The Homogeneous Politics of Food in Indian Children’s Literature
Dr Athira Mohan
In this essay, Athira, through an exploration of texts of anglophone Indian children’s literature decodes how majority aesthetics is formed through parallel processes of imperialist politics and of nationalism using tropes of food. In doing so she paints the Indian picture of the child in narratives through questions of representations in different narratives.
From the eponymous Blytonian narratives of adventure to the Harry Potter series that belong to the tradition of hostel narratives, food is found to be a major trope in anglophone children’s literature. The presence of food in children’s literature was investigated by many scholars, starting with Wendy Katz, whose article Some Uses of Food in Children’s Literature, was published in 1980.
Food clearly performs a function in literature that is almost of a self-explanatory nature. In many cases, food unearths the motives of characters, or exposes the underlying power structures or socio-economic features of the setting or the plot. Food is at the same time a tool for suppression and rebellion, a trope for establishing and deconstructing. For instance, food can be the only device through which a migrant life marks their selfhood, or grapples with their identity. Food remains to be a strong presence in diasporic narratives, often being the only trail that connects the migrant to their identity. In post-colonial societies, food is often an eclectic reminder of the struggles and cultural coalitions that the land had witnessed in the past. Food is very much gendered and political, and hence in literature it is one of the most powerful tools.
Critical work has been done in the field of food literature, probably the first step taken by the structuralists like Barthes, Levi Strauss and Mary Douglas. Their work largely revolved around the concept of food as a system of communication with capacity to create meaning. Levi Strauss created the famous ‘culinary triangle’, which gave rise to many further studies which looked at how food fashioned culture(Levi-Strauss 36-37). Food was also employed in children’s literature as a socialising vehicle, as in many books which came out particularly in Britain, food descriptions were accompanied by rules of etiquette. Comparisons were often drawn between bodies, that of civilised, slender, and well-mannered, and that of sluggish, fat, or uncivilised. Though excess of food is a trope found in many works of children’s literature, the manner of food partaking is kept within the limits of etiquette in most of them. For instance, in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl, the children who fail to keep the etiquette, meet horrible ends. Augustus Gloop, the gluttonous fat boy who loses himself amidst the chocolate world, gets swept into the chocolate lake, whereas the demure and polite Charlie who sports a lean frame, and asks permission before taking a bite, gets showered with gifts.
Food in children’s literature was used as a powerful trope by the imperialists, to champion the cause of imperialism. This can be explained by examining the differences between the eating patterns of Kimball O’Hara and Mowgli, from Kim and The Jungle Book, written by Rudyard Kipling. Kim faces much of an identity crisis, as he was orphaned as a child, and was brought up by a “half-caste" opium addict. His appetite is versatile, especially because he is not familiar with a gastronomic affluence. But Mowgli, a native Indian child, brought up by animals in the jungle, holds no parallel to Kim. There is a continuous presence of animals around Mowgli, who would like to eat him. Whereas the unregulated consumption of monkeys in the Jungle Book is a sort of reminder of the uncouth ways of the natives in India, Kim’s appetites are regulated according to the etiquettes of his hosts. Mowgli and his band of animals are perfect representatives of mainland India, as they obey the law that they must “never kill or eat any cattle, young or old(26)”. The anarchic community of monkeys are described to be “the eaters of everything”(24). This strangely echoes the famous saying, “you are what you eat”.
At the same time, food can also be used as a trope to promote the idea of nationalism, as it could be witnessed in the genre of Indian children’s literature. It is important to recall the concept of banal nationalism put forward by Micheal Billig, who defines the term as “everyday representations of the nation which build a shared sense of national belonging amongst humans, a sense of tribalism through national identity(8).” Banal nationalism can include the set of symbols, emblems, performances, and cuisines that are used to represent a particular nation, and is employed and enforced. Anything outside this criteria evokes suspicion, fear, and is casted as the ‘other’. In other words, since nations are imagined communities, such performances are essential to keep the population under an impression of unity and togetherness. James Donald offers, “A nation does not express itself through its culture. It is cultural apparatuses that produce the nation”(6). When world history suggests that countries have never been static, and solid entities, but always have been in a state of co-mingling and flux, devices are resorted to, to maintain the social-politics of the nation by constructing and maintaining a border.
