Published in First City, December 2010
In the Mahabharata, when Krishna went to negotiate peace on behalf of the Pandavas with the Kauravas, he refused to eat in the house of Duryodhana. Instead he chose to eat in the house of Vidura, half-brother and advisor to Duryodhana’s father, Dhritrashtra. Vidura served Krishna green leafy vegetables, known since as ‘Vidura-saag’. Vidura too refused to eat food grown in the gardens and fields of the Kauravas. He maintained his autonomy and reflected it by growing green leafy vegetables in his garden. Food thus is not just about taste and nutrition. It is also a way of giving a message. This makes food a very political tool.
In the Ramayana, while searching for Sita who had been abducted by the demon-king, Ravana, Ram encounters a tribal lady called Shabari who feeds Ram berries. She takes a bite of each fruit before offering it to Ram. Lakshman sees this as an insult, and wishes to admonish Shabari, but Ram tells him to check the reason for this action before jumping to a conclusion. Shabari says, “I want to ensure that I serve the sweetest of berries to Ram so I need to check each one before serving it.” Beneath her perceived uncouthness was pure love. That is what Ram was looking at.
Again in the Ramayana, Ravana’s brother, Kumbhakarna is described as a man who sleeps all the time and when he wakes must be fed vast quantities of food, making him a sloth and glutton. He who eats a lot of food is not worthy of respect. Perhaps that is why images of Kumbhakarna are set aflame during the festival of Dussera.
Ganesha, the elephant-headed son of Shiva, is described as a glutton. But the reason here is very different. Once, Kubera, king of Yakshas, wondered how Shiva, the ascetic, could feed his corpulent son. “Let me feed you,” said Kubera, “as clearly your father cannot afford to do so.” Ganesha accepted Kubera’s invitation, went to his house, and ate all that was offered. “I am still hungry,” said the elephant-headed god. Kubera had to procure more food using the money in his treasury. Ganesha ate all that was served and kept asking for more. Finally Kubera fell at his feet and begged him to stop eating. “You are draining me dry,” he cried. Ganesha then said with a smile, “Any attempt to satisfy hunger will never be successful. My father, Shiva, therefore seeks to outgrow it.”
Both the heroines of the epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata, Sita and Draupadi respectively, are considered to be great cooks. According to one North Indian retelling of the Ramayana, a crow took a piece of bread cooked by Sita and dropped it in Lanka. Ravana ate it and was driven mad with desire for Sita. This, says this retelling, is the real reason for Ravana abducting Sita.
Another folk retelling tells us how Kunti, the mother of the Pandavas never shared her kitchen secrets with her daughter-in-law, Draupadi. Through food Kunti ensured her sons still came to her and were not totally smitten by their beautiful wife. But Draupadi was determined to wean her way into her husbands’ hearts through their stomachs. She kept observing and smelling what Kunti served each of her husbands and figured out the recipe and ended up preparing the dishes, adding her own innovation, until the Pandavas craved more for Draupadi’s food than Kunti’s.
Of Draupadi’s husbands, Bhima was a glutton. When Kunti cooked rice, one half of the rice was given to Bhima and the other half was divided equally between the other four Pandavas and their mother. It is over food that Bhima had a violent encounter with a demon called Baka. Baka was a glutton who would attack a village and kill and eat indiscriminately. So to make peace, the village promised to send Baka each month a cartload of food with one young man or woman. Baka would eat not only the food but also the bullocks and the young man or woman who brought the food. This would satisfy him for a month, until the arrival of the next cartload. Bhima offered to save one boy of the village by volunteering to take the cart of food to Baka. His real reason was to eat the food himself. When Baka found Bhima eating the food meant for him, he was furious. A fight followed in which Bhima killed Baka. The good glutton triumphed over the nasty glutton.
But when Bhima died, he was not allowed to enter paradise of the gods. He was condemned to hell for the crime of gluttony.
When the Pandavas were forced into exile into the forest by their cousins, the Kauravas, Draupadi’s greatest regret was that she had lost her kitchen. As queen, she took great pride in feeding the many people who visited her palace. Now she had nothing to give. The Kauravas wanted to gloat on Draupadi’s poverty and so sent a group of priests to Draupadi’s house. They were expecting to be fed and Draupadi had nothing to serve. The humiliation was too much to bear when Krishna appeared on the scene. “I am hungry too, Draupadi,” he said. Draupadi burst into tears at the insensitive remark of her friend. “I have nothing but a grain of rice that has stuck to my finger since I left the palace,” said Draupadi. “That will do,” said Krishna. He took the grain of rice from Draupadi’s hand and ate it with relish. He even burped, causing Draupadi’s face to light up in joy. As soon as Krishna burped, all the priests sent by the Kauravas felt their stomachs bloating as if filled with rich food. They felt they could not eat anything Draupadi would serve them. Rather than insulting Draupadi, they decided to simply slip away quietly. Krishna thus saved Draupadi from losing face.
India is a land where social station is reinforced by the food that is served and the way the food is served. Eating vegetarian food is considered superior to eating non-vegetarian food. In non-vegetarian food, eating flesh is reserved for upper classes while eating organs is for lower classes. In ancient times, everyone ate on leaves which could be discarded at the end of the meal. With the arrival of metal plates, metal was used to determine station in society. Metal vessels were reserved for members of the same caste and upper caste. Lower classes were given food in earthen ware pots. Even today, outsiders are served in chinaware and glassware while family members are served in metal.
In the Periya Puranam that narrates the story of saints of South India, there is one story that comments on these food politics. In a Shiva temple, one Brahmin serves Shiva vegetarian food on golden plates while one tribal youth serves Shiva meat with his hands. “What food do you prefer?” Shakti asks Shiva. In response, Shiva causes his image in the temple to sprout a real eye. The eye bleeds. The Brahmin priest runs away in fear. The tribal youth, unable to stop the bleeding with herbs, cuts out his own eye and offers it to Shiva. Shiva then tells Shakti, “I prefer the offerings of the tribal youth. It does not matter what you serve or how you serve but why you serve it. The feelings behind the offering make it a great offering.” Food in India is therefore not just about the quality and quantity of food but the feeling with which it is cooked and served. That lies at the core of kitchen politics.