TABLE FOR TWO Akash Kapur discusses the transformation of India, flexitarianism and how the two might be connected
It is a busy day for Akash Kapur. A few hours remain until his debut book India Becoming is launched in the Capital, and there is a succession of interviews in the interim. We meet between interviews at Radisson Blu New Delhi Paschim Vihar and the time frame seems rather narrow for a patient, sit-down meal. So we decide to go for the buffet instead. Our table overlooks a large clearing outside, seemingly awaiting construction, and Akash is curious to find out what is happening to it.
A similar curiosity, coupled with confusion, was what launched him into India Becoming . Akash left India in 1991 at the age of 16 in search of better education and more opportunities. “Like so many before me, I was escaping the economic and social torpor of India – the austerity imposed by the nation’s socialist economy, the fatalism and bureaucracy that blocked all creative impulse and even a hint of entrepreneurial energy,” he writes in the prologue. By the time he returned in 2003, he found the country changed utterly.
“The way I honestly felt while writing the book was ‘this is an incredibly complex phenomenon, it has many positives, many negatives’…my goal here is not to come down saying development is terrible or development is wonderful, it’s to capture the reality of the transformation of India in a documentary fashion.”
The subtitle characterises the book as a journey through a changing landscape. Akash traverses this landscape by turning it inwards, through lush, absorbing interviews with individuals who have been pushed in different directions by the winds of change. The technique derives from anthropology, where “the notion of life stories and letting people have an unmediated expression of their own story is a very big deal,” he says.
The book introduces, among others, Ramadas, an atheist cow-broker whose family believes his profession is “a kind of sin”; Hari, who moves to Chennai from Tindivanam and embraces the fashionable, footloose life that the city affords him; Selvi, who works in a call centre on the outskirts of Chennai but stubbornly resists the ways of the city; and Sathy, a Reddiyar landlord in Molasur whose influence has visibly diminished, but is rooted to his village and its values nonetheless.
In these life-stories, one frequently comes across references to food. Sathy’s wife Banu is compelled to leave her house when it is discovered that she, unmindful of customs, had hosted a dinner for her workers where ‘grave offences’ were committed. Dalits had been in the house, non-vegetarian food had been cooked. Sathy himself hosts a feast on the occasion of Pongal as evidence to others, and himself, of his largesse. Food exists simultaneously as a form of social currency and as the site of discrimination.
At Sathy’s feast, Akash helps himself to thirds. Today, due partly to the time crunch, he eats frugally. A habitual salad-eater, he chooses the red and white cabbage salad, the mixed sprout and cucumber salad and the spicy chicken and cucumber salad. Midway through the meal, a plate of malai chicken tikka and tandoori vegetables also reach the table.
“I recently came across this word flexitarianism. I'm probably a flexitarian – someone who eats non-vegetarian every now and then but is basically a vegetarian,” he says.
He attributes his flexitarianism to the increased consciousness of the ills of industrial food. “If I were to strictly follow my ethics, I wouldn’t eat a piece of chicken. Not only because of the idea of taking a life but because some of these creatures are not chickens. They are industrially farmed creatures who never move in their lives and are full of chemicals.”
In the eyes of an optimist, the industrialisation of agriculture is a sign of the modernisation of a traditional sector. To Akash, it is further proof of the conflicted nature of development.
If I were to strictly follow my ethics, I wouldn’t eat a piece of chicken. Not only because of the idea of taking a life but because some of these creatures are not chickens