To illustrate this point further, I have taken three representative texts of anglophone Indian children’s literature. The representations of food in these texts are quite central to the narrative, and for the same reason, they are seen to be performing some crucial function in these narratives. The texts are Petu Pumpkin- Tiffin Thief by Arundhati Venkatesh, The Lion’s Feast by Lavanya Kartik, and The Case of Candy Bandits by Archit Taneja. Before analysing texts of children’s literature, an attempt to pit them against the colonising experience is essential.
This form of an analysis does not restrict itself to a mode of new historicism, as centuries of underrepresentation, and inequities has resulted in a distortion in indigenous aesthetic of these cultures. Colonialism results in an experience of homogeneity, which makes it fairly difficult for the individual with a colonial experience to detect the construction of stereotypes, or subtle championing of gender, race, or locale in a text. Many theoreticians have offered different techniques of reading to detect the same, of which adopting an indigenous aesthetic is a crucial step. For instance, the aesthetic of the erstwhile coloniser, or what is referred to as the ‘White Aesthetic' is not a defined concept, but is pervasive in the genres of literature and art. This does not limit itself to the exterior notions of beauty such as skin and hair colour alone, but also transcends to representations in art, music, and literature. How some colours are considered ‘classy’, while others are referred to as ‘loud’ and ‘deviant’ is an example for this. In other words, the dominant ideology is constituted by certain presumptions which render aspects of minority groups as either redundant, inferior, or exotic and historic. Theories on white aesthetic define it on the basis of skin colour, but this can operate between any groups with imbalances in power distribution. John M Kang in his essay "Deconstructing the Ideology of White Aesthetics" sees the ideology as the aesthetic preferences of the White population being considered the norm, whereas people of colour have to either conform to it, or reject it(283).
Majority aesthetics, according to Kang, results in four major ramifications. Primarily, it attaches a powerful normative angle to the concept of aesthetics. Secondly, when a set of characteristics are paraded as normal, deviant characteristics are formed as a result. This leads to a sort of negative self identification in the other. When they are forced to see themselves as deviant, it leads to racialization. This is especially true in case of imperialism, as the imperialist defines himself on the basis of what the colonised is not. Third feature is that majority aesthetics is always dictated in an objective tone, while subjective features are clothed in the garb of objectivity. For example, fair skin, rosy cheeks, and golden hair are features that are paraded as a universal norm of beauty, while these are physical traits of a minor section of the population.
Not just physical features, culinary preferences, cultural norms, celebrations, and political views get objectified in the process. Lastly, majority aesthetics deculturizes the cultural expressions of the other. Their spiritual beliefs, culinary preferences, and cultural practices run the risk of getting branded as deviant, barbaric, strange, or in the best cases, exotic. When this concept is taken down to the parlance of art, especially children’s literature, one can see that the politics in canonical works of children’s literature works along with the concept of white aesthetic. It can be either blatant, or subtle, but children’s literature remains to be an easy vehicle for majoritarianism and colonialism, because of several factors. Lack of academic attention and scrutiny remains to be one, but the major factor behind children’s literature seen as an easy vehicle for propaganda is its ability to influence generations of young minds. This exists in many postcolonial societies, which is understood to be a case of internal colonialism. Internal colonialism is a condition that mainly exists in erstwhile colonised societies, when the society continues to be stratified in terms of the vestigial colonial ideals, be it circumscription to colonial notions of culture, language, or morality.
