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Between Elite Hysteria and Subaltern Carnivalesque: The Politics of Street-Food in the City of Calcutta



Deriving from the recent discussions on paideia (spiritual exercise), which links knowledge with mores and manners, this article argues that the expurgation of certain extreme tastes from the genteel Bengali palate, in the course of 'nationalist' reform in the 19th century, demonstrates the operation of a certain 'civilizing process' coterminous with the wider process of westernization. Positing a homology between this and the suppression of the carnivalesque in Europe, it further shows that through the well-known process of the 'return of the repressed', the marginalized elements are re- configured in a new category of anti-food - street-food - consumed by marginal sections of the population. In sum, the historic process of disavowal of the extreme tastes leads to the formation of a new symbolic economy.
Bhaskar Mukhopadhyay
, C
, I
Deriving from the recent discussions on paideia
(spiritual exercise), which links knowledge with mores and
manners, this article argues that the expurgation of certain
extreme tastes from the genteel Bengali palate, in the course of
‘nationalist’ reform in the 19th century, demonstrates the
operation of a certain ‘civilizing process’ coterminous with the
wider process of westernization. Positing a homology between
this and the suppression of the carnivalesque in Europe, it
further shows that through the well-known process of the
‘return of the repressed’, the marginalized elements are re-
configured in a new category of anti-food – street-food –
consumed by marginal sections of the population. In sum, the
historic process of disavowal of the extreme tastes leads to the
formation of a new symbolic economy.
: body, carnivalesque, manners, ontology, spiritual exer-
cise, symbolic economy, taste
‘Street [is] the only valid field of experience.’ (Andre Breton, Nadja)
Bawdy Talk: Prolegomenon to Sensuous Scholarship
As one grows older, one gets used to a kind of rock-bottom living: it becomes a
habit. Certain of certain certainties, one dreads the unfamiliar. Like most middle-
aged Bengali bhadraloks, street-food is an absolute no-no for me. In view of my
beleaguered stomach, rendered vulnerable by years of assault by Giardia and
Amoebiasis, those fiery chillies and the viciously sour raw tamarind are unlikely to
be taken kindly by my system. This is a trait I share with most Bengali middle-
aged Calcuttans brought up on contaminated drinking water. No wonder, the
culture of pet (the Bengali word for tummy) has become a veritable cosmology for
most urban Bengalis.1But even if I had the robust stomach of a Bengali peasant
from Burdwan who can digest even iron (as the Bengali proverb goes), it is
doubtful if I would ever venture out of my bland jhol-bhat regimen. It is not
Copyright © 2004
SAGE Publications
New Delhi,
Thousand Oaks,
DOI: 10.1177/0262728004042762
24 N
1 M
Vol. 24(1): 37–50; 042762
befitting of a man of my age and class to fall for the lure of street-food. It is not
This project of writing on street-food led to a veritable adventure. Armed with
Gelusil tablets (‘fast relief for chronic acidity’), I tasted fuchka, after decades,
standing in a dusty South Calcutta street-corner with a dozen giggling adolescent
girls and boys. The vendor gives you a cone made of sal-leaf stitched with a sharp
kathi (something like a cocktail stick) and then those fragile, hollow balls of fried
flour filled with the juice of tamarind, mashed potato, grams and red chilli-dust,
keep pouring in until you say ‘no more’. After having about ten of such balls
which must have set her whole alimentary system on fire, the girl standing next to
me could take no more. Yet she looked almost ravished with her burning tongue
sticking out and pupils dilated; one could not possibly miss the sense of
exhilaration writ large on her face, even as drops of tears descended her pimply
It is now my turn and it takes my system some time to absorb the shock of
the very first ball. As I stand trying to remember exactly how long ago I tasted my
last ball of fuchka, letting my system negotiate with the shock, like Proust’s sudden
flash of ‘involuntary memory’ as he tasted the famed Madeleine dipped in tea
(Terdiman, 1993), a memory of my very ordinary suburban adolescence flashed
up. It was the memory of one of those long summer vacations made insufferable
by a merciless sun and the prickly-heat humidity of Bengali summer – it was the
memory of my first teenage crush. We were a big family whose branches spread
out to remote mofussil towns of Bengal. I had a bunch of pubescent girl-cousins
who visited us along with their uncouth brothers during the annual summer
vacation. It must have been one of those early summer evenings when dark storm-
clouds of kalbaisakhi (Nor’wester) started gathering in the sky, torn apart by
flashes of thunderous lightening. One went to the streets with a sense of gloomy
foreboding. That was the day I tasted my last fuchka with the disappointment of
unrequited love. Tempting the girl on whom I had a crush with the mouth-
watering prospect of devouring fuchka and alukabli (at my cost), I managed to
have a kind of last walk together to the crossroads where the vendors sold their
stuff from little wooden carts, well beyond the parental gaze. As the rain broke
out, we ran home and I remember trampling fallen scarlet krishnachura branches
in bloom – the hell flames of desire.
