Of Chutneys, Pickles and Kitchen Corners: Food and Indian Cultural Identity

Indian literature often places family at the centre as it is an integral part of our collectivistic culture. As Salman Rushdie wrote,

“I am the sum total of everything that went before me, of all I have been seen done, of everything done-to-me. I am everyone, everything, whose being-in-the-world was affected by mine. I am anything that happens after I’m gone which would not have happened if I had not come.”

In an old interview with Newslaundry, he speaks of how a child is born with the heavy baggage of culture, traditions and history – which is why he started his book, Midnight’s Children, by describing the incidents that occurred two generations before the birth of the protagonists. In the interview, he also clarified that the swapping of babies did not imply that the ancestry was lost. Shiva’s grandfather is Salim’s grandfather, and the story subtly portrays secularism in the families.

In the very same interview, Rushdie speaks about food as a metaphor and goes on to paint a picture of preparing chutney as an act of love, which he elucidates with an example from his book, Midnight’s Children. Mary, in the book, talks about how she’d make chutney for Salim which is a very subtle hint of affection. The metaphor of pickle is depicted as an art of preserving. For example, a mango pickle, though made from mango, tastes nothing like the fruit, but while preserving it as a pickle, it does make changes to it (as illustrated by Arundhati Roy in her novel, God of Small Things).

Whereas in the story, A Kitchen in the Corner of the House, Ambai (C.S. Lakshmi) writes with an attempt to portray the female mind in a direct writing style. The kitchen acts as a physical reminder of the limitations and restrictions imposed on the women in a household. Generally, the kitchen is the most constricted and cramped place in a household, yet, every event of celebration and fun, for men, comes from the food made in that very neglected and uncomfortable place.

The art of cooking has always been a sphere of domestic household that a woman is expected to excel. Most of the time of a woman’s life is spent in the kitchen making food for all the men of the household. Internalisation of such patriarchal norms have caused a hierarchy in the kitchen, where women are expected to dominate over other women, and when Meenakshi, the character in Ambai’s book, voices out her opinion regarding making a few changes in the kitchen, the women of the house are uncomfortable as they have always been silenced instead of “given” a voice.

By linking these two stories by food, the symbolic meaning of it cannot be ignored. Where one talks about preserving identity, the other speaks about restricting identity. The latter can be further explained from an instance from the text, where Bari Jiji loses the power she once possessed because her husband passed away, due to which she was denied eating meat. Her life as well as her taste buds lose the variety she could once claim, as she ate boiled potatoes.

This conflict of preserving identity versus restricting identity stems from the Indian collectivistic culture which plays an extremely essential role in shaping our social and cultural identity. What we eat and how we eat it, does play a significant role in viewing our culture and ethnicity so much so that when someone says “curd rice” most Indians immediately think of Tamil Nadu. This further illustrates the multitude of food as a concept.

The weighing down of women is also implied in the text along with highlighting the constant desperation in women to attain self-worth and recognition amongst the men in the family who possess enough power to be seated at the top of the hierarchy of relations. This has led to women internalising patriarchal norms, which further hinder women from being aware of their real potential.

In Jiji’s final moments, she looks for Meenakshi’s hand to hold, which indicates an apology from their older generation by coming to terms with their fault and how the next generation will one day change the course of history and liberate women from subordination in the household.

Ananya Ravi Shankar is a third-year student currently pursuing Bachelor’s of Arts in Psychology, Literature and Theatre at Christ (Deemed-to-be University). She originally hails from New Delhi and is actively involved in disseminating awareness as a theatre artist as well as a volunteer.

Featured image credit: Pixabay