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Culture in my Curry: Food as a Site for Communication, Translation, and Cosmopolitanism

By Gaurav Kumar

Food, which often serves as a source of comic amusement by virtue of the ostensibly disproportionate importance it is assigned in many Indian soap operas, is no joke to the person whose physical and mental labour goes into its composition, or to the critic/ philosopher interested in unearthing the various layers of meaning that saturate it as an object of study.

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Fig. 1. A Screenshot that mocks the centrality of food in daily soaps from a listicle on The Times of India website. The screenshot shows a print ad for the daily soap Sasural Simar Ka, which reads as follows: “Karan tells Prem to return to India. Simar requests Karan to at least taste the ladoos. He agrees but puts a condition that if he does not like the Ladoos, Simar will have to quit the job.”

For instance, structuralism treats food as an institution, a system of signification, a language with its own grammar. In “Toward a Psychosociology of Contemporary Food Consumption,” Roland Barthes has analysed how ideas about food and nutrition shape tastes, fads, and prohibitions around food more significantly than its economic or chemical aspects[1]. Levi-Strauss has analysed the ways in which the culture/ nature distinction structures our understanding of what is considered edible in certain societies and contexts.[2] This paper will consider food as a site of cultural complexity to analyse the ways in which certain comestibles, cuisines, names or prohibitions become sites for communication, translation or cosmopolitanism. The literary text at the focal point of this analysis will be Richard C. Morais’ The Hundred-Foot Journey, which narrates the story of Hassan Haji, a Muslim chef, born and raised in Bombay, but compelled, through the course of the novel, to make sense of the people and cuisines of London, Lumiere, and Paris.

In Feasts and Fasts: A History of Food in India, Colleen Taylor Sen provides a long list of foods forbidden (abhakshya/ abhojya, which literally translates to “inedible) to upper-caste Hindu men in Dharmic[3] literature which includes garlic, onions, mushrooms, and certain animals and birds. Sen makes the dramatic point that the “classification of (inedible) animals in the Dharma literature challenges that of Leviticus in complexity” (81), based as it is on numerous criteria, such as the shape of hoofs and jaws, habitat, and living habits of the animal. For an explanation of such a complex system of classification,[4] Sen refers to Mary Douglas’ Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo that defines boundary-crossing as the criterion for injunctions against the consumption of an animal in religious texts. Any animal that is not like the rest in its category, any animal that confuses the prevalent system of classification (e.g., “birds without feathers, fish without scales, cloven-footed animals that do not chew the cud”) is forbidden as food (82). Sen cites Douglas: “To be holy is to be whole, to be one: holiness is unity, integrity, perfection of the individual and of the kind. The dietary rules merely develop the metaphor of holiness on the same lines” (82). In light of this analysis of injunctions against crossing boundaries, it is interesting to note the reactions of different members of the Haji family in The Hundred-Foot Journey to the spectacle of a pig being butchered in Madame Mallory’s back shed. While Uncle Mayur was disgusted and kept hissing “Pig-eaters”, Hassan is fascinated by an-other way of life, an-other culinary system:

I had seen few things so beautiful…few things spoke to me so eloquently of the earth and where we come from and where we are heading. How could I tell him, moreover, how could I tell him that I found myself secretly and passionately wanting to be a part of this pig-butchering underworld? (99)

Consequently, food for Hassan cannot be contained by one nation, culture or religion. This is exactly what is unthinkable for people who make sense of the world only by classifying languages, people and food into reductively closed categories drawn from nationalist thought. This is precisely what is unthinkable for Hassan’s antagonist-turned-mentor Madame Mallory who considers the newly arrived Indian family vulgar, noisy and tasteless. When Madame Mallory meets Hassan and his dad for the first time at the local market, she demonstrates her aversion by responding to their kind offer for tea with expletives. She calls Abbas, Hassan’s father, “Un chien mechant[5]”, and tries to shut him up by saying, “This is France. We are not interested in your curries” (94). Her choice of French to attack her enemy is calculated: she presumes that the people in the marketplace, her fellow French nationals, will understand the insult, but the impact of it will be lost on the foreigners. This strategy backfires: Hassan translates the phrase for his father who runs after Madame Mallory, shouting “Bowwow. Roooff. Rooff” sticking his face too close to her ears, much to her horror and everybody else’s amusement (95). This is the moment in the novel when the French Memsahib[6] learns that there are weapons mightier than the imperialist’s language.

