Author: Nandita Haksar
Publ: Speaking Tiger Publishing Pvt Ltd, New Delhi
During one of my first classes in anthropology, a professor noted the power of material culture studies. All human culture, she noted, can be traced through the study of physical things, and people’s interactions with these things. It seems natural, therefore, that a study of food is one of the few unanimous material culture studies which can help us understand any society and culture. By directing our attention to the culture around food, The Flavours of Nationalism book is an ideal anthropological text: discussing plural narratives which work very well together as a whole societal narrative.
Haksar focusses on Indian food cultures, but structures her book as a biography of her own experiences, family, and culture. She narrates personal stories through specific food accounts and histories. We follow her childhood in Kashmir, education and early professional life in Delhi, her travels, and later life in Goa. Through these intimate stories, we come to know the characters of all the people closest to her through these journeys. I longed to be experiencing the same tastes and delights she vividly described. Haksar kindly includes some recipes for the reader’s eventual recreation at home. These recipes are often placed after an account recalling her own experiences with the food. While some recipes are easier and others more difficult, they are all informative and supportive of the cultures described within the text.
Yet the biographical account is also simultaneously a medium for Haksar’s unashamed criticism of the divisions and differences still shifting India today. Her book begins and ends with a basic question: how can everyone sit at the Indian national table and eat together with dignity and equality?
Haksar clarifies dominant Indian social problems inhibiting this dream: the caste system, religious rifts, Hindu extremism, racial and ethnic prejudices, and gendered divisions. In her writing, the author shows how a study of food culture can clarify social relations present in any society. In fact, until I read this book, I did not understand how simply divisions may be traced through food behaviours. For example, even the way tea is prepared and consumed will represent to what class and caste you belong, while eating dal directly from a serving spoon is both horrifying for Indian families yet a sign of bonding in Burmese culture. Haksar’s own choices and navigations – including defining which part of the world she can eat beef – is very telling of the cultures in each location.
We also concurrently follow a variety of transformations, distinctions, and differences organising people in India today, told through the stories of eating and sharing food. Some of these divisions are historical, others introduced through exacerbated extremism as well and global trade. Mass production and tourism has certainly taken an unfortunate toll on eating behaviours and practices. Through a personal narrative of these transformations experienced by Haksar herself, Flavours of Nationalism is a masterful and engaging socio-historical analysis of India as the country stands today.
Haksar, however, makes sure that you understand the differences possible within myriad Indian identities. While people may remain committed to their regional identities, there are in fact wide variations in such identities. The first chapter clarifies the variety of recipes and diets present even within a small area of Kashmir. As such, the concept of regional identity is itself fluid, adaptable, and interchangeable, much like how people may be themselves.
The writing of this book review is coincidental but relevant to the recent reforms on citizenship inclusion in India, an unfortunate and aggressive consequence of both Modi’s BJP parliament and the escalating divisions outlined through Haksar’s book. Haksar’s call to step back and reassess what injustices are indeed present within any society is therefore especially relevant and inspiring today. Indeed, she suggests that if everyone can break prejudices and discriminations to dine together, India can begin to be more democratic, secular and socialist.
Haksar beautifully describes food through a material culture framing. Only after reading this book did I understand how powerful a study of food culture may be. I can believe that simply paying attention to cultures and behaviours formed around the eating and sharing of food reduces any alien sentiment towards peoples. I thought it was particularly poignant, therefore, when Haksar questions: ‘Could culture and cuisines form a bridge between peoples belonging to different religions? Can appreciation and sharing of food become a way of forging friendships amongst diverse cultures and nations?’ Certainly appreciating the basic humanity of all peoples may be a way to bridge these divisions.