- Alimentary Tracts: Appetites, Aversions and the Postcolonial by Parama Roy
Parama Roy’s extraordinary study of the culinary in modern Indian history and literature is among the finest in the burgeoning fields of food studies to systematically question how modes of consumption, patterns of commensality and culinary matters are central to understanding the emergence of the modern nation-state. Her book is organized into four sections, “Disgust,” “Abstinence,” Dearth,” and “Appetite.” Within each of these sections Roy deploys each trope to stage a conversation about a different historical and thematic moment.
The first section focuses on the 1857 Mutiny and the attendant notion of disgust provoked by the greased cartridges. Chapter Two, “Abstinence,” turns to the figure of Mohandas K. Gandhi inquiring into the ambiguities and complexities inherent in his culinary and political self-fashioning around the idea of abstinence to attain ahimsa. The third chapter continues the thematic focus on hunger, zeroing in the trope of famine within the context of Bengal in the 1940s. With the final chapter, Roy turns to the question of global eating and appetite by considering the rhetoric of cookbooks and curry’s currency within South Asian diasporas. Through these deft intertextual readings, Parama Roy combines her skill as a literary critic with a keen sense of historicity to probe into questions of how history looks different if one approaches it through the culinary. If one turns to an archive which considers the role food has played in modern history, can one elucidate a different kind of postcolonial Indian subject? It is by exploring the alimentary habitus, broadly constructed, that Roy’s work garners strength.
The first chapter of Roy’s book begins with an account of the 1857 Mutiny. Here she aims to understand why historical revolutions and rebellions have more often than not been “subtended by a belly politics” (31). The fabled story of contaminated greased cartridges that assailed Hindu/Muslim sensibilities then serving as the trigger for the Indian Mutiny is well known. But why, Roy asks, are so many tales of the mutiny lodged within the culinary? Indeed why must the culinary seemingly help to render digestible the more profound causes of the Mutiny? Food, Roy argues, is “a heavily coded substance” (46) and becomes an effective shorthand for understanding complexities of class. The narratives about caste and food within the mutiny, Roy suggests, offer an exemplary entry point into thinking about the complex interconnectedness between politics, history and hierarchy in the colonial context.
The second chapter, titled “Abstinence,” takes up the challenge of exploring the meanings that accrue around the significance of Gandhian vegetarianism, repudiation of meat and public fasts. But rather than viewing Gandhi’s vegetarianism as a reflection of a life-long espousal of nonviolence, Roy chronicles how and why Gandhi’s attitudes about eating were inextricably linked to ideas about colonial modernity, postcolonial nationhood, masculinity and bodily discipline. In this chapter Roy focuses her attention on Gandhi’s Story of My Experiments with Truth, honing in on the specific moments within the text that detail the nuances of eating and alimentary abstinence. As a corollary, Roy also draws heavily on the critical work of critics including Joseph Alter, Leela Gandhi, and Susanne and Lloyd Rudolph. The chapter revolves around two main points. First, Roy argues that meat and meat-eating are inextricably linked to modernity in Gandhian thought. Secondly, the meanings of vegetarianism alter during the course of Gandhi’s life. While at first it is imagined as the occasion that gives rise to India being colonized by the meat-eating, overly masculinzed British, later it is part of a filial vow to his mother while studying abroad and finally a political vow (most well known in the fasts). Additionally, Roy attends to the gendered implications of fasting and abstinence. In insisting on sacrificing to the ideals of vegetarian purity, for instance, what demands were made of the female body within the domestic space? Sacrifice in this case takes on a particularly gendered character. Through a careful reading of Gandhi’s autobiographical writings and supplementary historical documents...