Madame Mallory’s other remark about curries is equally interesting. When she declares that her nation is not interested in the Haji family’s curries, she performs a feat that Arjun Appadurai had considered fraught with impossibility[7]: she manages to associate a dish with all of India, its national cuisine. This is interesting because the word “curry” wasn’t historically used by Indians, as Collen Taylor Sen has pointed out: the word “curry,” derived from the Tamil word “karil[8] was first used in a Portuguese travel account from 1502 and, thereafter, abused by the British who used it for “any dish of vegetables, meat or fish cooked in a spicy sauce” (223). Sen quotes Madhur Jaffrey, the author of An Invitation to Indian Cooking, who thought that the term “curry” was as offensive to Indians as the term “chop suey” was to Chinese.[9] Indians use specific names for what goes around in the name of curry, depending on the region, ingredients and language: “Korma, Kalia, Salan, Rogan Josh, et al” (223).

In his article “How to make a national cuisine,” Appadurai analyses the difficulty of constructing a national cuisine for India in the face of widespread variations and contradictions. One is reminded in this context of A.K. Ramanujan’s discussion on the impossibility of a singular entity called “Indian Literature,” especially if it is written in multiple languages.[10] According to Appadurai, cookbooks either “inflate and reify a historically specific tradition and make it serve, metonymously, for the whole (of India)” or “assemble a set of recipes in a subjective manner … and grope for some theme that might unify them,” such as spices, cooking techniques such as roasting or frying, or a particular kind of food such as pickles from different regions of India (19). When Hassan’s grandmother wants to serve “Indian food” to British and American soldiers in India on the eve of the World War II, she decides to employ Bappu, a cook from Kerala to add to her northern repertoire of recipes. Appadurai also suggests historical reasons (other than variation) because of which very few attempts were made in the past to construct a national cuisine for India – the general tolerance of Indic thought, and the moral and medical instrumentality with which the Brahmins, the guardians of major Indian textual traditions, approached food, ignoring its culinary delights or aspects. What mental gymnastics would be required, moreover, to think of a cuisine precisely delimited by national boundaries when its basic ingredients, recipes, and names have arrived from all over the world? Sen provides a detailed list of such borrowings and influences: potatoes, tomatoes, chillies, cashews, pineapples, and papayas from the New World via Portuguese trade; grapes, pomegranates, asafoetida, saffron, spinach, and apples from Central Asia, Afghanistan or Persia; and Persian or Turkish names such as Shorba, Qima, Naan, Halwa, Kofta, Sambusa or Samosa, Biryan, Kalia and Sharbat.

Madame Mallory’s equation of curries with Indians before the dismissal of both is, therefore, a classic example of nation-based thinking that refuses to understand that any cuisine, much like language, has its nuances, complexities, and instabilities; that food, very much like language, literature or people,[11] often exceeds the logic of nationalism. Madame Mallory’s line of thought is the exact opposite of Jacques Derrida’s cosmopolitanism-to-be. Derrida invites us to consider a cosmopolitanism that offers ideal, unconditional hospitality to anyone who seeks it, while acknowledging the historical complexities of the particular/ specific[12] instance of hospitality sought, a cosmopolitanism that hopes to reconcile a universal, human solidarity exceeding the nation-state with many smaller and local solidarities (such as those of language and nation, among others ). On the other hand, Madame Mallory’s acceptance of the immigrant Other (who was forced to leave his country because of riots instigated by another ethnocentric ideology, that of Hindutva) is based on the specific condition that the particular in Hassan be erased, that the Other be first reduced to the same, that the risk associated with unconditional hospitality to the Other be first neutralized. She can only accept Hassan as a presence in her country or help him in his growth as a Parisian chef once he has mastered classic French cuisine under her tutelage. It is not an accident that the master chef Paul Verdun and Hassan become best friends in the final section of the novel. Verdun and Hassan have the same taste and the same philosophy of promoting a cuisine “built on the simplest of French truths” (234). Paul Verdun and Madame Mallory were both staunch protectors of the classic principles of France’s cuisine de campagne against the innovations and molecular gastronomies of the minimalists or postmodernists. The fact that Hassan describes Madame Mallory as a “culinary nun” (75) when we are introduced to her is telling; this nun likes her classic French cuisine and would like to keep it cloistered, safe from any impurities or intermixing. For Madame Mallory who was “a classicist by education and instinct” (76) and loved to recreate recipes from the ancient Roman cookbook, De re Coquinaria,[13] the robust visions of cosmopolitanism that Martha Nussbaum has traced back to Roman antiquity[14] would have been a shock. Sen’s book makes an interesting point in this regard. The limited time during which France had some outposts in India left its imprints on the culture and cuisine of places such Puducherry but “India left little mark on the way the French eat, perhaps because their own culinary tradition is so strong” (216).

