‘Mehfil’ Podcast Celebrates, Interrogates and Explores South Asian Culture, Writing, Food and Films
- Produced by the Radical Books Collective and hosted by academic and writer Amrita Ghosh, the podcast also aims to build community.
A new podcast Mehfil extends a playful invitation to join invigorating discussions on South Asian culture, writing, food, films, and more. Produced by the Radical Books Collective and hosted by academic and writer Amrita Ghosh, Mehfil’s visuals use vintage aesthetics to pay a nostalgic homage to Bollywood queen Rekha while calling for a re-imagination of the very term mehfil. Though Hindi cinema’s association with “mehfil” evokes a romanticized courtesan culture, be that Rekha from “Umrao Jaan” (1981) or Madhuri Dixit from “Devdas”(2002), mehfil is derived from Arabic, and means a festive gathering for entertainment, for reading poetry or for praise. A mehfil primarily evokes a community setting and a celebration of culture. These two elements align perfectly with Radical Books Collective’s mission to disrupt current models of knowledge production and circulation. And so Mehfil does precisely this by celebrating, interrogating, and exploring cultural aspects of South Asia but also simultaneously building community.
I have been particularly taken with Mehfil’s focus on food. In two incisive episodes, Ghosh invites listeners to consider the role food plays in literature and how food has been weaponized in the subcontinent to violently marginalize minority communities. In the charmingly titled “Khayali Pulao: Writing Food” with Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni and Sumana Roy, participants discuss the role of food in Indian writing and imagination, particularly in immigrant and diasporic spaces. The companion episode“Dalit Gastronomy: Caste and Cusine,” features artist Rajyashri Goody whose work centers Dalit resistance, and Ari Gautier, a French poet and writer of Indo-Malagasy origin. In this episode, Ghosh and her guests interrogate food as an instrument of caste segregation and caste violence in Hindu culture, and the dangers of food becoming an identity, either of a community or nation.
Divakaruni, popularly known for her novel, “The Mistress of Spices,” adapted into a film of the same name featuring Aishwarya Rai, credits food for anchoring her identity amidst many new changes during her early immigrant days as a young adult. Commenting on the limited accessibility to Indian grocery staples in the 70s, Divakaruni explores what it meant to cook Indian food in America. Divakaruni states improvisation “became a symbol for how immigrants live their lives.” Food holds a nostalgic space for Divakaruni’s characters also, where cooking meals becomes a means of expressing intimacy and strengthening the bonds of sisterhood, as happens in her novels “Sister of My Heart” and “ The Vine of Desire.” Food also plays a complex role in Divakaruni’s writing, including becoming the site of staging subversive politics. Citing her historical novel, “The Last Queen,” where Maharani Jind Kaur persists against European racism by cooking Indian food in Britain, Divakaruni invites us to consider the significance of eating food from one’s culture in hostile spaces. Such a gesture of consumption can be an act of both “autonomy and rebellion.”
While Divakaruni’s prose draws attention to the cultural and political dynamics around food or what one might broadly term “food cultures,” Roy invites listeners to consider how “eating cultures” differ from food cultures, where the former functions as “an archive of a way of living that is related to food.” Roy also highlights how labor, production, and distribution of food at every stage organize society, culture, and history. Citing an example of consuming roti/chappati, Roy argues that eating roti in Haryana might differ from eating rooti in Bengal when one considers the differing histories of farming wheat, “the disappearance of older species of rice and the loss of those names and their manner of cooking.” Furthermore, Roy cites Abhijeet Majumdar, son of the Naxalatie leader Charu Majumdar, recalling a lesson where Majumdar described education as “giving a student a plate of their favorite food and asking them to trace the root of its ingredients right up to the farmer. [Majumdar] used to say that that would give us, the students, consumers of what we call food, an education about the history of labor required at various steps from cook back to the farmer about what it takes to create something that we can put inside our mouth and then relish.”
Discourses on the labor of food production and consumption are inseparable from the ways gender and caste are implicated in food. For instance, Divakaruni points out that while women are often associated with the act of cooking, making a professional career out of cooking is a different battle altogether. Similarly, Roy citing Krish Ashok, states that rice-eating cultures allowed a greater degree of autonomy and emancipation for women than roti-eating cultures because of the “linear manual labor” involved in the latter, starting with kneading the dough and ending with serving hot individual rotis. Roy also interrogates food’s relationship with caste-based violence, which is implicated in how national belonging is construed around food choices. According to Roy, “the moral hierarchy that a section of vegetarians have constructed in their heads shows a complete disregard for both scientific thought and an understanding of the very culture that they claim to uphold.”
For Roy, discourses on food and marginalization are intimately connected to hunger and, by extension, marginalization. Her thought-provoking reading and analysis of Birendra Chatttopadhyay’s poem “Ascharjyo Bhaater Gandho” translated as “The Astonishing Smell of Rice,” written about the 1965 food riots, highlights the ways food transcends nostalgia and even fulfilling of basic bodily needs. In Chattopadhyay’s poem, Roy understands rice consumption as marking a circadian rhythm, wherein the absence of rice disrupts the daily rituals of living and leaves the hungry subject homeless in a sense with a night that never seems to end.
Roy’s statement echoes poignantly in the companion episode “Dalit Gastronomy: Caste and Cusine,” with Rajyashri Goody and Ari Gautier. Ghosh defines the Indian caste system as “oppressive” and “one of the most enduring, violent and pervasive forms of apartheid and segregation, and food is a potent instrument for furthering this violence and discrimination.” Ghosh reminds us that “lynchings” and “vigilante mob” violence are commonplace occurrences against Dalits and Muslims in India over beef consumption.
