BOOKS: FLAVOURS OF NA­TION­AL­ISM

India Today - - UPFRONT - Amita Baviskar is pro­fes­sor of so­ci­ol­ogy, In­sti­tute of Eco­nomic Growth By Amita Baviskar

When peo­ple from priv­i­leged back­grounds write me­moirs about food, they tend to be heavy on nos­tal­gia and low on self-aware­ness. Lav­ish feasts, lov­ing fam­i­lies and loyal ser­vants crowd the pages. We rarely read about the labour be­hind these con­fec­tions—the do­mes­tic drudgery that swal­lows up women’s en­tire lives. Nor do we find in these proud ac­counts of Delhi Kayastha, Ben­gali Brah­min or Ra­jasthan Ra­jput cui­sine and cul­ture any ac­knowl­edge­ment of the in­iq­ui­ties and prej­u­dices born of re­li­gion, caste and class. In fail­ing to re­mem­ber the Dalit sweeper de­nied en­try into the kitchen, the Mus­lim vis­i­tor served wa­ter in a sep­a­rate glass, the ocean of poverty that sur­rounded their pros­per­ous lit­tle is­lands, these books pur­vey cosy fic­tions, for­get­ting as much as they rec­ol­lect.

As the daugh­ter of a diplo­mat and ad­vi­sor to the prime min­is­ter, Nan­dita Hak­sar’s back­ground is about as priv­i­leged as it gets—an af­flu­ent Kash­miri Brah­min fam­ily, in­dul­gent par­ents, khansamas and ayahs, in­ter­na­tional travel from an early age. But even as she re­mem­bers fam­i­lies and feasts, Hak­sar is no­tably clear-sighted about her sub­ject. She grate­fully ac­knowl­edges the en­light­ened, cos­mopoli­tan val­ues that gov­erned her grow­ing up. As a girl, she was not forced to learn to cook. Her par­ents ate and served all kinds of food. Her fa­ther and she ate beef abroad (but not in Delhi, “be­cause the ser­vants wouldn’t have cooked it”). But she also writes about learn­ing the con­cept of jhootha (un­clean) on her mother’s lap and later re­al­iz­ing how that small dis­tinc­tion was a door­way into the world of caste dis­crim­i­na­tion.

Hak­sar’s per­spec­tive in Flavours of Na­tion­al­ism is shaped by her par­ents’ Nehru­vian val­ues and her sub­se­quent ca­reer as a hu­man rights ac­tivist and lawyer. Mar­riage to a Tangkhul Naga ac­tivist who was a fel­low-stu­dent at Jawa­har­lal Nehru Univer­sity (“[only] the Naga ac­tivists I met did not ex­pect me to cook and wash their dishes”) gives her greater ac­cess to food tra­di­tions starkly dif­fer­ent from those of Hindu In­dia. She looks fondly yet crit­i­cally at them all. While Hak­sar’s com­mit­ment to look­ing at food from the point of view of jus­tice and equal­ity is com­mend­able, she wan­ders far too of­ten on brief fo­rays into cur­rent food-re­lated news—the khichdi de­bate, GI tag­ging for roshogolla, chicken tikka masala as Bri­tain’s na­tional dish, the lat­est on gut flora and lab-grown meat. These snip­pets of in­for­ma­tion seem to be culled from news­pa­per clip­pings and add lit­tle sub­stance to the book. To­gether with the nu­mer­ous ty­pos, they sug­gest that the book was hur­riedly com­piled.

In a coun­try where peo­ple die of star­va­tion and oth­ers are killed for what they eat, a hu­man rights ac­tivist writ­ing about food is spoiled for choice. Nan­dita Hak­sar could have made a bet­ter meal from this po­lit­i­cal buf­fet if she had avoided the sidedishes and stuck to her main course.

As the daugh­ter of an ad­vi­sor to the PM, Hak­sar’s back­ground is about as priv­i­leged as it gets. But even as she re­mem­bers fam­i­lies and feasts, she is clear-sighted, ac­knowl­edg­ing the cos­mopoli­tan val­ues that gov­erned her grow­ing up

THE FLAVOURS OF NA­TION­AL­ISM: Recipes for Love, Hate and Friend­ship By Nan­dita Hak­sarSpeak­ing Tiger 248 pages; `350

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