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Flavours of a culture

FOOD provides one of the most fascinating windows into a culture — enabling important insights into its mores and customs; tracing its social and economic history; documenting its rites and rituals. Since this is a relatively new approach in the field of cultural studies, the food researcher is challenged by the lack of written resource material. Yet precisely because writers have to draw heavily on oral sources and their own experiences and memories, this kind of study has the potential of being among the most vivid and vibrant forms of cultural documentation. With her first book, Life and Food in Bengal, Chitrita Banerji had already established her considerable talent with this genre; and in her recently released The Hour of the Goddess: Memories of Women, Food and Ritual in Bengal, she continues to demonstrate the wonderful possibilities of this genre.

In her easy narrative style, weaving personal memories of food, ritual and women's lives in Bengal with sharp social commentary, Banerji takes the reader into the cultural landscape of Bengal through the prism of its food and food habits. As she traces her own journey from girlhood to womanhood in Calcutta, she evokes the intimate experiences of food and ritual that structure women's everyday life in Bengal. Her book is at once a rich, sensuous experience of tastes, colour and fragrances; an intensely personal memoir; historical documentation; and social critique.

Dealing with as wide a range of subjects as the significance of the bonti, a special cutting instrument, to the Bengali kitchen, foods forbidden for widows, the entrance of chhana or paneer into Bengali cuisine, the Bengali palate's curious partiality for bitter tastes, the significance of the connections between food and art in Bengal, and the subtle differences between Ghoti and Bangal (as persons from West and East Bengal, respectively, are called), Banerji's work displays impressive research and attention towards nuances. Among others, the author has delved into Sanskrit shlokas, into the Mahabharata and into Bengali literature dating back to the middle ages such as the Chandimangalkabya.

Her social commentary touches on social inequities and prejudices, but its focus is the position of women. Her book captures powerfully the complex synergy between women and food preparation in Bengal: the kitchen is the woman's domain and the rituals related to food and food preparation invest her with control; yet built into those very same rituals are the mechanisms that reinforce her disempowerment and ensure her continued subjugation.

The book is beautifully produced but the overall effect is somewhat marred by instances of editorial inconsistency. For example, in the chapter "The Bonti of Bengal" (in the first place, the absence of diacritics makes one automatically read the word with a hard `n' and thus the first response is to anticipate — with a degree of puzzlement — an essay on the role of the younger sister in Bengali culture!); bonti appears at times in italicised form and at other times de-italicised. And if `bonti' is italicised then why is `shil nora' (the grinding implement in Bengali kitchens) not? On the other hand, ghee is italicised throughout — without any justification since it has now officially entered the English language and is listed in the Oxford English Dictionary. There is also the rather uncomfortable juxtaposition of Bengali and English terms, like a sentence that lists "jasmine, bel, chameli, kamini, gardenias". Surely, there should have been some policy to ensure uniformity.

Yet, these are minor irritants in a text that is eminently readable, demonstrates a high degree of scholarship and is a valuable addition to the field of cultural studies in Bengal.

The Hour of the Goddess: Memories of Women, Food and Ritual in Bengal, Chitrita Banerji, Seagull Books, hardback, Rs. 475.


The writer is a food columnist.

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