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'The Real Seat of Taste': Food, Consumption and Communication in Gandhi

Rohini Mokashi Punekar

Gandhi’s search for truth in non-violence and ethical politics, his dissent from colonial modernity and refashioning of tradition took creative forms. This search for a spiritual, political and ethical mode of being is inscribed in his understanding and praxis of dietary processes. Food and diet were important concerns for him: in themselves because a community’s physical and spiritual health depends on what and how much it consumes. Food also became in his hands a communicative symbol that could work across barriers of caste and gender, in town and village as a common denominator among people. Through his fasts he strove to communicate the power of its renunciation. The material, symbolic and communicative dimensions of food were integral to his praxis.   A complex and schizophrenic scenario prevails in contemporary India where food and eating practices are concerned. Poised as the nation is on a revolution in the mode of agricultural production, distribution and food retailing, and combined with increasing changes in governmental policies in acquiring farm land for corporate purposes, the situation obtained on ground is deeply and tragically exploitative. Sixty years after independence it is quite clear that the most severe agrarian crisis rages on in rural India (Sainath 2007). It is telling that the rural crisis is worse in the more developed and industrialized states of India. It seems to be characterized by a policy fatigue, the consequences of which are the by-now-routine statistics of farmers’ suicides (Swaminathan 2007). Traditional foods are fast disappearing from urban markets: under the pressure of government policies it is no longer viable to cultivate cereals such as ragi and jowar. However the urban middleclass is imperviously bent on an unprecedented and apparently unending epicurean feast as more and more food varieties flow swiftly from around the world into the Indian supermarkets at affordable prices. Multiculturalism in cuisine is cool and fashionable and a statement (Nandy 2005). These class markers of taste (Bourdieu 1984) coupled with the already deeply entrenched structural inequalities of caste and gender in the traditional set up make for shocking spectacles of inequality (even to Indians who are used to sights of dehumanizing poverty), of the co-existence of extreme hunger and destitution with relentless consumption. Farmers’ suicides occur together with phenomenal rise in the number of diabetic patients in urban India. Standing in the wings is the menacing spectre of bio-fuel which has already hustled the small farmer out of his fields ...

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