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Why Beef was Banished From My Kitchen

Food and Cultural Selfhood

N Sukumar (skn70@yahoo.com) teaches political science at Delhi University.

Why was beef obliterated from the Dalit household and shunned, even if it was an integral part of the diet? Based on auto-ethnography, the researcher revisits his relationship with food, especially beef, not as a scientific category as signified by nutritional values and calories, but as an integral aspect of a labouring life—a cultural memory. 

Saudahataki: What is the name of the guest who has arrived today with a big train of women?

Dandayana: Stop joking. It is no less a person than the revered Vasishta himself.

Saudahataki: Is it Vasishta, eh?

Dandayana: Who else?

Saudahataki: I thought it was a tiger or a wolf. For, as soon as he came, he crunched up our poor tawny heifer.

Dandayana: It is written that meat should be given along with curds and honey. So every host offers a heifer, a big bull, or a goat to a learned Brahmin who comes as a guest. This is laid down in sacred law.

This is a dialogue between two hermit boys at Ayodhya in Uttara-Rama-Charitra, one of the most celebrated versions of the Ramayana written by Bhavabhuti in the 8th century AD (Aiyar 2003).

The sacredness of the Indian cow has been contested for decades—sections of society have taken a ritualistic position and others have considered beef-eating an essential element of their cultural selfhood. In colonial times, a series of communal riots occurred when the sacrality of the cow was promoted as a signifier of “Hindu” community identity. It was conveniently forgotten that many traditions do not venerate the cow, rather, it is considered as any other meat. The dialogic process between the cow venerators and their detractors tended to delegitimise various customary practices revolving around a multitude of life-worlds.

These contestations resonated in the lynching of 5 Dalit men in Jhajjar, Haryana, in October 2002 on the suspicion of killing a cow (People’s Union for Democratic Rights 2003). Here, it is essential to revisit Babasaheb Ambedkar’s essay “Untouchability, The Dead Cow and the Brahmin”, wherein he expressed anguish over the treatment meted out to untouchables by the caste Hindus and sought answers to the vitriolic expressions against the former. Ambedkar sought to locate the discrimination practised by the caste Hindus within the contours of beef-eating by the untouchables.  

A Memory of Food

Growing up in a nondescript village, surrounded by caste superiors who laid the benchmark for what is kosher both in terms of interpersonal relationships and the materiality of everydayness; I was witness to the existential realities of survival. The physical space—my habitus, was considered polluted by the caste-ridden society. As I grew up, I realised that the list of what is polluted just kept on increasing. It included not only my geographical space, but also my dietary practices, my religious beliefs and cultural codes; in fact my existence was demonised by the language of superiority.

My locality was peopled by the labouring caste—men and women who toiled in the fields, whose lunch consisted of hard raagi balls (raagi sangti served to the labour) wrapped in castor oil leaves. A watery curry was poured over the raagi ball which was very spicy and sour in taste. The spicy taste curtailed the hunger pangs. Many of my friends would eagerly wait for their mothers who preserved half of the raagi ball for their hungry children. For us, the fragrance of boiling white rice was heavenly, as it was beyond our affordable imagination. Needless to mention, anything beyond raagi balls was a feast for us. The routine changed only if there was a marriage or death ceremony among the upper castes, any cultural celebration in the mala/madiga palli (habitation of the Madiga caste) or any bovine was found dead due to natural causes.

The untouchable locality would exhibit a festive mood when the news was delivered by the upper caste men that a cow/buffalo/bull has died and needed to be disposed off. The sweaty and stinking bodies could then eat to their hearts content. The men folk would ask their women to keep the ingredients ready, and the children would gather around chattering excitedly as portions of the dead bovine were distributed. The general impression would be that on that day our bellies will be full. The bones would be preserved for a rainy day. Many Dalit homes had beef legs/flesh hanging from the roof, sometimes getting dry or even wet when it rained. A smell would always linger in our houses, an integral part of our existence. 

Times changed, people moved up the economic ladder and those who could afford it, switched to other “acceptable” meats like pork, goat/sheep mutton or chicken. Many in my palli, who had migrated to urban spheres, were employed in petty jobs, and for the first generation of educated Dalits, eating beef or even admitting to beef as part of their cuisine were equal to committing social hara-kiri. An unspoken sense of self-preservation prevailed that if we had to compete in the upper caste domains, we have to imitate.

When my father got employed in the lower rungs of the bureaucracy, our dietary habits changed. We shunned pork and beef and every week it was either chicken or mutton. Along with raagi balls, rice too became my family’s staple food. Even amongst the extended family, beef was banished from the kitchen and the men would indulge in beef biryani or beef pakodis/chops on the street. Many a time my grandmother would get nostalgic of the days when large chunks of beef were carved out on a huge stone near our house and everyone would get an equal share. Nonetheless, beef was part of our shared cultural memories, of family and community feasts.

