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Food, Culture, and Gendered Space: A Reading of Easterine Iralu’s ‘A Terrible Matriarchy’

By Sanghamitra De

My grandmother didn’t like me. I knew this when I was about four and a half. I was sitting in her kitchen with my brother, Bulie, older to me by two years, when she served us food. Hot rice and chicken broth.
“What meat do you want?” she simpered sweetly, as she ladled out gravy and meat.
I quickly piped up, “I want the leg, Grandmother, give me the leg.”
“I wasn’t asking you, silly girl,” she said, as she swiftly put the chicken leg into my brother’s plate, “That portion is always for boys. Girls must eat the other portions.” (2)

The quoted lines in Easterine Iralu’s novel A Terrible Matriarchy foreground the latent cultural estrangement at play in terms of the two most basic questions often asked – Who nurtures? And who gets the nourishment? Food behaviour in every society operates like a language, which as Levi Strauss points out, ‘…through which that society unconsciously reveals its structure’ (The Origin of Table Manners, 495).  Similarly, the cultural representation of Naga cuisine in A Terrible Matriarchy is integral to the formation of a unique Naga subjectivity and Iralu’s fiction is replete with various instances of the relation between the cultural function of food and the idea of social belonging, thereby projecting an unconscious submission to the latent cultural codes. Hence cuisine truly forms “a language in which each society codes messages which allow it to signify a part at least of what it is” (Levi-Strauss, From Honey to Ashes, 323).

In the context of Naga cuisine, as represented by Iralu, food constitutes an immediate reality through which subjectivity can be constructed as “eating, in fact, serves not only to maintain the biological machinery of the body, but to make concrete one of the specific modes of relation between a person and the world, thus forming one of the fundamental landmarks in space-time” (Luce Giard, The Practice of Everyday Life, Vol II 183). As represented by Iralu, the Naga social discourse closely relies on various taboos related to the consumption of certain food items and the retention of authentic Naga cuisine becomes the elementary way of preserving the authentic Naga identity. In the novel, we witness the process cultural cohesion actualised through choice of specific food stuff like meat, rice, sweet potatoes, and sweets. Her strategic representation of food items reminds us of Michel de Certeau’s idea of using bread as cultural symbol. The text abounds in visible manifestation of social images of food and collective membership and food emerges as a key signifier of Naga identity. Easterine Iralu’s A Terrible Matriarchy also evidences the specific modes of food behaviour integral to the conceptualization of ‘self’ and the ‘other’. As we find here, foodstuff is ‘cultured’ to the core “because eating is always much more than just eating” (Luce Giard The Practice of Everyday Life, Vol II 198). Gastronomic remarks and the practical cultural experience of food are unique to Iralu’s construction of a gendered identity.

The novel opens with the description of the kitchen as a space where gender discrimination is ‘terribly’ played out. The enactment of the gendered framework of food behaviour upholds the role of food as a marker of gender difference as rice and meat, symbol of nourishment, is frequently denied to the girl child. As the protagonist specifies in the beginning, she is denied the ‘leg’ as it is reserved for the male members of the family. The powerful and terrible matriarch of the family, Dielieno’s grandmother reserves the exclusive right to distribute food and her overt preference for male members foregrounds the reality of gender bias actualized through food behaviour, culinary activities, as well as the pattern of consumption and distribution. Food behaviour is, therefore, value-laden and food acts as a genuine social separator. Hence, selective food items in the novel operate as semiotic and semantic counterparts of gender bias. The kitchen in grandmother’s house surfaces as a highly symbolic space fraught with overt connotations of cultural estrangement. The agony of the protagonist is visible in the following lines:

I didn’t understand why, and I didn’t care to ask why not. I was also too hungry to sulk so I sat and quietly ate her food. Funny. At Grandmother’s house it was always her food. I never thought of it as food. It had to be attached with the pronoun “her” to make it clear that it was food cooked and served by Grandmother so she had every right to do with it as she wished. Serving, for instance, chicken leg to my brother and none to me. ( 1)

Dielieno’s torment is recurrent in the novel as all her questions uphold a domestic rhetoric distinguished by the absence of proper nourishment to those members of the family who actually undertake the responsibility of nurturing. Although the burden of daily chores rests on them, they are repeatedly denied the basic necessities of life at multiple levels; physical nourishment being the most significant one. Food here widens the symbolic gulf rather than bridging it, thereby entailing a rupture at the core of the construction of the self. The description of spaces as gendered and cultured calls for the inadequacy of the representational apparatus where deviance is measured through symbolic rewards as choice of food becomes a key signifier of subjectivity. Meat in Iralu’s novel serves the symbolic purpose of widening the rupture at the core where the female protagonist’s musing on the servings of meat demonstrates the sense of cultural alienation at play:

