Politics on my plate: Anthropologist Dolly Kikon examines the politics of food

Anthropologist Dolly Kikon on how everyday mundane experiences like food and eating become tools to humiliate the marginalised

Published - November 06, 2020 03:53 pm IST

Naga women selling live frogs at a market in Kohima.

Naga women selling live frogs at a market in Kohima.

In ‘November Is the Month of Migrations’, one of the stories in Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s The Adivasi Will Not Dance , 20-year-old Talamai Kisku, a Santhal woman migrating to West Bengal for work, is beckoned by a non-Santhal policeman who offers food in exchange for sex. “In less than ten minutes, the work is done... He gives Talamai two pieces of cold bread pakora and a fifty-rupee note.”

In another story from the same collection, the Sorens move to Vadodara from Bhubaneswar, where people “believe in purity.” “Tribals, even lower-caste Hindus, they are seen as impure.” When the Sorens crave the “simple sin of an egg”, they buy two eggs from a shop in the far corner of the market, wrap them up discreetly, cook one egg at a time, and bury the eggshells in the kitchen garden.

Tactics of starvation

In Poisoned Bread , an anthology of Dalit literature published in 1992, the eponymous story by Bandhu Madhav has a tragic end, with the grandfather, a Mahar, dying of food poisoning after having eaten rancid crumbs of bread smeared with dung and urine, which even the “oxen seemed to have refused to eat”. The Patil, angered by the educated grandson’s resistance to dominance, has refused them “even a few measures of jowar” at the end of the day’s work, forcing them to eat the rotten crumbs.

Oppressive hierarchies in India are reiterated through everyday mundane experiences like food, which become tools to inflict humiliation and violence.

Dolly Kikon

Dolly Kikon

Dolly Kikon, anthropologist and Senior Lecturer at University of Melbourne, Australia, explores the trope of food in all her work spanning gender, migration, human rights and resource extraction politics in militarised societies like the Northeast. Tactics of starvation have been used historically to deprive the downtrodden, Kikon says. Counter-insurgency operations in the Naga hills include burning fields of harvest-ready crops and granaries, destroying orchards, and killing cattle and poultry.

Food that binds

Stories of deprivation, hunger and loss of livelihood, along with those of sexual violence, are the mainstay of conflict narratives across communities. Kikon’s writings about food do not merely look at the rituals around consumption and offering — which bring people together —but draw out the divisive connections. “Food is not just food on a plate in a country like India, where people are lynched for what they eat,” she says.

Kikon’s intellectual journey is shaped by her own experiences of growing up in a tribal community in Nagaland and then studying in the national capital. She recalls her days as an undergraduate student at Miranda House in Delhi: “When we passed by a ganda naala (dirty drain) with garbage burning on the side, my friends would jokingly tell me, ‘Look, they’re burning garbage, you must be feeling hungry,’ supposedly a dig at the fermented dry fish I ate.” That’s when Kikon began to look at food as a source of humiliation.

Kikon’s work on fermented food explores how we look at food that does not fall within the dominant category of what is usually considered food. In Seasons of Life: Foraging and Fermenting Bambooshoot During Ceasefire , a documentary produced and directed by Kikon, Pithunglo, one of the women foragers, says: “We are Lotha (Naga). We eat fermented bambooshoot... Others perceive us as disgusting and stinky because we eat this... We also trade in this... It is our spice and our oil.” Bambooshoot, fermented, fresh, dried, is an integral part of Naga cuisine.

Women selling smoked pork in Aizawl.

Women selling smoked pork in Aizawl.

Feminist meals

Fermented food of the Northeast, fermented soybeans particularly, captured the popular imagination of urban India when Axone , a movie by Nicholas Kharkongor, released on Netflix earlier this year. The movie trails a group of young migrants from the northeastern States as they scamper around hostile Delhi in search of a place to prepare a dish using axone (pronounced akhuni). When one of the characters in the movie says, “We have a right to cook our own food”, another replies, “and they have a right not to suffer the smell of our food.”

Whose sense of smell is more important? And if we prioritise one over the other, what does it say of our understanding about citizenship and equality? “The Indian diaspora abroad complains about landlords not allowing them to use Indian masalas and calls it racism. How is this any different,” Kikon asks.

Within the private spaces that the upwardly mobile, modern middle-class inhabits, the smallest space in the house is the kitchen. “This shrinking kitchen space is perhaps a metaphor for the spaces available to a woman,” Kikon says, speaking of food politics and the role of gender. “I’m not essentialising women and cooking, but asking that we reclaim the space. If you and I were designers creating a feminist world, our kitchen would be the biggest.”

Kikon has connected with female-headed households through her association with the human rights movement in the Northeast. While many women chose to remain single and committed their lives to the movement, others adopted children who had lost their parents in conflict. “Over the decades, cooking together and sharing food with activists have helped me envision what cooking tasty feminist meals means,” she says. “If food nurtures and sustains our lives, imagine the power of taking back our home, including the kitchen, and turning that into a revolutionary space!”

Kikon grew up in Dimapur, Nagaland’s largest city and one of the fastest growing urban centres in northeast India. Nagaland is also one of the most militarised regions in the country with an ongoing ceasefire.

Two decades ago, Kikon went on a fact-finding trip to a village in Assam, raided by the Indian army looking for insurgents, to document sexual violence against two teenage girls. The girls weren’t at home; they were working in the rice fields. “When I entered the village, I was welcomed by the sight of fields ready for harvest. The grain is ripe, yellow, beautiful. And somewhere there, the two girls laboured, just days after they were violated. I remember sitting down and weeping.” This experience kept drawing Kikon back to understanding food.

“Do we ever think of what people in militarised societies — in Afghanistan, Palestine, Myanmar, or the Northeast — eat? Food allows us new political conversations which humanise these societies and tell us that we — you and I and everyone around — inherit a shared future together,” she says.


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