Breaking the Silence

When I stepped out of home to pursue higher studies, I was influenced by diverse experiences. Gradually, I became aware of the anti-brahmanical traditions, which questioned the entrenched structures of caste, class and gender. The binary between the purity of the kitchen and the polluted street became very stark. The engagements with various social movements, of days and nights spent with comrades who believed that another world is possible, made me realise that there is no crime in accepting my “caste” existence. The engagement with the caste stigma, the interrogation of the dehumanising brahmanical traditions in the academic space encouraged the collective self to explore the silence around our origins.

The lived experiences in Hyderabad, both in the city and university space, were extremely encouraging. The city is known for its culinary traditions, chiefly biryani, and popular wisdom has it that only beef biryani (Kalyani biryani) is the ultimate in taste and rich in nutrition. For the impoverished Dalit/tribal/minority students, the Kalyani biryani was the most affordable option. Ever since beef was banished from my family kitchen, I discovered it again in Hyderabad and eating it signified a protest against the saatvik (pure) ideas on food.

During my sojourn in Hyderabad University to finish my doctoral studies, the cultural festival “Sukoon” was scheduled. The Dalit Students’ Union set up a beef biryani stall, which was threatened by the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP). The university authorities sought to close down the stall, but many of us vociferously protested. Finally, the administration was challenged to take a vote as to how many students would prefer to continue with the beef stall. In case the vote was in favour of the stall, then the proposal was to serve beef in the hostel messes, canteens, guest house etc. The university officials were reluctant to accept this challenge and remained strategically silent. Along with other activists, I feel a surge of pride that the tradition continues in the university till date.

Unwrapping the web of contradictions, the discourse around beef can be put in a nutshell – my right to consume the food of my choice. This elementary fact is swathed by culture, religion, and purity and clothed with ritual idioms. The sacrifice of buffalos in many temples or sacred ceremonies is permissible—is it because the buffalo is black in colour and the vehicle of Yamaraj (the god of death), whereas the cow is the buddy of Lord Krishna? In a society where people suffer chronic hunger, denying them access to food in any form for any reason whatsoever is a criminal act.

How does one reconcile to the fact that we lag behind many impoverished countries in terms of social and health indicators? To illustrate—the National Bureau of Economic Research (Rukmini 2015) observed that Indian children are malnourished compared to Sub-Saharan Africa, which is reflected in the stunted growth of our children. Interestingly, the study claimed that the problem was more noticeable among Hindu children when compared to Muslim children. The obnoxious practice of preferring sons over daughters led to an unequal distribution of nutrition within the family. Such practices are culturally and scripturally sanctified by Hindu traditions.

The Hindus believe that all humans are born into this world burdened by a debt – pitr-runa (pitr is ancestor and runa is debt). The only way to repay this debt is to father a male offspring. During funeral rites (shradh) Hindu males are reminded of this debt. Since the birth of a child, preferably a male child liberates a man from his debt; the Sanskrit word for son is putra deliverer from hell (put). The daughter or (putri) is also a deliverer from put, but to a lesser extent. (Allahbadia, Gautam N et al 2009:125)

Even a cursory glance at The Laws of Manu would reveal the discriminatory nature of the text. It extensively privileges the man/son over woman/daughter in terms of sacrality, salvation, property, inheritance, personal liberty, marriage relations etc. Unless such traditions are contested, no meaningful change is possible.

Spiritualising Food at the Cost of Nutrition

Any state concerned with the citizen’s welfare would seek to ensure that access to food is universalised. Many states have banned even eggs for children under the mid-day meal scheme. An NDTV report said that as per a 2011 survey by the National Institute of Nutrition, every second child in Madhya Pradesh is malnourished, and eggs could prove to be a cost-effective way to increase the nutritional value of mid-day meals. The state government, however, said it may hurt the sentiment of people. “The biggest reason for not agreeing to it is our social belief. Most of the people in the state are vegetarian. And we do not want to hurt their sentiments. They may later say the government is forcing children to have eggs,” the state's Rural Development Minister Gopal Bhargava told NDTV (Das 2014).

Similarly, the ritual of a midday meal in a school located in Rajasthan is described in another report. The routine at the government primary school in Bhawargarh village in Rajasthan’s Baran district is as follows.

