Monday, June 30, 2014 9 comments


I was reading a book on the life and times of Sai Baba of Shirdi. There  is a section in the book that talks about how he used to cook food himself and serve it to his devotees. The food distributed by him varied from vegetarian food like “Sheera” ( rava kesari)  “Ambil  (simple millet porridge) to  Mutton Biryani. Both vegetarian and non vegetarian  dishes were cooked and distributed side by side . People ate what they were used to!! There was no system of segregation- food and eating together in this case being  what united all his devotees!!!  This was in 18th century  India in a village in Maharashtra. Though a lot of people who were close to Baba were Brahmins never did anyone question about non vegetarian food being cooked and served in the same premises!!  

But today I find a certain degree of intolerance creeping in with regard to food.  I was told that the management of a popular English daily based out of Chennai had recently issued a circular saying that employees could not bring non vegetarian items in their lunch box!! It was a bit shocking to hear  about this because the newspaper holds a very balanced view in terms of issues that it reports and writes about!  

While it may be something new where this newspaper is concerned, it not uncommon among many of the so called “popular” schools in Chennai where the rules do not permit the students to bring any non vegetarian food!!  We do not hear of such instances of “banning food groups” in schools in the rest of the country. I grew up in Calcutta and ate my curd rice quite happily sitting together with groups of friends who brought fish curry and rice or chicken sandwiches. As a vegetarian I did not of course share their food but I had no objections to eating with them  or sharing my lunch with them. The school management though very strict about every other aspect never really interfered with this. People tell me that was because it was a “convent school” ( “Christians are non veg aren’t they?” ) . I don’t think friends in my colony going to schools run by Hindu establishments, Kendriya Vidyalayas etc faced any such restrictions either !! Thankfully my daughter’s school, despite being in Chennai does not have these restrictions! The only instruction that was given to us when she joined school was to pack lunch that “the child is used to eating and is able to eat by himself/ herself” 

What surprises me most about these food restrictions is the manner in which people accept them meekly. Whether it is an office or school management or a landlord who enforces it, no one actually questions it as something that infringes on our rights as a citizen.  People just accept enforced vegetarianism thinking it to be “superior”!!!!

My husband is probably the only person I know who has raised this issue at his work place. He works for a diplomatic mission in Chennai. Though there is no official rule here about food, the Indian employees tried to segregate tables as “vegetarian” and “non vegetarian”!! While in a social function  it might be alright considering it helps in the serving of food by the hosts, in the office dining hall,  he found it smacking of  casteism. He had to bring it to the notice of the Head of the Mission and relate it to him using international parallels like the 1950s segregation in the US for them to understand. Needless to say, hubby  is one of the most unpopular members among the Indian staff  there today!! He undergoes what he humorously terms as “social boycott” during lunch time by a large majority of people from a certain community. His only lunch companions being foreigners or Indian staff who work as drivers and gardeners. But he is not complaining !!!

You might wonder if my “tolerance” to non vegetarian food emerged out of my Calcutta days or post marriage to a Christian. I would say it is neither. I have just been taught to accept it as a food preference by a person or persons or a community. My parents have never tried to inculcate in me a sense of my superiority of being a vegetarian person. They have always told me to accept what people eat as it is their culture.  And I think my parents were progressive because these ideas were dinned into me decades ago before it was “fashionable” to hold such “liberal” views.  

 While I do attempt cooking non vegetarian food, I think I do not do justice to these dishes. So non vegetarian food is often bought from outside. But we eat at the same table   because we believe that a family that eats together stays together.  When we accept   people with their culture we accept them totally. Food, as we know is an essential part of culture!! It is unfortunate that educational institutions are enforcing food restrictions that smacks of cultural chauvinism!  The canteen in an institution or a restaurant are well within their rights to serve a certain type of food. But no institution has the business to tell anyone what they should  bring as packed food to school or to office!!

Food can be used to promote inclusion or  indicate exclusion!! It is the ultimate equalizer!  It is probably the reason why Islam preaches that people should eat together out of a single plate. It is also why Sai Baba cooked and served food to his devotees and ate along with them. Though I have many reservations about the way his philosophy has been taken over and “sanskritized” over the years, one of the few things that still impress me about the Sai temples is the way Prasad is served. Everyone stands in a queue and receives the same plate of food- whether it is a  lady dressed in silk and diamonds or the beggar outside the temple!!

