Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Dear Mr. Chief Minister...Could I please look into your bedroom?

Sometime on the eleventh of September a number of journalists and media groups in Goa received an email from the Director of Information and Publicity. The email contained the subject line “Chief Minister performed Aarthi's to Lord Ganesh at his Aquem Residence Margao On Sept. 11, 2010…” This message also contained an image illustrating the subject. The body of the email read, “Chief Minister Shri Digamber Kamat, Smt. Asha Kamat and members of the family are seen performing aarthis of the family Lord Ganesh on the occasion of Ganesh Chaturthi at his Aquem residence, Margao on September 11, 2010.”

To this email, a journalist friend posed the rather understandably irritated question; “Is this ‘news’? Does the citizen of a post-colonial, secular State need to be told about the beliefs and prayers said by his political functionaries?”

While I can understand the irritation, indeed this column will vent my personal irritation at the ‘news item’ I do not believe that the secular credentials of the Goan State are at stake in this issue. On the contrary, the Indian version of secularism has thrived on the twining of the religious and the political. Or perhaps more correctly the manner in which the political has managed the multiplicity of Indian religious experience. Thus, given a Catholic Chief Minister, and if this press release becomes a trend, we could expect to see the Chief Minister at a feast mass.

No, this news item does not challenge the secularism of the Goan State. That secularism is challenged more fundamentally by Digambar Kamat and his police force when they allow the right wing elements to determine what is appropriate culture in this State and what not.

The problem with this news item is that it could set a trend, where a tendency already exists, of making every little thing the Chief Minister (or politician) does, a matter of interest. Such a news culture walks the dangerous path earlier taken in the construction of totalitarian leaders. Every little action that the great man takes is news, beginning a cult of personality. This tendency is not new to the Indian Republic, it has existed for some time, and has existed in Goa as well. Remember the times of the eighties when our newspapers would be graced by images of MLAs inaugurating shops? What is surprising perhaps is that this tendency picks up even small private moments as the family worship at Chaturthi time.

It is here that the news item demonstrates its troublesome nature, and it is something that Mr. Kamat should give some thought too. To allow the Department of Information and Publicity permission to access his private and family moments sends a signal that his private world is also open for scrutiny and examination. The implications of this are perhaps best seen in the case of film stars. The success of the film star rests not so much on their acting potential, but on the fact that they are constructed as these beings whose entire lives are up for scrutiny. What this results in is a gross violation of their privacy and that of their families. In the case of film stars, this is what they signed up for. The question for Mr. Kamat (and his tribe of politicians) is whether he would enjoy playing this game. I think not. It opens up the gates for opposing politicians to draw out not just the private moments and scenes of the Chief Minister, but the rest of his family as well. In the offensive and obnoxious attack on Mr. Monserrate’s son, which was really an unfair means to get at the father, we see the problems that such politics brings. We should bear in mind that not all family engagements, or personal moments are as pure and chaste as the aarthi at Ganesh time.

Thus, Mr. Director of Information and Publicity, the news item that you generated is problematic not only because it seems to threaten the secular fabric of our State, but because it smacks of the desire to build a personality cult, something we are better off without. It also opens up the doors for all manner of investigation into the personal lives of the Chief Minister and his family. This is not a good idea, not just for us, but for the sake of Mr. Kamat’s welfare.

(First published in the Gomantak Times 22 Sept 2010)

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Home cooked food!: The mantra, yantra, tantra of hygienic and clean food

A couple of days ago, a friend of mine, recently returned from the United States, complained about the stomach condition he had developed. What galled him most was that his illness had been caused via spoiled food served at a 5 star hotel. He had been warned, a dozen times over, that while road-side stalls were unsafe and unhealthy, the food served in the 5 star hotels in India was safe. And yet, this was not the first time 5 star food had him shuttling to and from the toilet. When I heard his story, I sat back and smiled. There was ofcourse, an explanation for why exactly his logic was not computing.

