Prejudice on your plate?

Vani Subramanian | Updated on November 02, 2018

Eating one’s way to unity: The book looks at how deep, interpersonal connections are made through the assimilation of food practices   -  Arundhati Sathe

Nandita Haksar’s book deftly tackles how food practices and taboos sustain cultural and national identities

Former journalist-turned-human rights activist and lawyer Nandita Haksar writes in the introduction to her book The Flavours of Nationalism: Recipes for Love, Hate and Friendship, “I wanted to write a lighthearted book; something to make us laugh at ourselves and our everyday prejudices, but as the book progressed it became dark and grim.”


But living as we do, in a time when a Mohammed Akhlaq of Uttar Pradesh is lynched on suspicion of storing beef in his fridge and Santoshi Kumari is just one of many who die of starvation in Jharkhand for want of an Aadhaar link to the family ration card, Haksar’s insight may seem all too obvious; but it really shouldn’t be. Yet, I felt a deep resonance with the trajectory she described.

A few years ago, when I was making my documentary film Stir Fry Simmer, which dealt with food practices and identity, I realised that as much as our kitchens are where our taste buds learn what is familiar, they are also where we learn what foods and practices are not ours, where we define what’s edible or inedible, desired or despicable, aspirational or untouchable. And, more important, how such culinary segregation determines and sustains our idea of who we are against the ‘other’ — as individuals, families, communities and a nation. In that sense, Haksar’s book is an amazing travelogue through time, which simultaneously and seamlessly is personal, cultural, and political. Growing up in a family with roots in Kashmir and Lucknow, she challenges the right-wing assertion that all Brahmins are vegetarian, in the first chapter itself, dispelling it through one delicious anecdote after another. As the daughter of a diplomat travelling and living abroad, she learns from her parents how deep, interpersonal connections can be made through the assimilation and accommodation of food practices.

As a young girl reading Enid Blyton, she fantasises about midnight feasts in a hostel that her reality never matches up to. As a student in England, she is amazed by the recognition of the chicken tikka masala as a national dish of the British, and yet engrossed by the controversy over whether the dish is a Bangladeshi, Pakistani or Indian innovation. And during the Emergency, she learns that even an unexplained bottle of champagne at home could send you to jail! These are just some of the tales the reader enjoys as Haksar interweaves countless memories and incidents with present-day concerns. No story is too big or too small to tell, no comfort or discomfort too honest to share. When she writes about the Anand Pressure Cooker (“basically an insulated tiffin carrier with a stove at the bottom”), which allowed slow cooking without the constant supervision of a cook, she delights in the discovery that food columnist Vikram Doctor has written about it.

When she ruminates on why she and Mohammed Aamir Khan (a young man falsely accused of being a terrorist, whose memoir she helped write) have such conflicting memories of Old Delhi, she asks difficult questions about our claims to a past more syncretic than the present. She recalls the State visit of John and Jacqueline Kennedy to Delhi and the tizzy to find an appropriate tablecloth for a dinner. She reminds us of how the Mizo movement emerged from struggles against the great famine in the Mizo hills of Assam. Her narratives of the politics of hunger are as populated by the writings of journalist P Sainath as they are with the voices of fishworkers, hawkers and street-food vendors reeling under a globalised economy. “For now I ask no more than the justice of eating,” she writes, quoting from ‘The Great Tablecloth’ by Pablo Neruda.

The Flavours of Nationalism: Recipes for Love, Hate and Friendship Nandita Haksar Speaking Tiger Non-fiction ₹350


Through it all, Haksar’s voice is clear, candid and uncompromising as she calls out the patriarchal blind spots of comrades, and battles with feminist friends, as well as reflects on the privileges of her own class position. Accounts in the book are peppered with recipes and descriptions of dishes shared with family, friends and neighbours, Burmese and Iraqi refugees. Interestingly, she makes no claims to being a great cook. In fact, hidden in the book, are some lovely tales of feminist resistance to that stereotype.

So whether you read like you eat — gobbling fast or slowly chewing through the “burst of flavours” that every luqma (ball of rice and dal or vegetable or meat gravy) offers — the taste (and troubles) of Haksar’s book will linger. For, according to her, “The most delicious luqmas could be made only after the bowl was empty and the grease of the gravy remained. Then I was allowed to put in the rice and wipe the bowl clean, mixing the meat gravy with the rice. Sometimes Papa would tease me by pretending to take away the luqma I had kept for last…”

Vani Subramanian’s documentary ‘Stir. Fry. Simmer’ explores the connection between food practices and identity

Published on November 02, 2018

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