But what leaves me very disturbed is the way we are training our kids to develop ideas about people’s food habits. Is it any surprise that our society continues to remain fragmented despite the efforts of religious and social reformers over the years? 

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Tuesday, June 24, 2014 2 comments


As a person who has had the opportunity of living in different parts of the country, I have come across people from different cultures. While each culture is rich and distinct in its own way, what never fails to amaze me is how we Indians end up believing myths about people who are from other subcultures within the country!  Sometimes, these are not just about  the people. They encompass, weather, cuisine, attire  and language!  And what is more  surprising is how such myths become “ Pan Indian”. I am giving below some of the myths that I have come across. 
Myth 1 : That all South Indians are Madrasis. That they are  all vegetarians and speak Tamil
Reality:  It is only people who live in Madras who can be called Madrasis. But now even they would prefer to be called Chennaites! There are four states .. ( sorry five now!) in Southern India. Each state is distinct in terms of language ( there are four languages spoken in the south). People living in Tamil Nadu speak Tamil and even they would not like to be called Madrasi as they  might be living in Madurai, Trichy , Coimbatore etc!!!
Regarding the vegetarianism I would like to say here that a majority of the people in Southern India are non vegetarian!! There are many places in the south where getting vegetarian food would be a challenge!!!
This misconception is probably based on the fact that of the south Indians who have lived for long in the north, many are Tamil Brahmins who are vegetarians!!  Considering a  North Indian calls every South Indian a Madrasi, is it any surprise that they should presume all are vegetarians?

Myth 2 That all Christians are highly westernized and that Christian brides wear a gown when they get married
Reality : Most Christians are as rooted in the local culture as other religious communities in the region.  I am yet to attend a Christian wedding where the bride has worn a gown ( and being married to a Christian  I have attended many weddings ) . Most Christian brides wear saris just like other Indian brides. It is not just specific to Christian brides from Southern India!!  Brides from Jharkhand also wear saris ( for those who have doubts about the link between Jharkhand and Christians let me enlighten you. Over 14% of the tribal population there is Christian). There are Bengali Christian brides who also don the six yards.  And let me add here -   In Kerala grooms often wear veshti  or mundu.  I am truly baffled about this myth and how it  might have emerged!!

Myth 3  That everyone is Goa is Catholic.
Reality :  While there is certainly a large Catholic presence in Goa, there is also a distinct Hindu community there . In fact Hindus constitute over 50% of the population there. Christians only constitute about 25% of the population in Goa. Those of you who have gone to Goa might remember visiting the Mangeshi temple there along with visiting the church of Bom Jesus.  The Malvani Cuisine which is indigenous to the Konkan coast is traditionally served in Hindu homes in Goa. Goans who are Hindu dress traditionally in attires similar to what we see around Maharashtra. The wonderful thing about Goa is that there are both these sides to it. The tourism sector probably likes to market just one facet to it.

Myth 4  That temperatures go down by October – November and the entire country  has a winter
Reality:   This myth is a reflection of the poor education that is delivered by our schools!! I think almost every geography text book has a chapter on the monsoons and the effect of the proximity of the sea on the climate!! Yet, people from the northern part of the country continue to be surprised when temperatures do not go below 30deg C in Chennai, Kochi or Thiruvanthapuram and when it starts raining in November in Chennai they ask“ Why is it raining now”? Please.. folks have you not heard about the north east monsoons and the retreating south west monsoons?  I think people who express these kinds of moronic doubts should be sent back to school and made to sit through geography lesions once again!!!

Myth 5  That Hindi is spoken by everyone across the country! That people in the south who appear to be not “very highly educated” would understand Hindi instead of English.
Reality:  There are people who are actually surprised when they realize that in parts of India people do not speak or understand Hindi.  I must narrate an experience here. I was coordinating a national seminar where there were many senior officials from the Ministry of Environment and Forests were participating. One gentleman had a problem with his return air ticket. He wanted it to be cancelled and rebooked. So I took him to an administrative assistant in my office and asked him to explain the problem to her so that she would help him out with the cancellation/ rebooking. I was surprised to see that the gentleman who until then was speaking to me in English suddenly switched to Hindi while addressing Latha! The poor girl was looking baffled. I suppose he must have presumed that since she belonged to a “clerical cadre” she might not understand English!! I had to tell him that everyone in the south understands and speaks some basic English. It has always been our link language right from the colonial days. But what amazes me is that a senior bureaucrat like him could have a misconception like that!!!  