Though Goody conceptualizes food as an “instrument of power everywhere and not just in India,” she finds caste to be the structural framework that enables and normalizes violence against minority community through the system’s weaponization of food and water in particular ways. Goody explains that cultural and religious philosophy from ancient Hindu texts regarding food and bodies concretizes notions of otherness, where one can possibly pollute another person by eating in the same spaces. Gautier explains that equalizing food choices with the body is problematic in that food becomes an identity where one is what one eats. Having grown up in Pondicherry, which Gautier describes as a “ divided [French] colonial city between white town and black town,” each street in Black town was associated with a specific caste and, by extension, certain foods. Hence, one’s inhabitation of certain spaces is marked by an otherness that is primarily defined by one’s food choices, which Gautier describes to be “psychologically very violent.” Dalit gastronomy is often essentialized as involving beef, a “forbidden” food when one considers India’s right-wing Hindutva assertions today. Goody dispels such simplifications by interrogating the very notion of Dalit cuisine. On her website, Goody reflects on what makes Dalit food, Dalit.
“What is Dalit food? What makes food Dalit? What does it comprise? Is it only associated with meat-eating? What if a meat-eater stops eating meat? Do they stop being Dalit? Will a non-Dalit accept them as one of their own? What about eating vegetables, chapatis, rice and dal? Is the food Dalit or the person that eats it that makes it Dalit? Is everything I eat Dalit food? What about when I share food with my upper-caste friend? Is she now Dalit? Am I now not Dalit? Does she taste the meal we made together in the same way that I do?”
Goody sees the exoticization of Dalit food as an issue stemming from a lack of access and documentation. Commenting on the rich history of African American culinary traditions, Goody states that “essentializing happens mainly because we don’t have research.” Goody invites us to consider that documentation hinges on literacy along with access to food and ingredients. Gautier further troubles the term ‘Dalit Cuisine,’ highlighting how the varying accessibility to food and regional, religious, and cultural traditions influence what one eats. According to Gautier, Pondicherry Hindu Dalits eat beef but not pork, whereas Catholic Dalits eat pork. In a case like Goody’s whose roots are Maharashtrian and who identifies as a Buddhist Dalit, food choices are informed by Buddhist vows of nonviolence. For Goody, there is no simple Dalit cuisine but rather rich regional and cultural culinary traditions endured amidst much oppression.
As Divakaruni and Roy’s conversations reveal, food is deeply implicated in gender. Goody reminds us food is also intertwined with caste, which informs gendered experiences. Commenting on the differences between Dalit men’s and women’s experiences, Goody highlights that Dalit women suffer a greater degree due to caste and gender. Commenting on the relationship between food, labor, and gender, Goody states that Dalit women had to leave home to labor outside for food while also completing gendered labor of housekeeping and cooking for the family. For Gautier, the answer to intersectional oppression lies in smashing the patriarchy.
Just as Roy reminds us that food needs to be conceptualized to hunger, Goody calls for considering how water plays a critical role in the oppression and otherness of the Dalit community. Goody’s art installations which document and explore Dalit resistance, raise questions about the “tenuous” relationship people have with food and water, where eating and drinking become charged actions that go beyond simply meeting one’s minimum bodily needs. Her installation “What is the caste of water” recalls the significant event of Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar’s 1927 Mahad Satyagraha where he, along with many members of the Dalit community, engaged in an act of non-violent resistance constituted by the drinking of water from the main water tank in Mahad, Maharashtra. Goody’s website details that though members of other castes and even animals were permitted access to the communal water tank, people from the Dalit community were forbidden for fear of caste pollution. Though Goody’s installation recalls an event from 1927, Ghosh and Gautier highlight the normalization of everyday segregation, where particular glasses or dishes are reserved for certain people that mark their privileged or marginalized status.
Though food can evoke both resistance and trauma, Ghosh invites her guests to reflect on how food can also be a source of joy. For Divakaruni, the joy lies both in cooking and eating, especially the Indo-Chinese dishes of Bengal that represent a complex fusion of cultures and flavors, whereas Roy finds herself experimenting with cooking techniques with a palette decidedly inflected with the rich Bengali subcultures. Goody’s childhood fondness for ukadla, a mixture of leftovers, evokes a sense of nostalgia while also inviting complexity after discovering the broader significance of ukadla in the Dalit community. Featuring in her artwork also of the same name and adapted from Baby Kamle’s “ The Prisons We Broke,” the artwork offers a visual representation of ukdala with Goody’s interpretative recipes that challenge the very form of cookbooks and food’s relationship in the Dalit community. Lastly, Gautier leaves his listeners to consider “the ultimate killer,” the pork vindali, a “very Pondicherrean dish” derived from Portugal’s colonial incursions in India.
Mehflil’s coverage of food reveals the multifaceted and complicated layers food shapes Indian society and imagination, be it in food as an anchor, subversion, and home in Divakaruni’s writing or in Roy’s exploration of “eating cultures” as a means of understanding history and society. Goody and Gautier’s exploration of food in art and literature reveals how food and water are implicated in caste politics and can be a medium of division. In these rich and nuanced conversations on food, Roy leaves Mehfil’s audience with a provocative thought to chew on: “Food is Instagramable, not hunger.” Come join the Mehfil.
“Mehfil” is available on Apple, Spotify, Youtube and also on the Radical Books Collective’s website.
Arpita Mandal is a lecturer at Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, Massachusetts, and a scholar of postcolonial studies and trauma theory.