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Nourishment and Nurture

Barnita Bagchi

Edited by Rinki Bhattacharya
Sage Publications, New Delhi, 2006, pp. 197, Rs. 280.00


One of the many treats of this book, an anthology of nineteen autobiographical essays on motherhood, is a marvellous evocation of food by some of the contributors. C.S. Lakshmi heads the list, with sections such as ‘Songs on the Terrace and Cakes with Green and Pink Icing’ and ‘Food as Communication, Food as Adventure’. Describing her mother Alamelu’s pampering of the sick, for example, Lakshmi describes ‘special’ items such as one with a ‘clear, top layer of rasam with pepper and cumin seed powder in it, just seasoned with mustard in pure ghee’, to which roasted pappad and rice would be added. Maitreyi Chatterji too speaks of a mother who was ‘not a household drudge’, but who made an array of delicious things to eat, including ‘mouth-watering salty snacks like singhara, kachuri, dalpuri, with a variety of stuffings’. At the other end of the spectrum, Urmila Pawar speaks of how, when news came that one of her brothers had died, she tried to make sure that her mother ate—only to face family hostility, since a woman who had lost a son should go un-nourished. Under patriarchal ideology, nourishment and nurture, literal and metaphorical, are supposed to be provided unconditionally by mothers to their children, right from the womb. Mothers nurture and reproduce not just human beings, but entire systems of values, support, and ideologies—and yet, in our skewed epistemology, until recently, they were relegated to the inferior, derivative, domain of ‘re’-production, not production, which was seen to be done by the daddies.   The book under review questions such mindless, power-perpetuating ideologies and epistemologies, but does so with panache and grace, with the zest and elegance of the personal and the autobiographical. Quite a few of the essays, like C.S. Lakshmi’s, are excellent pieces of memory-as-ethnography, of what the anthropologist Clifford Geertz valorized (in his book The Interpretation of Cultures) as ‘thick description’. Among them is Roshan G. Shahani’s excellent piece ‘Her Infinite Variety’. Shahani’s Parsi mother, a graduate of Wilson College, worked outside the home from the 1920s onwards: Shahani mentions wryly that in the ‘quietist, tranquillized 1950s’ of her girlhood, her mother would not conform to the ‘mom-and apple-pie image’; instead, she was ‘old, plain, and clever’. Shahani describes most movingly the bonds of loyalty and affection formed between her mother and her mother-in-law, a Sindhi woman and lifelong Gandhian, ...

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