India, through its khana

| Updated on January 24, 2020

Notes on how IRCTC was made to eat humble pie, sorry appam

We are, at least in some measure, what we eat — food can define us as Punjabis, Malayalees or Bengalis quite as strikingly, if not stridently, as language does. Cuisine and language, or at any rate dialects, change at least across state borders, if not within a few hundred kilometres. They are cultural markers for cities, regions, communities and festivals. A pan-Indian organisation like the Railways, which embodies India for the melting pot that it is by transporting over 22 million people daily, is expected to be alert to the country’s staggering and delightful culinary diversity. That, sadly, was not in evidence when the Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Organisation recently struck some local Kerala cuisine off the menu of the railway stalls in the State and hiked the prices of the remaining ones, while introducing north Indian fare of samosas, kachoris and the like at lower rates. For the Malayalee traveller, this was at once a culinary and cultural affront. Howls of protest ensued, after which the IRCTC fortunately saw better sense and backtracked. Hopefully, Kerala’s delicacies such as puttu, kadala curry and pazhampori are back on the menu of the State’s railway stalls.

Food has always been part of the unparalleled excitement of rail journeys, even if less so than a few decades ago. Stations and States are known by the delicacies on offer, and discerning passengers make a beeline for well known biryani and pakoda stalls as trains helpfully stop for lunch or dinner. Now, rail food is dull and predictable, if not downright awful and unhygienic, more so in the northern half of the country. A 2017 CAG report on railway food tells us why this is so — a few contractors bagging too many station contracts is a big reason, with fewer checks on their functioning.

It wouldn’t be out of place to locate this faux pas by IRCTC in a larger ambience where some cultures and points of view are elbowing out the rest. Of the 303 MPs of the ruling party, only 29 are from the southern States, of which 25 are from Karnataka alone. It is easy to be carried away by a geographically limited point of view, which goes beyond favouring pakodas over puttu, or mustard oil over coconut oil, to privileging the economic needs of one region over another. There is some regional angst over the share of southern States in Central revenues, besides suspicion over Hindi imposition. A row over cultural markers such as cuisine can sputter into a larger protest, given this subtext. It is in the fitness of things that Indian Railways, our venerable national carrier, should have averted that.

Published on January 24, 2020

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