After a modest meal of “dal, roti and aloo ki subzi” is served, one of the boys stands up and starts reciting a mantra. The rest follow suit and the air is filled with chants of “Hare Krishna Hare Rama”. This is the routine at the government primary school in Bhawargarh village in Rajasthan’s Baran district. Mohan Singh Chauhan, a teacher at this school, said the NGO Akshay Patra had introduced this ritual and forced schools to comply. The food is strictly vegetarian… People from the Sahariya tribe form the majority in Baran district, which hit headlines in 2002 for starvation deaths. Though the situation has improved considerably since then, malnutrition among members of this tribe continues to be a problem. Also, these tribes have traditionally consumed non-vegetarian food, including fish, chicken and eggs. Even the food served as part of the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) in anganwadis here is vegetarian. (Frontline 2015)

It is assumed that schools portray a secular and democratic space, and when religious values determine the calorie intake, who would be accountable for children’s health? Both Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh are at the bottom of the Human Development Index. The idea of the mid-day meal scheme was to provide balanced nutrition to impoverished children whose families can ill afford to feed them. It was also to incentivise education and reduce the number of school dropouts. Increasingly, only Dalit and tribal children flock to government schools for lack of better education prospects, and one wonders if it is a deliberate and dubious strategy to culturally corrupt these poverty-stricken and malnourished children. The attempt is to construct “decent and cultured” beings by spiritualising vegetarian food at the cost of nutrition. The routinised starvation of the dalit and tribal children is simply ignored.

Emotions around Food

Food does not consist of merely the calories, but it also arouses strong emotions.

Given that food is an element of the material world which embodies and organizes our relationship with the past in socially significant ways, the relationship between food preferences and memory may be regarded as symbiotic. Memory is embodied, often recalled via the sensations of taste and smell. The effects of memory are inscribed upon the body, in terms of such factors as posture, styles of walking, gesture and appetite for certain foods. The taste, smell and texture of food can therefore serve to trigger memories of previous food events and experiences around food, while memory can serve to delimit food preferences and choices based on experience. Preparing a meal may evoke memories of past events at which that meal has been prepared and eaten, conjuring up the emotions felt at that time, or the experience may look forward to the sharing of the meal with another, anticipating an emotional outcome…The power of the food/memory/emotion link is such that fragrances have been especially created to encapsulate our emotional responses to food tastes and smells. (Lupton 1996:32-33)

A popular brand of noodles, Maggi, had a very innovative advertisement. Any consumer could write to the company about their experiences of cooking and consuming Maggi noodles during inventive occasions. They could win prizes and many packets carried these stories – of midnight Maggi snacks in hostels, of weary travelers depending on noodles to sustain their energy in back of beyond places, and the list goes on. One Maggi advertisement promised to recreate the mother’s touch by cooking it in a particular manner. A new memory was sought to be constructed by the market around a dietary practice which was not very common among the people.

Ironically, for another food product, beef, the market is flourishing, but the culturally driven state has sought to ban it to further their hegemonic cultural/religious interests. In one case, the state is actively colluding with the market for economic motives, whereas in the case of beef, the state is sending a clear signal that food habits of many communities would be penalised. Draconian laws have been passed to implement the ban on beef. Anyone violating this ban would end up in prison for a decade, but for rape, the punishment is only seven years. The message is loud and clear—bovines are more valued than women. The acche din (good days) are for cows and not for human beings.

References

“Noon meal without egg” (2015): Frontline, 3 April, accessed on 30 April 2015, http://www.frontline.in/the-nation/noon-meal-without-egg/article7002995.ece.

Aiyar, Swaminathan S Anklesaria (2003): “Serving beef at Ayodhya,” Times of India, 24 August, accessed on 30 April 2015, http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/home/sunday-times/all-that-matters/Serving-beef-at-Ayodhya/articleshow/144132.cms.

Allahbadia, Gautam N, Swati G Allahbadia and Sulbha Arora (2009): “Hinduism and Reproduction in Contemporary India: Vedic Learnings,” Faith and Fertility, Attitudes towards Reproductive Practices in Different Religions from Ancient to Modern Times, Eric Blyth and Ruth Landau (ed), London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, pp 125.

Das, Siddharth Ranjan (2014): “Madhya Pradesh government opposes eggs in mid-day meals”, NDTV.com, 10 January, accessed on 30 April 2015, http://www.ndtv.com/india-news/madhya-pradesh-government-opposes-eggs-in-mid-day-meals-547389.

Lupton, Deborah (1996): “Theoretical Perspectives on Food and Eating”, Food, the Body and the Self, London: Sage Publications, pp 32-33. 

People’s Union for Democratic Rights (2003): “Dalit Lynching at Dulina: Cow - Protection, Caste and Communalism,” February, accessed on 30 April 2015, http://www.pudr.org/sites/default/files/pdfs/jhajhar.pdf.

Rukmini S (2015): “‘Preference for Sons’ could help unlock India’s Nutrition Puzzle,” Hindu, 9 April, pp 1 and 10, accessed on 30 April 2015, http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/preference-for-sons-could-help-unlock-indias-nutrition-puzzle/article7082280.ece.

The Laws of Manu (1991): Delhi: Penguin, pp 197-233.      

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