Petu Pumpkin- Tiffin Thief by Arundhati Venkatesh is a tale that takes place at a school where three students, named Kiran, Jatin and Nitin are fed up with their friend Pushkin, who is called Petu Pumpkin, owing to his gluttonous ways. The story opens when the school reopens after the summer holidays, when Petu has gone to Cochin to visit his grandmother. The book is a veritable feast in words, as it narrates the gluttonous desires of Petu and the numerous things he consumes. But the book with its immense scope for having described India in all its mercurial variations of culture through food, fails exactly there. Petu when daydreaming about the fare he had consumed at his grandmother’s home at Cochin, thinks about Halwa, Peda, Lassi, Malpua, Dhokla, Jangri, Mishti-Doi, Bisi bele Bath, Akki Roti and Avial. With a possible exception of Halwa and Avial, none of them are authentic Kerala dishes, while Mishti-Doi, Dhokla and Malpua are as foreign as dishes from distant lands. Though the cultural backgrounds of the students are not revealed, one could assume the authorial intention was to paint an Indian picture of sorts, but the picture remains artificial and it caters to the reality of a minute fraction in India. Pushkin munches on bananas, sandwiches,idlis, chapati rolls and raisins throughout the day. He even steals and forcibly demands his friends’ tiffin boxes, from which he eats Baingan Barta and Pulao. Nitin, Jatin and Kiran make a concoction of neem leaves, chilli powder, ghee and water to make Pushkin stop eating, which Pushkin readily drinks. Even that mixture fails to kill the gluttony in him. Finally, they replace the contents of their lunch boxes with worms, slush, mud and dirt, which repulses Pushkin, if only slightly. There are instances in the narrative, when the friends are disgusted by Pushkin's behaviour and discuss the possibility of him eating anything. They even sing a song that goes,
Pushkin is the pumpkin
He’s back from Cochin
He’ll eat anything
Even from a Dustbin(Venkatesh 7)
The element of abjection brought here is the idea that Pushkin might even eat from a dustbin, which has an element of truth in it, as Pushkin himself admits later in the narrative that he had tried eating dog biscuits once. But the possibility of deviating from the norm of consuming non-vegetarian food is worse than abject here. If not pushkin, none of his friends bring non-vegetarian food for lunch. With a glaring seventy plus percentage of Non-Vegetarian population, the multiplicity of the country is unfairly represented in narratives like this. Pushkin even fantasies eating a crayon during art class, but caste permeates into the narrative via food, in an acute subtle and invisible fashion that it is rendered impermeable to the lives of others. Authorial preference of food or the lived experiences of the author cannot be the singular factor behind such descriptions. A child who grows upon narratives like this either learns to see themselves as an aberration or learns to prejudice themselves as the norm. These are also the narratives crafted in the Blytonian fashion, with secret societies and ‘apple pies’ getting interspersed with the lives of child protagonists who aspire to be detectives. The meat in the Blytonian narratives get translated as Chapati rolls and Parathas, or in fewer cases, crisp dosas. The problem of representation in food cannot be louder, but in an oxymoronic fashion, it hides itself craftily. In all honesty, the earlier works of children’s literature were more honest in the treatment of the ‘other’ compared to these metro-reads that actively participate in gatekeeping.
A similar narrative is The Case of Candy Bandits by Archit Taneja which has an extremely similar thread, where desserts disappear from the bags of students, and two students set out to find the culprit. In this narrative, two girls don the roles of detectives, and the story takes the reader through numerous attempts made by them to solve the mystery. Most works of children’s literature that are set in schools follow a similar route, where the child protagonist solves a mystery or faces a challenge. In the story, dessert packets go missing from the bags of the students, where the desserts were introduced by the PTA committee as an incentive to eat their lunch. According to the protagonists, they forgo lunch not because they do not like it, but because they find ‘eating lunch boring’(Taneja 5). Similar to the narratives focused on food, the novels dish out varied desserts which get stolen from the children, including Shilpa’s bar of chocolate, Arjun’s cupcake, Swati’s burfi, the narrator’s laddoo and even a student’s piece of apple pie. The European influence in these stories are not kept subtle, which takes the form of sandwiches, cakes, and pies, occasionally supplemented by mainstream Indian delicacies like Laddoo. The thief is revealed to be a friend of the narrator, who pilfers desserts, as he is denied those by his Dentist father. Though the narrative stresses the importance of allowing certain privileges for children, its premise and cultural environment is strictly elite. The story is set in a school where students of a particular social strata are admitted, signalled not only by their parentage, but also through the snacks they bring to school. It is also built on the tradition of European detective stories, where children act as detectives, and find the culprit.
