How should this book be digested, consumed and summarized? It is an impish question, perhaps, but one that is written with deep admiration for Parama Roy's Alimentary Tracts. The alimentary habitus, we are told, is "the banal yet crisis-ridden theater for staging questions central to encounter and rule, questions of proximity, cathexis, consumption, incorporation, digestion, commensality, and purgation" (7). But it also becomes, in Roy's hands, an entrepôt into questions of colonial identities, ethics, subalternity, celebrity, and most importantly, writing. This is, of course, the marvelous work the term "tract" is being asked to perform: simultaneously mapping (tract as geography) the course of food through the body (tract as temporality) on top of and through the process of writing about and with food (tract as genre). At the same time, it is perhaps in relation to the alimentary processes that Roy describes that the word tract is unsettled as much as it is: writing about food reveals less the bounded time-space-text logics of a single tract as much as it seems to challenge the boundaries of the space between selves and others. If what passes through the alimentary canal (or doesn't) is determined by and produces appetites, aversions, and hunger, then food [End Page 181] becomes one of the diverse ways power is narrated: as diverse ways as religious proscriptions, colonial sanitation regimes, bureaucratic food distribution and famine policies, vegetarian activism, cookbooks, the manifestos of hunger strikers, and of course the chapattis and greased cartridges of the 1857 Mutiny.
The book is divided into four thematic and temporally organized terms—"disgust," "abstinence," "dearth," and "appetite"—each of which produces a careful reading of the encounter between Indian selves and colonial and postcolonial others. Drawing on theoretical figures as diverse as Karl Marx, Jacques Derrida, Claude Levi-Strauss, Arjun Appadurai, and Judith Butler, the book is a powerful account of the importance of understanding food as both a site for the enactment of certain kinds of power on and through the body, and as a trope that defines the self's relationship to the other (human, animal, and vegetable) in a recurrent performance of ethics.
In her account of the 1857 Mutiny, for instance, Roy seeks to unsettle the British narrative of the causes of the Indian rebellion, which used the story of the greased cartridge to reveal the hidebound nature of Muslim and Hindu orthodoxy, and to place Indians permanently in the archaic past demarcated by that mischievous term, "caste." What Roy demonstrates is that rather than being defined by halal and Brahminical paranoias, the Mutiny was propelled by British anxieties about racial contamination, that under situations of duress, the besieged British and Anglo-Indians could imagine nothing worse than an assault on their guts. Tracing military rules about dining that accommodated high caste restrictions, the impenetrability of the chapatti for the British, but also the narratives of food-deprived and besieged British at Cawnpore, Roy demonstrates that caste logics filtered into British thinking about India as well.
In "Abstinence," Roy refutes the hagiographic practice of seeing Gandhian vegetarianism as a reflection of ahimsa (nonviolence). Beginning with Gandhi's early experiments with carnivory, which he believed necessary to the production of strong, masculine nationalists, through his later hunger strikes, Roy shows that Gandhi's abstentionist ethics were also the site of profound violence and contradiction. Eating meat and being a vegetarian became connected to colonial modernity and publicity through a logic of visible activism and bodily discipline. But the implications of vegetarianism were never singular: meat produces both manly bodies and uncontrolled sexual appetites, vegetarianism is profoundly ethical and coercive, killing animals is both viciously cruel and deeply humane, vegetarianism is both feminist and misogynist. What emerges in Roy's picture of Gandhi's food politics are (contra ahimsa) ambiguous, indefinite, and vexed insights into the strategies by which Gandhian politics were consumed and served. [End Page 182]
"Dearth" tracks how famine has been understood in colonial and postcolonial India by challenging Amartya Sen's claim that famines occur in totalitarian (colonial) rather...