Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Politics of Food

We are treading on controversial grounds. Yes. I announce so and throw my hands up right before starting to write this piece. But write I will, however controversial (or obvious) though it may sound...

For the Bangla community, lunch is an occasion in itself. Never before have I seen being served course after course of veg and non-veg items with that typical laid back attitude. You will be served bhaat* in huge quantity along with a generous serving of dal and other vegetables, only to be reprimanded later if you don't eat enough of maachh , mangsho and chicken in the next serving accompanied by another generous handful of rice. Then there's the chutney to round up the meal and finally a mishti. Delicious. Nothing controversial here. So let's proceed.

Now imagine there's a widow in the group. Generally, there are at least two or three widows in a party, however big or small it may be, and that's a personal observation. So what happens? Just when the tables and chairs are being pulled for the lunch, someone starts calling, "Niramish? Who's niramish? How many? O, three. Fine, we will set the tables here".

For a moment, at least for me, there's a sudden thud in the festive mood. I have been pondering about this niramish business ever since I was a notun bau, even perplexed at times, at this accepted, sometimes even seemingly advocated practice of niramish for the widows...

What's niramish? For the uninitiated, it's vegetarian food, ideally even without onions and garlic. A person may be even vegetarian by choice, by the virtue of growing up in a certain environment or values. But the niramish that I am discussing here is not that sort of vegetarianism. You know, a woman becomes a hardcore vegetarian overnight in these parts of the country. Even today.

Once your husband is dead, consider your taste buds dead too. And make no fuss about it. You are expected to be that ideal wife forever and 'prove' just what a control-freak eve you can be in the absence of your dear husband.

So when, after growing up as a hardcore non-vegetarian (yes- I read somewhere that 95% of the people in Kolkata prefer non-veg food) for a good forty fifty years of your life, could be more, or could be unfortunately even less, once you are a widow- you are expected to give up on the kind of food you grew up eating. Maach, Mangsho and Murgi. Let's not forget eggs and seafood and such alike. The Bengalis seem to eat anything and everything with gusto, but for the women, unfortunately, there could be a sudden fullstop.

Do taste-buds die with the death of the husband? Is it essential to give up on good food to prove you are a good widow? What is behind this tradition of Niramish in Eastern India? Are we really a progressive nation or we prefer to ignore things right under our nose? Am I biased or common sense just doesn't hold true these days?

It's matter of choice and assertion then. I have seen at least two widows who prefer not to follow the seemingly idiosyncratic flow of thought and ideals. And this time, I also heard a gutsy lady ask another rhetorically, "Hey, they served the chicken pakoras first and then the vegetable chop, both cooked in the same kadhai. Now don't tell me they changed the oil"...

I guess that sums it all. I could go on and on about this, but then, it's a matter as simple as that of choice- unduly complicated by the burden of age-old practices and a politics of discriminatory behaviour.

I have written what I have witnessed; understood and argued relying on some very basic common sense- just like the one the lady demonstrated above. There are other important issues of personal choice, preference and the right to enjoy life to the full- as an individual and not as someone's wife, mother or daughter-in-law.

What's important is to speak up, perhaps more importantly, at least let others speak up and stand for themselves if you yourself don't have the gumption... In matters like these, it seems sometimes that a woman is a woman's worst enemy.

What do you think? Bangla bhayro and bonro, a special invitation to you to comment...

*Bhaat= RiceDal= A thin lentil preparation
Maach= Fish
Mangsho= Any kind of meat, referred to mutton in particular
Mishti= Any sweet dish
Niramish- Vegetarian food, ideally without onions and garlic
Notun bau- Newly wed daughter- in law
Pakoras= An Indian deep-fried snack
Kadhai= A deep vessel, normally used to cook food or for deep-frying
Bhayra and Bonra= Brothers and sisters (information courtesy- constant political rallies :)

22 comments:

The Tentacles of Thought said...

