals (Das 111).
So due to this unique socio-cultural context, the Bengali Bhadralok include meat and fish in their plate but interestingly the very Bengali Bhadralok section of the society fail to accept and include pork in their diet and label it as a tabooed food.
Because of the practice of eating this tabooed food (pork), the Namashudras’ experience of being secluded and confined in ‘a cultural box’ (using Gopal Guru’s words) by the upper caste Bengali Bhadralok is vividly delineated by Manohar Mouli Biswas in his autobiography Surviving in My World: Growing Up Dalit in Bengal. Like the Mahars of Maharashtra, the Namashudras are also discriminated in the society as the upper caste Bhadralok tend to construct the Namashudras’ savage identity on the basis of their food choice. The upper caste Bhadralok calls the Namashudras as ‘YOU ARE ALL pork-eating Namas!’ (Biswas 9). In his autobiography, Manohar Mouli Biswas depicts how the practice of pork-eating is intrinsically connected with the life of the Namashudras:
In my childhood I witnessed pork-eating taking the form of a festival. Faces flashed with smiles, everyone was restless with tasks, and so expressive with wordy skills! All busy in self-presentation! ‘So superb preparations are on at your home! Should I come along?’- If someone uttered like this, he was sure to get an invitation! Not that they actually came. It was through such exchanges that people expressed their intimacy (10).
The author also delineates how the participation of every member of the Namashudra neighbourhood in the performance of pork-eating constructs the moments of solidarity and community living.
The pig sellers, just as they came every year, brought along their droves of pigs from a
far-off village. The morol, village headman, bargained for a large-sized male pig. It was
fat, and someone who knew about pigs confirmed that the choice was perfect. It would be
enough for Pubpara, the eastern neighbourhood. Sitting together and counting all heads,
the number of shares was sorted out (42).
The author’s words further shows how the pork-eating takes the shape of an event as every member of the Namashudra community plays the role entrusted on them in the process of selecting the pig, buying it and sharing the meat for every member of the community:
The morol of the neighbourhood had bargained and settled on the price of one… There would be one among the pig grazers who could push a dagger and he would pierce the chest of the pig that had been selected. The buyers, at least four to five of them, tying a rope round its legs and hanging it on a bamboo pole, would carry and bring in that dead animal on their shoulders… The two brothers would prepare shares. Shares of two kinds. Shares of twenty-five paisa and shares of fifty paisa (50).
As the slaughtering of the dead animals satisfy the hunger of all the inhabitants of Maharwada, likewise the buying of pigs and sharing the pork includes every member of the Namashudra neighbourhood as “…whether or not someone had money-anyone could take a share” (50). While the engagement of the Maharwada people with the caste-defined occupation of scavenger, their stark poverty and the severity of foodlessness lead them to slaughter the animals, for the Namashudras “Buying and eating pork was a matter associated with merriment” (50). And as the practice of pork-eating is connected with ‘merriment’, “If there were any news of anyone’s sickness, death or some sorrowful environment in someone’s home in the neighbourhood, then the morol usually would not think about such a purchase” (50). As pork-eating has the essence of festivity, destitute like Chhona and her mother are not left out from having the share of the pork as one kind hearted person pays the price of her share:
‘There are only a few people in my home-my mother, daughter and wife. Rather than giving me one share, give me two: one for me and one for Chhona’s mother. I am giving you money for both.’
When people heard that Chhona’s mother was not left out because she was poor, they were delighted (52).
The very practice of pork-eating, which brings moments of collective happiness for the Namashudras, also makes them vulnerable to the upper caste food politics and compels them to confront the insult inflicted towards them by the upper caste people. The upper castes Bengali bhadralok, though have included meat and fish in their plate, have felt nausea to include pork and beef.
In India, the eating of meat, and particularly the eating of beef and pork, is often associated with ritual impurity. Although any eating of meat is regarded as polluting, the eating of beef, which is the meat of the most sacred of animals, and the eating of pork, which comes from swine who eat excrement, is exceptionally repugnant to upper caste Hindus (Shah and Shah 84).
This nausea of the upper caste is reflected in their attitude towards the so-called lower caste people whom they try to alienate from the social sphere because of their food choices. The utterance ‘YOU ARE ALL pork-eating Namas!’ (9) on the part of the upper castes thus bears a sense of insult and humiliation for the Namashudras. The author says: “‘You are all pork-eating namas’ was an expression that was considered an unpleasant truth” (10). But for the author, it is an utterance of mere fact and it appears strange to him that the very mention of the fact can make the Namashudra people feel humiliated:
‘YOU ARE ALL pork-eating namas’! Well, it was true. Truth is highly valued across the ages. But some truths are never pleasing, never treasured. These are disturbing truths! Pork was a favourite food of the community I was born in. What was there in the food habit to break one’s head over? Strangely, some of our people were extremely sensitive about the matter. Their sensitivity surprised me. When addressed as ‘pork-eating namas’, they would get mad with anger. Those who ate pork and even those who did not got equally enraged! They would be convinced immediately that they were being abused. Even a round of fisticuffs to avenge the abuse was not surprising! (9)
With these words, the author not only expresses his surprise over the fact that how with mere utterance of few words one can make a whole community feel insulted, but also raises question against the ploy of alienating a community on the basis of their food choices. He also reveals the fact that by showing anger, his community people unknowingly accepted that there is something to be ashamed of in their food practice. This feeling of shame on the part of the Namashudras put the upper caste food politics in advantageous position as a part the Namashudra people show their readiness in discarding their traditional food choices in order to appear ‘pure’ in the eyes of the so called upper castes:
Thakurmashai would certainly be a Brahmin. He came from a distant village. Those who wanted to hobnob with him would be kind of worldly wise and intelligent people. They would try to convince the priest that they did not eat pork anymore; that they had gradually given up their base practice- towards the light of the new age (11).
But the author does not let him be caught in the upper caste food politics and utters “My ma cooked pork deliciously” (10) without any sense of shame. He counters the upper caste construction of the pure and impure food through the unhesitant delineation of the food choices of the Namashudras. Through the vivid description of pork-eating and its intrinsic relation with the life of the Namashudras, the author tries to reaffirm the Namashudra food practices as an alternate cultural practice of the region (Guru 15).
Both Sharankumar Limbale and Manohar Mouli Biswas become vocal about their community’s food practices in their autobiographies, and thus their autobiographies have become a site for contesting and countering the upper caste food aesthetic which has been used as a tool to perpetuate caste hegemony and the resultant discrimination in society. The upper caste food politics of discrimination and exclusion successfully alienates the Dalit choices of food; and the Dalit food aesthetic arises from that sense of exclusion. In their autobiographies, through the establishment of Dalit food aesthetic, both Limbale and Manohar Mouli Biswas have created resistance to the Savarna ploy of cultural erasure and make assertion of Dalit consciousness.
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About the Author: Bishakha Sarkar is pursuing her PhD from the dept. of English and Cultural Studies, Kolhan University, Chaibasa. She loves to write poems and her creative and critical writings have appeared in both books and journals across the nation.