Such behaviour is in stark contrast to Haji’s family’s response to (culinary) alterity. Hassan’s grandmother would often ask American and British soldiers stationed in Bombay about the things their people liked to cook and eat, and produce singular interpretations of what she heard; for example, Indian bread-and-butter pudding for the British, or Naan stuffed with mango chutney and peanut sauce for the Americans. On their first visit to a French restaurant in Bombay, Hassan’s mother tries to make him comfortable by suggesting that they begin with the day’s special if the place and the menu seemed too strange and intimidating to him. “Never be afraid of trying something new, Hassan. Very important. It is the spice of life,” she says (31). During their stay in London, Hassan’s father is profoundly overwhelmed and affected by the dazzling range and cosmopolitanism of food available in Harrods Food Hall. “Now acutely aware of his limitations, he decided to expand his knowledge of the world, and in his book that simply meant systematically eating his way across Europe, tasting any local dish that was new and possibly tasty” (64).

Madame Mallory’s first encounter with the Haji family’s food should be recalled here. She grabs a bite of the fish and rice served and immediately breaks down after learning the horrifying truth about the finesse of Hassan’s cooking: “He has it…under all the fire, hidden, brought out by the cool yogurt. There, yes, distinctly there. It’s in the point and counterpoint of tastes” (109).  She leaves immediately afterwards, without tasting anything else, without learning the names of the dishes on her table. She recognizes the only thing she is already familiar with, what she calls “point and counterpoint of tastes” (109), and decides that Hassan must learn the art of French cuisine under her guidance. The rest is “all…fire” (109) – an indication that Madame Mallory has once again cloistered herself from the translation and Walter Benjamin’s “language of things” that could have been the basis of an invigorating cosmopolitanism.

In “On Language as such and on the Language of Man”, Benjamin propounds a metaphysical theory of language, grounded in theology but not reducible to it. “There is no event or thing in either animate or inanimate nature that doesn’t partake of language” (62), says Benjamin, “for it is in the nature of each one to communicate its mental contents” (62), where language is defined as the tendency to communicate mental content/ being so that we could talk about a language of sculpture, of poetry, of painting but also of lamps and mountains and food. In Benjamin’s scheme of things after Babel:

Translation attains its full meaning in the realization that every evolved language (with the exception of the word of God) can be considered a translation of all the others…languages relate to one another as do media of varying densities, the translatability of languages into one another is established. (70)

This places all languages on an equal footing, wherein the role of each one is to bring out the relation of the other to the one, pure language via translation. The original and the translation, one language and another need each other. Without a confrontation with another language, any language will fail in its only task and raison d’être for existence: to recover the semblance of a prelapsarian pure language in which all languages and things come together, in which creation, naming and reflection become one and the same (“Let there be”—and it was). Many theorists have looked at this orientation as a critical moment in the anti-ethnocentric turn in theory of translation and cosmopolitanism that doesn’t delight in reducing the other to the terms of the self but risks a movement towards the uncertainties of the other as an event. Madame Mallory categorically refuses this movement. When she refuses to learn the names or ingredients of the Indian dishes she has tasted, or conflates them all under the reductive nomenclature of curry or “fire,” she is being a bad translator in ways more than one. She refuses to understand the language of the material constitution/ being of a Phuchka/ Gol Gappa (with its connotations of mischievous, tangy but lovable) that makes its name as well as composition unique, that forbids its naming as anything else, say, Kachori; she refuses to understand why Lau Chingri (which brings up an image of something with many legs and rough texture) can never be called a Kebab (signifying smoothness and royalty), why a Salan is not the same as a Kalia, neither of which sound as sorry and bland as the English curry. She has failed the promising task of translation across a rich multiplicity of Indian languages of words and foods.

