Food is also a political and cultural issue

The old wisdom about the easiest way to any person’s heart being through her or his stomach is affirmed in features and advertisements day in and day out. Most newspapers and magazines carry a regular food column, often unintelligible and yet avidly read. High-priced restaurants tout themselves as the best venue for nudging an ongoing romance on a more amorous route, or to the marriage mantap/altar. Indeed the principle actors in any marriage are rightly ignored by the guests who wait speculating about the items of the marriage lunch, or in other cultures, dinner.

This is so even on occasions of state. When Bill Clinton visited India, the newspapers went to town with details of the succulent food prepared for that aficionado of Indian food, with his host, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, a known gourmet (or should one say gourmand?) apparently taking special interest in the menu. Since during such visits officials would have already prepared the final documents to be ceremonially signed at the end of the visit, the culinary rituals occupy much media attention.

But then, food is also a political and cultural issue. During the recent one day Sauharda Sahitya Sammelan in Udupi that preceded, and was projected in some circles as a counter to, the much bigger four-day-long Kannada Sahitya Sammelan (KSS), also in Udupi, the focus was as much on the Sauharda that the sammelan proposed to promote as on the fish curry that was to be part of the menu, in apparent contradistinction to the goddu saru (a broth without strength: Kittel) that those who attended the later sammelan could expect. The choice by the Sauharda organisers, and the preference of the delegates, was also invested with political and ideological dimensions.

In the event, though the menu at the KSS was apparently vegetarian, it was hardly of the goddu saru kind. On the contrary, the focus of the reporting on the KSS in the five Kannada dailies I read was as much on the quantity, variety and mouth-watering temptations of the dishes served to the thousands of delegates as on more weighty matters. Indeed, one newspaper collated the two and estimated that most of the delegates would return to their homes at the end of the sammelan at least four kilos heavier.

Despite food being so newsworthy, a recent occasion where food was focussed in a most unusual manner was, however, almost entirely ignored by the print media. At about 11 a.m. on November 23, according to a report in Varta Bharati accompanied by a striking photograph, “hundreds of Dalit Panthers of India workers” gathered before the Bangalore Town Hall in a protest demonstration against the remarks of the Swamiji of Ramachandrapura Math, a leading campaigner against cow slaughter and for cow protection, condemning those who skinned the carcasses of cows and ate beef as beyond redemption. The protesters cooked rice and beef and consumed the “mouth-watering biriyani” in full public glare. They also threatened that if the Swamiji did not shut up, they would repeat the protest inside the math premises. Apparently some TV channels carried the report; but then, I have out of choice never kept a TV set in my home.

The reticence of much of the print media (including this newspaper) reminded me of the dog that did not bark, and the inferences that were made of that curious silence. What is even more interesting is that there have been no further rants from the Swamiji on this subject.

M.S. Prabhakara