Bengali Street-food: A Historical Ontology
Forgive this little self-indulgence of a middle-aged man and let me assure you that
this is not a ploy to turn away from the scholarly issues of sociology and history
of food. There are a variety of statutes prohibiting street-food in Calcutta (e.g. the
Prevention of Food Adulteration Act, 1954, Calcutta Municipal Corporation Act,
1980, and others). The current statutes are successors to hoary old colonial laws
which had more or less the same objective, namely suppression of street-food on
grounds of hygiene and health. Also, the vendors of street-food are too poor to be
able to pay for the obligatory hawking licence and that, in itself, makes them
members of an underclass whose very existence is denied by law. It is held that
38 South Asia Research Vol. 24 (1)
street-food is made and sold under unhygienic conditions, prepared with
contaminated water and is therefore instrumental in spreading water-borne
diseases, especially during the summer. And yet, anybody familiar with Calcuttas
street-culture would know the inevitability with which street-food vendors crop up
in every nook and corner in defiance of municipal law, petit-bourgeois prejudices
and the unanimous disapproval of parents, police and pedagogues. Schools close
their doors to them but their students manage, as we did, to make unauthorized
transactions with the vendors of fuchka, alukabli, churan, various kinds of pickles,
pounded green-mango and other sour fruits mixed with salt, chilli and savoury
Surely, Calcutta street-foods (by which I mean the food you can buy only on
streets and nowhere else) are numerous: from roasted peanuts to jhalmuri or
bhelpuri (puffed rice mixed with various spices and vegetables), from telebhaja
(deep-fried vegetables in batter) to desi ice-creams and kulfis, from candy-floss to
roasted maize, the gastronomic cartography of Calcutta is unlikely to be matched
by any other city of the world. Much of this huge repertoire is contributed by the
non-Bengalis, Marwaris, Gujaratis, Punjabis, Tamils and upper-Indian Muslims
living in Calcutta for generations. They have a far more variegated snack-culture
than the Bengalis who seemed to be wedded to what Mary Douglas (1975) has
called the sacrosanct ‘meal’. The Chinese have lived in Calcutta for about two
centuries now but the elevation of fried greasy noodles (chowmein) to street-food
is a recent phenomenon and has to do with the vogue of South-East Asian food
sweeping the globe since the early 1990s. The roll, a kebab rolled in a paratha and
covered with a piece of paper, the Calcuttan youth-food par excellence, was
invented by the famed Muslim restaurant of New Market, Nizam, a watering hole
of upcoming Calcuttans during the evening.
