I must eat to live,” the great food writer M.F.K. Fisher wrote in one of her essays. “I want to live well, therefore I must eat well.” Note that Fisher does not say, after the fashion of many gourmands, that she lives to eat, yet she makes her point about the centrality of food in human affairs pretty strongly. That food has consequences which are not just physical, but also moral and spiritual—that you are, basically, what you eat—is asserted also by the Gita, which links rasa, or taste, to guna, or character, by pointing out how men of different temperaments love different kinds of food.
Thus food writing, while superficially a narrow genre, may, like travel writing, become a prism through which personality, history, religion, customs, social hierarchies and gender relations are explored. Just such a notion is advanced by The Table is Laid, an anthology of South Asian writing bringing together stories, poems and essays in which acts of cooking and consumption are central.
It is a wide-ranging selection: If Mahatma Gandhi’s essay on the tonic effects of fasting asks us, on the one hand, to desist from eating, Nissim Ezekiel’s poem, Irani Restaurant Instructions, ushers us, on the other, into a world where people may do nothing but eat: “Do not make mischiefs in cabin/Our waiter is reporting.”
The best story in the collection is Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s The Trellis, which links human life memorably to the cycle of the seasons. Kshenti, the oldest daughter of a poor village couple, is very fond of food, especially pui leaves. Her appetite is almost unseemly, and her mother worries about how she will adjust to her new household when she marries. Before she leaves, Kshenti plants a small pui sapling in the courtyard. She is badly treated in her new home and dies suddenly of smallpox. In the story’s last scene, Kshenti’s two sisters are walking in the courtyard, where they see the pui plant has grown heavy and luxuriant, “full of the loveliness of growing life”.
Chitrita Banerji’s Patoler Ma evokes the sounds of the sil—the heavy spice-grinding stone used traditionally in Indian homes—and the colours and smells of the pastes ground upon it in her childhood home by their servant, Patoler Ma. Asked one day what her favourite spices are, Patoler Ma tells the girl Chitrita she cannot afford most of them—her contact with them is limited to grinding them for others. This peculiar inequity, writes Banerji, “lived with me and edged me towards the curiosity about other lives and other worlds”.
The editors of The Table is Laid have organized its contents under different headings: “Rites, Ceremonies and Customs”, “Herbs and Spices”, “Discourses of Desire”, and so on. A cursory reading, though, of their overlong and stuffy introductory essay might give the reader a sense of the problems with the book. Many pieces seem to have been selected less for reasons of literary merit and more because they fit into a particular category, or can be interpreted as supporting a specific theoretical point.
The editors’ understanding of their material is sometimes baffling. For instance, their selection includes Vaikom Mohammed Basheer’s delightful Poovam Banana, a story about two newlyweds. Jameela Bibi wants her husband Abdul Khader to buy her two poovam bananas from the market. Unable to find poovam bananas anywhere, Abdul Khader crosses the river in search of them, but in vain. Finally, he settles on buying her a dozen oranges and nearly drowns on the way back. The editors declare pedantically: “Jameela Bibi’s special request is threatening, because it is an expression of desire … Jameela Bibi’s inability to have her desire for the fruit of her choice fulfilled is an index of real, and not just symbolic, powerlessness.” But in the story the bananas are not available at the market!
Can we really then read such meaning into it? In fact, we enjoy Basheer’s story for reasons other than those the editors propose. Elsewhere some of their choices are more confounding. For this reason, The Table is Laid, like a regulation buffet at a five-star, is only intermittently interesting.