But Grandmother would always ladle out more gravy and meat to Bulie or Vini and Leto. If Pete was there, he would get more meat too but he didn’t have as great an appetite as the others. I sat close to him when he got more meat so that he could slip me the pieces he didn’t want. Oh, at those times, how I wished I were a boy for then Grandmother would love me and take me on her lap and give me all the meat I wanted to eat. (Iralu16)

The matriarchy projected in the novel is repeatedly highlighted to be ‘terrible’ not only in terms of conceptual restrictions and limited access to female members of the community but also on the basis of denials of gastronomic pleasure which is often translated in the denial of food as evident in the denial of portions of meat, the significant and perhaps the most nutritious part of a meal. Hence the novel is full of the “questions that I did not always have answers for, like, how many pieces of meat did Grandmother serve me? ( Iralu 2). Meat here surfaces not only as the object of gastronomic desire but also the target of gender discrimination as denial of nutrition is denial of life force to the female. The detailed description of Bano and Dielieno peeling potatoes for the cooking of dried meat with chilly and herbs in Grandmother’s kitchen under her strict supervision is recurrent in the novel.  The scene where meat and rice are served to the boys under her “grandmother’s eagle eye” (Iralu17) is fraught with symbolic overtones as the protagonist voices, “Grandmother always had good food at her house, at least which was something one could look forward to, mealtimes” (Iralu 16). According to Luce Giard, “the preparation of a meal furnishes that rare joy of producing something oneself, of fashioning a fragment of reality” (The Practice of Everyday Life, Vol II, 158). But mealtimes are not necessarily a source of joy and happiness for the women as they fashion a reality which fails to accommodate them. Ironically they are nourishing simply the male bodies through the meal they prepare but not allowed to share. The physicality of food behaviour is centered on the pieces of meat the denial of which is the measuring scale of prevailing gender bias. The cultural logic of sustenance manifested in the dried meat resonances with gender bias:

Dried meat hung from spiked bamboo over the fire. There was some dried pork from Christmas that was very nice to eat now. But Grandmother never cooked much of it. We would get a piece or two of meat in our plates and we would want so much to eat more but would have to be satisfied with what we got. That was the way it was it was in Grandmother’s house. No one ever got second helpings of meat. The meat that hung on the spiked bamboo was not for us. It was for Leto and all my other brothers. (Iralu 18)

The trajectory of gastronomic desires and comments manifest the latent process of construction of self as subjectivity is mediated through such trajectories of denial. The denial of meat is recurrent in the novel highlighting not simply the alimentary customs of the society but also the vivid distinction in terms of the ‘self’ and the ‘other’. Owing to such customary orders, Bano, Dielieno, and other girls are continually projected as the ‘other’, thereby justifying Luce’s comment, “whether liturgical or stemming from family history (birth, marriage, etc.), traditional food with its meticulous rites of composition (a cenain dish for Passover or one for circumcision) and preparation becomes the support and the “narrative of difference, inscribed in the rupture between the alimentary time of the ‘self’ and the alimentary time of the other”( The Practice of Everyday Life, Vol II 184).

According to Claude Levi-Strauss, culinary practices are governed by internal coherence which is often cultural in nature and hence denote a signifying field. The choice of foodstuff, patterns of consumption, differentiation between food items considered edible and nourishing, food taboos, etc. operate like a complex social discourse. As Giard writes, food “functions with a large number of exclusions and a limited number of valid authorizations within a particular circle of compatibilities” (Luce Giard, The Practice of Everyday Life, Vol II 181). Such coherence is basically manifested through a diet expressive of the selective preferences of the community as “a specific alimentary diet expressed a world order, or rather, postulated in its very act the possible inscription of such an order on the world” (Giard, 180). As represented in the novel, the prevailing food customs and cooking as a cultural activity establish cultural cohesion among the Naga community and the authentic Naga recipes and exclusive ways of preparing food are part of the myriad signifying practices stored and preserved in the cultural archive of the community.

Sanghamitra De teaches in Arya Vidyapeeth College, Guwahati, Assam.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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