It is one of my contentions that, historically, the culture of street-food is not
very old in Bengal. Before the late 19th century and that, too, in the context of
Calcutta, there is no mention of street-food anywhere in old Bengali literature,
though references to food and meals are plenty, the larger part of Bengali
investment on body being mostly through food (Chakravarti, 1959). This is
understandable because in a society ruled by caste and intricate codes of purity
and pollution connected with eating and touch, the very anonymity of street-food
would be unthinkable. The first reference to street-food, telebhaja and roasted
grams along with chilli-chutney, occurs in Sachitra Guljarnagar (1871), one of
those picturesque novels about the ‘mysteries’ of the big city. From the turn of the
century to the 1950s, one hears about various bhajas: bulbul-bhaja, sarebotrish-
bhaja and haridaser bulbul-bhaja (claimed to be a favourite of Queen Victoria!)
ruling the streets of Calcutta, though I have never seen these myself in my
lifetime. These were perhaps the predecessors of the present chanachurs and
jhalmuries which are still consumed in plenty.
Guy Debord is Dead, Fullstop
The substantive conclusion to be drawn from this is that the rise of street-food in
the urban Bengali context is strictly correlated with the decline of the familial
39Mukhopadhyay: Between Elite Hysteria and Subaltern Carnivalesque
meal as a ritual activity and the rise of non-ritual eating (snacks) directed at
sensual stimulation rather than assuaging hunger-pangs. I remember my mother
calling my craving for street-food ‘dustu-khide’ (naughty-hunger) as opposed to
hunger proper to be satisfied by cooked food at home. The copy of a recent
advertisement for a chocolate-nut bar (‘thodi-si petpuja’, a bit of tummy-
worshipping) showing a young, attractive girl smiling impishly, brings home the
point about snack or junk food. Not nutrition but ‘distraction’ (Morse, 1990) is
what is aimed at. The food-philosopher Falk (1994) has made a distinction
between the pre-modern meal-ontology as opposed to modern or post-modern
snack-ontology. He argues that the modern ‘alienated’ person seeks a certain oral
stimulation from junk food to fill the empty space it perceives inside: this ‘oral
urge’ is not the manifestation of ‘oral security’ but on the contrary, a symptom of
its absence. In effect, he argues that the postmodern free-floating individualism is
a kind of infantilism where the early oral stage of sexuality is perpetuated.
I have problems with this kind of analysis which idealizes the so-called
unmediated immediacy of the pre-modern as opposed to the domination of
modern societies by ‘distraction’ effected by image or simulacra (Debord, 1995). It
commits us to too automatic, too simplistic a politics of representation.3I prefer
to operate with Foucault’s idea of modern power which works through a rhetorical
incorporation of the subject in the very grid of power. Like Pascal’s ‘earth’,
modern power is an « effroyable » sphere whose circumference is everywhere and
centre nowhere. In other words, I think that the systemic critique based on an
idealized use-value as opposed to the ‘satanic’ exchange-value, is no longer of
much practical service. Following Ashis Nandy (1995), I have learnt how to
valorize the local, the strategic, the semiotic, the playful or even rhetorical
resistances to narratives of power. It is in this context that the priority of image or
simulacra, of form over content, of the signifier over the signified, assumes a
certain political urgency.
For Bengali adolescents or young adults, purchase or ingestion of ‘demateri-
alized’ street-foods like fuchka, alukabli or hojmi, which have little or negative use-
value, is pleasurable. Their consumption leads to what can be called furti (fun) as
opposed to masti (jouissance) which is reserved for things more serious: alcohol,
sex, heavy dancing or a combination of all these. Street-food is valued not because
of its taste as such but because of its symbolic significance as qua ‘rubbish’ or
‘junk’ food prohibited by adults. What adults despise is invested with prestige,
except, of course, for those conformist nerds growing like some kind of
undergrowth beneath the main body politic of hardened, tough, lathkhore Bengali
teenagers. It is the cultural image around the food – its exchange – rather than
use-value in the symbolic economy, that is important. Eating these non-nutritious
foods that break the code of diet and ‘meal’, entails the membership of a cultural
group and confers on the eater a certain non-conformist identity. These foods
exude non-conformist values like youth, vigour, sexual attractiveness, humour and
fun times. The lurid names of these totemic anti-foods, fuchka, current, etc., the
manner in which these are eaten, involving finger-licking, exaggerated chewing,
gulping, the blowing of nose, the place where these are eaten, busy, dusty street-
corners and mostly in groups often exploding in laughter and using cult-language
40 South Asia Research Vol. 24 (1)
and argot, all these serve as a disorderly and carnivalesque counter to the sober
and anodyne world of grey, restrained, constipated Bengali bhadralok adulthood.
