BOOKS: FLAVOURS OF NATIONALISM
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