Ahem Ahem...
Now what do we have here...
Well i am a Bengali....
Lets start with the menu first.
(food served usually in a kolaar paata)

Kauro(mashed vegetable skins)Shukto
dal
aloo bhaja/begun bhaja/any damn bhaja
macch
one more type of macch
mangsho(murgi/paatha or both)
paayesh
chaatni
roshogolla
^^^This was just the 'standard one'

i am a brahmin.by tradition im supposed to stop eating any one type of meat after my thread ceremony.Its been 3 yrs nw and i still havnt stoppd eating nething.

Yes bengalis are gluttons.
We eat.
Non veg is life.

p.s-whats ur husbandz view on this?

feddabonn said...

...i knew a lady who was widowed before her son married. she was not allowed to attend his wedding. or any other festivity. i remember her telling dad how it would have been better to have done 'sati' than to have to live like she did. not bengali, no. assamese brahmin.

Gauri Gharpure said...

raja--- hmmm, now there's one very valid point to brood on and argue- if guys don't leave one type of meat after a thread ceremony, why should women leave ALL the non-veg stuff...very interesting...about my husband's take- a non-committal shrug..

feddabonn-- sad tale.. actually, the ironic point that the lady pointed out, was also vocalised by women back in the 19th century... if they were 'saved' from sati, they were meted out discrimination on the basis of food and excluding rituals, not to mention sexual predation by their very relatives and in-laws. Anyone seen Water?? After seeing the movie I wondered just how obstinate can fanatism turn to be.. that it was not allowed to be shot in India simply goes to show just how chauvinistic the hindu society has become today... And why do I feel that chauvinism somehow creeps deeper in the well-articulated and well-educated men....

Aditya said...

ur blog is written in such a lucid english... and points to such simple happenings in and around your life... its pleasing to read. thanks for chosing a pleasing theme in the backdrop. i just hate blogs in black bground.... i mean urs is a pleasing thing to read...
and then... the review of TZP has been put in a way which ive rarely seen in critic columns!

PSYCHO said...

well i didn't know of this practice :O

well no matter what we say, woman are still oppressed today...be it corporate or rural india..

The Jester said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The Jester said...

hmmm ... i had not heard of this one! nicely written.

suren said...

politics indeed ;)
i generally tend to believe that indian customs to have a hidden deeper meaning but the problem begins when the actual rationale is lost or the evolving new circumstances are not inducted into the system and this seems to one such occurrence... though she lived strictly according to the traditions, my grand ma was eating whatever she felt like, till her final days.....
;) and this veg/non veg topic has given impetus for my next blog

*Dip* said...

argh these practices make me so angry. feel like screaming "what the fuck is wrong with you" in their ears and shake them badly.. the people who come up with such things..

*Dip* said...

hee hee rishab just asked me what i ate tonight, i told him "dal bhaat and mishti" ..he was like..ooh who made all that! lol he thought i had some nice bengali things for dinner.

Nishaan said...

I'm half Bengali, and I had no idea about this practice. But then I can't even speak Bengali (I do understand it though...probably representing the half bengali in me) so I'm not surprised of my lack of knowledge about such things. Anyway this was very well written and enjoyable to read. PS - mishti dhoiiii

Vinod R Iyer said...

And we are well into 2008!! Have never heard about such a custom and should agree with you that it is disgusting !

The Tentacles of Thought said...

Hey those spaces btwn the punctuatn marx nd all were intentional since they were looking too messd up otherwise...

Gauri Gharpure said...

@ aditya-- thnks and welcome to my blog... abt the tzp review... sigh sigh, why doesnt some newspaper read ur comment and offer me a column??? :D yes, but seriously, at the risk of being immodest, i like my style, and i feel the kind of movie reviews which appear in newspapers these days suck big time..

@psycho- yes.. bingo! so make sure u don't do ur male bid in the oppression thingy.. :)

@ jester--- now tht u ve heard, spread the word and know more abt it..:) and thnks!