Of Physiology and Pataphysics4
As is well known, some 10,000 taste buds cover the tongue of an average adult
person. As we grow older, these decline in both number and sensitivity. By the
time one is 75, one has lost two thirds of one’s taste buds.5Thus, from a strict
physiological point of view, a certain proclivity to extreme tastes is likely to be
typical of adolescence when taste-buds come to maturity. Further, speaking
neurologically, taste is supposed to be associated with the automatic or lower brain
functions, but the problem is that it is also influenced by other senses like smell,
sight, hearing (Pavlov’s salivating dogs) and even by our inner time consciousness
or memory (Proust’s Madeleine). Thus, if we recognize that taste involves all our
other senses, thereby including the whole person, then the denigration of taste in
the Western logocentric tradition, from Aristotle and Plato to Descartes and Kant,
as the bottom rung of the sensory hierarchy, and the putative supremacy of sight,
i.e. mind, turns out to be just one more of those hoary prejudices handed down
by a bunch of despicable dead white men.6
However, it would be na¨ıve to conclude from this that we do not need ‘mind’
in order to experience food or, for that matter, eating is something ‘pre-discursive’.
The point rather is that the Western ‘logocentric’ discourse, which fetishizes brain
as the seat of the self, is not sensitive to the fact that we are our bodies; that body
is not something one merely owns. To be is to be embodied (Johnson, 1987;
Lakoff and Johnson, 1999). The problem with logocentrism is not that it
privileges discourse over ‘lived experience’. The problem is rather that it bends the
discursive field, what Derrida (1995: 1–2) calls the ‘archive’, in a way that it
becomes impossible to lend legitimacy to other discourses. For example, the very
talk of ‘embodied self’ presupposes the possibility of a ‘disembodied self’. To
challenge logocentrism in a straightforward way, therefore, is to walk out of
language to silence. Obviously, this is a trivial solution. Can we try other, more
wily strategies?
From Pataphysics to Discourse Analysis
The pataphysical gesture (think of Jarry’s deployment of the whole repertoire of
French scatology in Ubu’s corporeal paroxysms) characteristic of the avant-garde
debunking of metaphysics, is of course a time-honoured way of critiquing it. But
my strategy is somewhat different. What I try to show is how discourse shapes the
palate, supposed to be so resilient as to remain unchanged through centuries of
acculturation (Rozin, 1978: 105). In my view, it is not the ‘body in the mind’
that needs rehabilitation through ‘embodied scholarship’, if by ‘body’ we mean an
unproblematic self-presence. The body is not textless (Hunter and Saunders,
1995). The task of sensuous scholarship is not to recover the repressed, withered,
emaciated, primordial body lying buried beneath discourse and is therefore
beyond it. The Deleuzian ‘body without organs’ is one of the last bastions of
41Mukhopadhyay: Between Elite Hysteria and Subaltern Carnivalesque
metaphysics. The task is rather to recover how body and its desire are constituted
by discourse. The body has nothing to do with empirical corporeality, it is
‘phantasmic’ (Frow, 2002: 635–6).
One of the consequences of philosophical modernity has been to decouple the
body from the mind, as would be evident to any reader of Hadot (1995). Mores
and manners have become dissociated from Reason whose seat is the disembedded
mind. Kant’s disavowal of ‘manners’ and his reduction of the ethical to its purely
rational form, are well known (Minson, 1989). However, the point in rethinking
philosophy as paedeia, as ‘spiritual exercise’, is not to depict a lurid radical alterity
whence manners, ethics and rhetoric were one, but to work towards a certain
continuity to the present when the centrality of manners and rhetoric to ethical
questions is still at issue. A workable regime of manners and demeanour is still
very much on the agenda, as is evident from current debates on political
correctness, sexual harassment, child-abuse, and civic virtues. After the Kantian
‘disenchantment’ of ethics, philosophy seems to have ‘forgotten’ this linkage. Yet,
manners are still central to ethics. Their separation was made, in the first place, in
an act of ontological bad faith. Focusing on eating qua manner – eating as part of
comportment – my project here is to re-introduce the question of ethics of the
culture of food through the grid of flavour and taste, basing my arguments on the
modern Bengali archive.