The Lion’s Feast by Lavanya Kartik presents a fairy tale prototype replanted in a Tamil geography. The story presents Muthumama and Muthumami, an elderly couple who risk traversing through a forest for their weekly grocery shopping. They are ambushed by a fierce lion who gets ready to eat them. Muthumami promises him a feast of ‘hot dosas, spicy sambar and juiciest chutney and convinces him it would possibly taste better than two frail old people (4). The lion readily agrees, and the couple return to their home to prepare the feast. They take a bite of the food to check the salt, and end up finishing the entire feast. When the lion comes, they hide in the cupboard, while the lion sniffs at the air, commenting that “it smells heavenly” (9). But on discovering that the vessels are empty, the lion explodes into a fierce temper, while Muthumama lets out a burp and Muthumami giggles. This juncture of the fairy tale prototype usually presents two possible denouements; one, that of the lion killing the couple, or the lion getting killed or hurt. Though the concept of poetic justice would have favoured the former, the majority of the stories come up with the latter ending, with the patronising assumption that the child reader would find the act gruesome and horrific. In this story, the author adopts a postmodern technique wherein the reader chooses the ending. “If you think the lion should eat them, turn the page now. If you don’t lock the door so that the lion can’t escape”(12). The reader is spared a violent description of the ending, at the same time poetic justice is served.
A similar tale is featured in the book Tales of India, a collection of folktales, titled The Bear’s Bad Bargain. Since the story is set in Punjab, the dish of the feast is Khichri which the wife cooks for the husband, who is a woodcutter. The woodcutter is ambushed by a bear who is promised a feast of Khichri, which is polished off by the couple. The bear on seeing the plate empty flies into a rage, and starts to pick pears from the adjacent pear tree. The woodcutter sneezes and the bear gets startled and runs away, leaving the pears for the couple’s consumption (Kohli & Viplov 11).There are numerous versions of this in international cultures, with slight variations in denouements and feasts. Adaptations on similar vein gleaned from the corpus of Indian Children’s literature provide vegetarian dishes that represent majoritarian dictates.
Levi Strauss, Claude. “The Culinary Triangle”. Food and Culture: A Reader, edited by Counihan et al, Routledge, 2018, pp. 36-37.
Kipling, Rudyard. The Jungle Book. The Century Co,1920, pp.26, 24.
Billig, Michael. Banal Nationalism.Sage Publications, 1995, pp. 8.
Donald, James. (1988) ‘How English is it?’. New Formations, Lawrence & Wishart Ltd, 1992, pp.6.
Kang, John M. “Deconstructing the Ideology of White Aesthetics”. Michigan Journal of Race & Law, vol 2, issue 2, 1997, pp.283.
Venkatesh, Arundhati. Petu Pumpkin- Tiffin Thief. Duckbill Publications, 2018, pp. 7.
Taneja, Archit. The Case of Candy Bandits. Duckbill Publications, 2014, pp.5.
Karthik, Lavanya. The Lion’s Feast. Karadi Tales, 2016, p 4, 9,12.
Kohli, Svabhu & Viplov Singh. Tales of India: Folktales from Bengal,Punjab, and Tamil Nadu. Chronicle Books, 2018, pp. 11.
Athira holds a PhD in Children’s literature, which is centred around the politics of imperialism in
the indigenous children’s literatures of India and Canada, from Pondicherry University, India.
She is a recipient of the Indo-Canadian Shastri fellowship for the year 2019, and has worked as
a research fellow at the University of Saskatchewan, Canada.
During her stay at USASK, she had worked closely with experts in indigenous children’s literature, and had worked extensively on Canadian curricula and the government policies towards reconciliation. Her interests include Children’s literature, postcolonialism, and food studies.
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