Until recently, conversations about food in India used to swing between extremes: either laden with praise for the multifarious cuisine from across the country, or deploring the endemic hunger and starvation among its population. Since 2015, a menacing, new dimension was added to the discourse.
That year, an angry mob lynched a Muslim man in Dadri village, Uttar Pradesh, on the suspicion that he was keeping beef at his home. The act of eating, and choosing what to eat, have never been quite the same again in India. The dietary habits of citizens are under ever-increasing scrutiny from state and non-state actors, abattoirs and meat-sellers face reprisals in many parts, and innocent cattle farmers have been killed with impunity for transporting animals legally. Although the demand for the abolition of the slaughter of “cows and calves and other milch and draught cattle" goes as far back as the framing of the Constitution in 1949, the contemporary articulation of such politics often ends in public assault on minorities, especially the lower castes, or grisly murders.
Reading Nandita Haksar’s new book, The Flavours Of Nationalism: Recipes For Love, Hate And Friendship, under such a darkening cloud is to not only confront the crisis India is in, but also to look back at a time that has passed irredeemably. From the interstices of fear and elegy inspired by the twin reflections, the portrait of a fractured nation, fighting hard to resist divisive forces, shines through.
A lawyer, journalist and human-rights activist, Haksar is well known for her stellar work on a wide range of causes. From the plight of refugees and migrant workers, to the Naxal movement, to the presence of the Indian Army in the North-East, to the many faces of Kashmiri nationalism, her work takes us close to some of the least salubrious aspects of India’s democracy.
In The Flavours Of Nationalism, Haksar brings her own experiences, of growing up in a family of “meat-eating Kashmiri Brahmins" for instance, to bear on India’s cultures of cooking, eating and feeding people. The catholicity of her attitude to food—shaped as much by her upbringing as her marriage to Sebastian Hongray, who is from Nagaland, and her friendship with people from all over the world—is a template for Haksar’s claim to being “an unashamed Indian".
Thanks to the work of historians like Romila Thapar, the ancient Brahminical tradition of eating beef is well-documented, though the proponents of Hindutva differ on that count. In Haksar’s account, though, the flesh-loving palate of her family and ancestors comes appetizingly alive. From khubani cooked with goat meat and apricot to dishes made with every conceivable part of the animal (intestines, kidney, testes, liver, brain), we encounter a staggering array of delicacies. But her recollections never descend into a non-vegetarians versus vegetarians polarity. The most moving passages in the book, on the contrary, reveal the selfless humanity of those who make the switch from their preferred diet to one that’s (perhaps shockingly) alien to them because circumstances demanded so. Haksar recalls journalist Aditi Phadnis, a vegetarian, eating meat with no fuss at a wedding in Meerut, in the aftermath of the communal violence in Hashimpura, because “she did not want to make distinctions on such an occasion".
The passion and rigour with which Haksar documents her adventures with food are punctuated with several such luminous incidents, as also with sharply defined political beliefs. Brought up on the idea that “the sharing of food was a way of forging alliances and making friends across communities and nations", she welcomes the idea of khichdi being recognized as India’s “national dish", but refuses to have the government decide one uniform recipe for it. Rather, the beauty of India’s diversity ensures nearly every state has its own version: “from the bisi bele anna of Karnataka, to the pongal of Tamil Nadu, to the keeme ki khichdi of Hyderabad, to the simple moong dal ki khichdi, which many of us have when we have a stomach upset".
No less engrossing is Haksar’s feminist perspective on the politics of cooking and feeding people, expressed in her prolonged aversion to telling others that she could cook, as a protest against the role into which she, like other women, was thrust. In a striking moment, she tells a senior advocate, “I did not join a law firm to pour tea," when it becomes apparent that her male colleagues expect her to during a meeting. While such small acts of rebellion may have been facilitated by Haksar’s privilege (her father, P.N. Haksar, was a renowned diplomat and principal secretary to former prime minister Indira Gandhi), she does not miss the nuances on the ground either. The Flavours Of Nationalism puts forth a deeply held conviction in the Ambedkarite belief of caste being at the “heart of India’s problems, the stumbling block to her progress and flowering of her creativity"—and until it is annihilated “we can never call ourselves a truly civilized people".
One of the appeals of this memoir is the way it draws richly from lived experiences, rather than relying only on anecdotes, historical facts and reminiscences. From the challenges of sustainable fishing in Goa, where Haksar lives with her husband, to the debate over the consumption of dog meat in the North-East (foie gras, a speciality in French cuisine, probably involves as much inhumanity towards ducks and geese, but gets away with a lighter rap, perhaps due to the skewed balance of geopolitical power), to the food consumed by the poor on the streets, nothing escapes the hawk eyes of the writer. As she writes, out in the open, where taxi drivers enjoy a meal of chole bhature, upper-class ladies take home kebabs and labourers enjoy their pav bhaji, street food becomes the great leveller. In its power to unite people from across social barriers, street food, for Haksar, becomes the “hope for the future of Indian democracy".
An Indo-Naga delight
Over the years I have invented many recipes for an Indo-Naga cuisine. One of the most successful has been smoked brinjal with fermented fish.
■ One fermented fish (available online and in shops selling food from the North-East)
■ One round brinjal
■ 2-3 pods garlic
■ 4-5 green chillies or one umrok (Raja chilli)
■ A spoonful of mustard oil
Wash and dry the brinjal and rub it well with the mustard oil. Put the brinjal directly on a low flame and let the skin become black, like done for begun bharta. Boil the green chillies/umrok or roast them on the fire. Peel off the skin of the brinjal. Grind the garlic pods to a paste. Mix all the ingredients (including the fish) well with a fork or fry them in a little oil. The chutney is ready.