Myth 6: That Sardarjis are all brawn and no brains.  
Reality: I don’t think I need to explain why it is a myth. Two of the most highly educated and acclaimed economists in this country – former PM Dr. Manmohan Singh and former Deputy Chairperson of the planning commission Dr. Montek Singh Ahluwalia  are Sardarjis!

Myth 7: That Deepwali is a Pan Indian festival and that Holi is celebrated across India
Reality : Deepawali is traditionally not celebrated in Kerala. Holi is not a traditional festival of the south. However with increasing migration across states these festivals are acquiring a Pan Indian status.

Myth 8 : That all South Indians are dark, short, squat and fat!
Reality:  While a majority of South Indians are drawn from the Dravidian stock there has been a lot of intermingling of races across  history. So this stereotype does not hold true. It smacks of racial discrimination!!! To be dark is not to be ugly. And about being fat, I must say the number of fat people in Gujarat and Punjab together might outnumber the population of a small state like Sikkim!! 

There are different racial features that we  find in the south- the tall  and fair Kodavas of Coorg, the fair and light eyed Bunts of Karnataka, the tall, dark  people of Tamilnadu and Andhra, the doe eyed beauties of Kerala etc . Each race has its own unique features and each race is beautiful in its own way! And of course one must not forget that some of the  so called “beauties” of  Bollywood  like Hema Malini, Rekha, Sri Devi, Jaya Prada, Aishwarya Rai, Shilpa Shetty, Deepika Padukone are from Southern India!!! 

Myth 9 : That tamarind is part of any food preparation from the South and that Idly and Dosa are  part of all South Indian cuisine
Reality:  This is an extremely silly notion that many people hold. Tamarind, though a part of many south Indian cuisines is not  popular in Kerala. Kerala uses what is called “Kodam puli” or “Coccum” in its preparations. In fact much of the west coast cooking uses that.  Malayali cuisine has more similarity to Malvani, Manglorean cuisine than to the rest of the Southern States. So, is it surprising that Idli and Dosa is not part of any traditional Malayali breakfast?

Myth 10 : That people wearing western outfits are “Mod”
Reality:  I think it is the silliest thing that people like to believe. The question is what is being “mod” or “modern” all about? If it is about being westernized then the  ability to communicate in English is an important determinant!!  I would like to point out here that some of the “mod” girls that I have seen in Ahmedabad could not communicate properly in any language other than Gujarati. Same could be said of the stylish girls that one sees in the Delhi markets. I doubt they hold any “modern” ideas in terms of their own freedom. By contrast I would like to point out the example of one of my sister’s relatives. This old lady in a typical nine yard sari is lovingly referred to as “ Perry Mason Pati” ( The Granny who reads Perry Masons) because of her addiction to books by Erle Stanley Gardner!! She obviously speaks good English and given her exposure to Perry Mason’s exploits is quite “un- shocked” by anything that she sees or hears! This old lady by no stretch of anyone’s imagination would be classified as “Mod”.

I could go on and on I guess in listing our national myths. If you notice, a majority of the myths listed above are about South India. That is because myths by their nature emerge out of people’s ignorance about something – in this case Southern India.  Most of India does not try to get to know us well. Though there are a lot of South Indians living in the North, I find the effort that we make to imbibe the culture there is not reciprocated by our Northern compatriots. Despite the fact that a lot of them live today in Chennai , Bangalore and Hyderabad, I find their efforts at integration is not as one would expect of a group that has migrated here. It is annoying when they expect that we would go all the way and reach out to them. We will definitely make the effort to make them feel welcome but we expect they would come half way up to us and try to understand and appreciate our culture.

The other kinds of myths are about minorities. As a country we like to live in our own worlds and believe what we like about Christians, Sardars , Muslims or any other such groups. There are many in our country ( especially those who live in the North) who do not even know what or who is a Parsi!! 

We just like to believe what is popularized by our film industry as a general stereotype!

I think instead of trying to get everyone to fall in line around one language there should be efforts made in some form to get people to understand  and appreciate the diversity of each region. Though a Tamilian I  am fluent in Bengali, Hindi and Telugu . I can read and write the first two very well.  No state directive forced me to learn these languages.  I learnt them out of my own curiosity and interest. And believe me it has enriched my life as an Indian in the most unbelievable of ways!!!