On the other hand, Hassan’s being in the world is that of the cosmopolitan par excellence, the exile who is never ‘at home’, who is always poised between two worlds (Bombay/ London, Bombay/ Paris, Muslim/ Christian, Muslim/ Hindu, et al), two languages, two equally singular and seductive cuisines or cultures, forever translating one into the other:

There was a dream that repeatedly visited me. In this dream I was walking alongside a large body of water …when suddenly an ugly, primordial fish from the water’s deep, flat and round with a bull head, crawled up the beach using its fins as primitive feet, pushing itself with a great deal of effort out of the water and onto dry land. And there, exhausted by the Herculean effort, the fish rested, its tail still in the water, its head on the dry sand, gills opening and closing like fire bellows, shocked and pumping and gasping in this new amphibian state, half-in and half-out of the two vastly different worlds. (155)

This state of exile, a productive but painful perspective on the world that teaches us not to feel at home within the boundaries of any language, nation or culture that we call ours, is a recurring theme and necessity in Edward Said’s criticism, illustrated by these haunting lines by Hugo of St. Victor that he quotes in his essay titled “Reflections on Exile”:

The man who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign land. The tender soul has fixed his love on one spot in the world; the strong man has extended his love to all places; the perfect man has extinguished his. (149)

Hassan begins to incarnate this perfection the moment he sets out on “the hundred-foot journey” from his house to Madame Mallory’s to serve his apprenticeship, during which he carries within himself the world from where he comes, “pomfret tikka and Kingfisher beer; the wailing of Hariharan, the hot kadai spitting oil and peas and ginger and chilli” and walks towards his “adopted home” and “the growing” he had to do “as a student of French cuisine, as a servant of the kitchen” (153). This small journey inaugurates Hassan’s giant leap into a culinary cosmopolitanism that will keep translating and mixing cultures and cuisines forever.

[1] Barthes cites, inter alia, the example of coffee, a chemical stimulant, curiously associated with “breaks, rest and relaxation,” thanks to contemporary advertising.

[2]Levi-Strauss gives a fascinating example from European history: after the Allied landings of 1944, American soldiers would often destroy Norman cheese dairies because they smelled like corpses to them.

[3] The term ‘Dharmic’ broadly refers to any literature that deals with ethics, the philosophy of right and wrong.

[4] Specific food taboos, such as the one against beef, can, of course, be a product of other motivations (such as the consolidation of Brahminical/ Hindutva ideology, especially when it feels threatened by its religious Others) and misreadings (of Vedas and other texts). Cf. D. N. Jha’s The Myth of the Holy Cow for a detailed argument.

[5] French for a mad/ nasty dog.

[6] This term that combines the female honorific ‘ma’am’ with the male honorific ‘sahib’ (which could loosely be translated as ‘sir’) was initially used by the natives of India during the British rule to refer to the wives of White officers stationed in India, but, eventually came to be used to address the women of upper class Indian households, and signified the neo/colonial authority and condescension with which these women often treated their employees.

[7] Appadurai, Arjun. “How to Make a N

Works Cited

Appadurai, Arjun. “How to Make a National Cuisine: Cookbooks in Contemporary India.” Comparative Studies in Society and History, vol. 30, no. 1, 1988, pp. 3–24. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/179020.

Barthes, Roland. “Toward a Psychosociology of Contemporary Food Consumption.” Food and Culture: A Reader. Ed. Carole Counihan and Penny Van Esterik. New York: Routledge, 2008. 28-35. Print.

Benjamin, Walter. “On Language as such and on the Language of Man.” Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Vol. I, 1913-1926. Ed. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings. London: Harvard University Press, 2002. 62-74. Print.

—. “The Task of the Translator.” Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Vol. I, 1913-1926. Ed. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings. London: Harvard University Press, 2002. 253-263. Print.

Levi-Strauss, Claude. “The Culinary Triangle.” Food and Culture: A Reader. Ed. Carole Counihan and Penny Van Esterik. New York: Routledge, 2008. 36-43. Print.

Morais, Richard C. The Hundred-Foot Journey. Surrey: Alma Books Ltd, 2014. Print.

Said, Edward W. “Reflections on Exile.” Reflections on Exile and Other Essays. London: Granta Books, 2013. Ebook.

Sen, Colleen Taylor. Feasts and Fasts: A History of Food in India. New Delhi: Speaking
Tiger, 2016. Print.

Bio:
Gaurav Kumar is a UGC Junior Research Fellow in English Literature, pursuing an MPhil at the Department of Comparative Literature and Translation Studies, Ambedkar University, Delhi. His MPhil dissertation examines the philosophy of desire, laughter and translation in minor literatures of India. He can be reached at gauravk.18@stu.aud.ac.in and at write2gaurav.kumar@yahoo.com

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

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