@ suren---- yes, i always tend to believe tht too... i am sure this belief also must have some reasons.. ayurveda, may be, say i thought tht onions, garlic and meat are basically hot food, tamasic nature and if u r a widow, u better hold on the tamasic elements and avoid later problems.. but then, it doesnt make sense really.. hinduism is a very beautiful and open religion, what's grt is, it's so open to interpretation.. wonder what kind of fanatic decay has set in these days...

Ohh.. excuse me for tht long re-comment... in short, thnks for coming, and do read again, Suren..

@ dip-- hey.. happy to see u hear... yes, someone ought to do that.. shout the miracle words loud enough... and.. u fooled rishab into believing u had a bangla dinner? wow, am glad my blog gave u a wee bit idea to pull his leg :)

@ nishaan--- no wonder u r not aware.. even i wasn't, and still now, i am myself not sure how prevalent or 'in' this niramish business is.. the thing is, u dont just start discussing things like these out of the box, there's got to be an occasion, a time, and often people prefer not to talk about controversial things...

i need to do a bit more asking abt, but the topic is sensitive and so, will tread cautiously..but yes, am going to do one of my journalistic 'surveys' on this one pretty soon..

again, a long re-comment.. :( thnks for dropping by, do read again..

@ vinod.. yes, u do agree??... :) well actually, the thing is so disturbing, dare anyone disagree! :D kidding...

on a a serious note, can anyone please, can u shed light on the origin and logic of this tradition or if u feel how it's justified???

@ raja--- yes, now this is much better than tentacles.. :)
good, then it fell in place.. looking fwd to the next chapter..

Pranay said...

hey.. i dint know of that custom... its really sad... i considered most bengalis to be really progressive and rationally minded...
I wud like to believe that most of them still are...
But i dint get the connection between widowhood and food!!! though such silly customs rarely have any rationale behind them...
gr88 read nevertheless..

Pranay said...

n hey.. even i adopted a pet, walking in ur shoes! hehe..

Hans A.H.C. de Wit said...

Thanks for stopping by Gairi.
Interesting comment of you. You are reading Orhan Pamuk?
Internations will have soon a different name with a co blogger with a surname you well known: Singh..))
Always amazed how good blogs in and from India are, like yours.
Kindest

Friendly nextdoor guy said...

good one!!

Shayan said...

"Yes bengalis are gluttons."

I forty second that!!

You have a nice eye!!

Frankly speaking i do not know whether the same goes on everywhere 'coz my kakimoni* has not stopped & neither does her in laws ask her to or frown at her!1

*kakimoni=paternal aunt

P.S.= u r on my blogroll!!
[http://apodarthoshayan.blogspot.com/2008/01/tag-dhina-dhin.html]

suren said...

:) never mind. longer the comment deeper the conviction in the subject ;) please drop in by my blog to see the outcome of your post.

Love stoned.. said...

hey Gauri.. i have changed my blog url.. it's http://love--stoned.blogspot.com

- dip

Ibanov, Sir Rekaf said...

Enforcing traditions and ridiculing someone for not following them is wrong, but let me tell you a few things...

* It's all a matter of choice - in many cases, the widow might want to sacrifice certain things in spite of her in-laws telling her there's no need to do so.

* There's nothing which is more orthodox in "these parts of the country"; neither are there more widows in eastern India. Most of these customs are common throughout the length and breadth of India, albeit in regionally modified forms. And in fact, I personally have had many more problems in the most urban and so-called "cosmopolitan" western and southern parts than I've ever had in the eastern and northern parts, but I choose not to generalize and instead treat each incident as an isolated case.

* If anything, I've met many more kattar veggies from south, west and north than I have from the east who would rather not eat in a place that also serves, in different cases, meats, egg and onions/garlic; again, I refuse to generalize.

For the record, I'm a Bong born in Patna, brought up in Delhi and living in Bombay for the past 4.5 years (and I've spent considerable amounts of time in Calcutta and Bangalore; other than that, have travelled a lot all over as well)