To get a grip on this logic however, we would have to go back in time, a couple of years when I was sharing a conversation with a friend. Speaking about the dabbawallas of Bombay, this friend remarked that this unique institution probably had something to do with the unique eating and dining habits of the South Asian. Caste rules as regards dining in older times restricted who we ate with, what we ate from whom, and where we ate as well, not to mention the times at which we ate. Thus, it was possible for a ‘lower’ caste person to offer food to a ‘higher’ caste person as long as it was uncooked. Where the degrees of separation between castes were lesser, then the possible pollution could beundone by sprinkling the cooked food ritually with ghee. The best route however, was to make sure that the food was cooked by some one reliable, someone who was ritually pure, and would thus provide ritually pure food. Someone from your home. It was partly for these reasons, this friend reasoned, that the dabbawallah was such a success in Bombay. It ensured a perfect system where ritually and socially privileged ‘home-cooked food’ could be delivered to you.

These ritual obsessions with purity, could explain the mania that the Indian displays for ‘home cooked food’; the home being a symbol for the pure. It is the absence of such preoccupations in other parts of the world, that allows places as wide-ranging as South-East Asia, Europe, the Americas and not least of all, the Islamicate urban centers of the South Asian subcontinent, to have such rich street-food cultures. The elusive hygiene of the street-side food-stall in India then, is less about hygiene and more about (often time unconscious) concerns for ritual purity. When we are not so sure about the social location of the cook, it is better to err on the side of caution.

Similarly, certain ritual systems of the subcontinent consider the consumption of food is an activity that makes one vulnerable. Thus the space in which one eats is something that one ought to give attention to. For the ritually conscious then, the liminal space of the street, that is open to polluting influences of all sorts, is best avoided as a place to eat. The ideal space to eat is the space in which one is secluded, in an environment where one is safe from intrusion of the polluted and dirty outside. Once more, scientific hygiene has nothing to do with the safety of the food.

But this is not to say that scientific hygiene has absolutely no role to play in any of these choices. On the contrary, it does and in a very interesting manner. Scientific hygiene was a colonial introduction into the subcontinent, and marked heavily by racism. The brown (or black) body was seen as the repository of filth and dirt. The tropical home of these coloured bodies was similarly loaded with pestilence and illness. Colonialism, through its mechanism of the ‘white man’s burden’ offered a way out of this mess to the coloured person, through the doctrines of scientific hygiene, urban planning and education. The elite of the subcontinent grabbed these ideas of hygiene with as much aplomb as they grabbed at the political institutions and ideas of the white man. As an illustrative case, take Gandhi’s agenda was tied as much with hygiene as it was with the setting up of the Indian nation-state. The political language of equality that Indian nationalism utilized did not however, necessarily transcend caste boundaries. In a clever move, while the dominant castes invested themselves with Western attributes, the attributes that were credited to the coloured person, were passed on to the ‘lower’ castes of the subcontinent. Thus their bodies and lifestyles, already deemed ritually unclean, were now also see as unhygienic. Just as the coloured person was seen as lacking in education, the Westernised coloured person, now projected this need for education and upliftment onto these ‘dumb’ castes.

It is no revelation that to most people in the third world, the 5 star hotel represents the developed West. It is a space where we can produce, and reproduce, ourselves as sophisticated, westernized and upper class. But as should be obvious, this westernization, and upper classness, also has casteist elements to it. Thus it is also an exclusive space, where we reject those who are not ‘people like us’. While there is no denying that a greater amount of care is possibly taken in the kitchens of these hotels, the fact is that these places are deemed cleaner, not only because they are more hygienic. They are deemed cleaner, because they are places where ‘people like us’ go, and where food is cooked ‘for people like us’. This is the safe space where the unknown and unclean cannot intrude, and this, perhaps above all, produces its ‘cleanliness’. In the past we had filthy cooks prepare food that was deemed ritually clean, because the cook was Brahmin (or of comparable caste groups). Or ritually suspect food could be eaten, because it was ritually purified by water or ghee. Similarly today, hotel food is produced as hygienic by the ritual mantra, yantra and tantra of shiny modern kitchens, presumed conformance to hygienic standards, and the modernity and exclusivity of their location.

Consequently then, we can make sense of the Facebook status message that started this whole conversation…

“Myth: Eating @ 5 Star hotels in India is safe. Just had my 2nd ever experience of illness due to spoiled food served. Consequently I have warned against "road side chai" and have had it over 2 dozen times. Number of illness bouts from chai? = 0”

(A version of this essay was first published in the Gomantak Times Sept 8 2010)

Mantra, yantra, tantra: refer to the three necessary components of magic formula, machine or implement, and the procedure through which 'Hindu' ritual can be successfully completed.