The signs of a certain ‘civilizing process’ (Elias, 1996), of an ‘education of
desire’, become visible in British Bengal at around the end of the 19th century.
Our equivalents of Erasmus were Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay and Bhudev
Mukhopadhyay. A good deal of the history of recent post-colonial intervention
can be written through their use of the term ‘culture’. The post-colonial study of
third world nationalism, as a counter-hegemonic cultural enterprise, is based on a
particular rendering of the term ‘culture’ borrowed from Gramsci’s idea of
educative and moral functions of the modern state, though the centrality of class
in his argument has been somewhat dissipated by the more expansive notion of
‘people’. Culture, accordingly, has been understood in the anthropological sense of
a whole way of life. Culture in the Foucaultian understanding as conduct is social
engineering, whose emergence is best thought of as a part of the process of the
governmentalization of social life characteristic of the early modern period,
referred to by Foucault in the notion of police. The work of culture is to transform
subjectivities. Accordingly, my reproach to the post-colonials is that they have
consistently overlooked the policing ambitions of nationalist texts like Bankim-
chandra’s Dharmatattva, Krishnacharitra and Bhudev’s Parivarik Prabandha (1881)
and Achar Prabandha (1894). I do not have the space here to get into an extended
discussion of Bankimchandra’s idea of anusilan (exercise) and Bhudev’s idea of
achar (conduct) being very close to that sense of culture where it is figured as both
the object and the instrument of government which targets at transforming
conduct: mores, manners and comportment of extended populations. All I can do
in this article is to unravel the taste part of the story.
Central to my interest here is a certain ramification in the Bengali palate
implicated in Bankimchandra’s idea of change in the food-habit that must come
through proper anusilan. Katu (jhal in colloquial Bengali) and amla had stable but
42 South Asia Research Vol. 24 (1)
extreme positions in the spectrum of Bengali taste hierarchy. The former comes
from chillies and peppers and the latter from tamarind and amra, chalte and other
very sour fruits. The genre of Calcutta street-food I am here concerned with still
relies primarily on tamarind for sourness and red chillies for hotness. In fact, this
is their differentia specificia. A historic disavowal of these two tastes comes across
clearly in the nationalist effort to expurgate these from the enlightened neo-
Bengali haute cuisine. In a critical passage in Kamalakanter Daftar, Bankimchandra
Chattopadhyay (1987[1875]: 54) wrote:
To tell the truth, I cannot find anything under the sun as harmful as tamarind.
Whoever eats it, gets acidity and belches. . . .The anglicized Bengalis who dine on
tables using knives and forks, eating meals cooked by Faizu Khansama, have
managed to avoid the menace of tamarind. Irrespective of the desirability of the
wholesale adaptation of the [Western] new manners by the Bengali, there is at
least one feature of it which is redeeming: there is no need to wash down the rice
with fish cooked in tamarind sauce. But think of the plight of those who have no
choice but to eat meals cooked by Padi pisi [aunt] on a Munger stone plate sitting
in a thatched cottage! Padi pisi comes from high-caste Kulin stock, bathes daily
early in the morning, is respectably attired in namabali [scarf printed with the
sacred motif of god] and wears a bracelet made of the auspicious basil-wood. But
when it comes to culinary skills, all she knows is how to prepare lentil dal and fish
cooked in tamarind sauce. Faizu is a lowly Muslim but cooks like a chef.
The pitch of this denunciation of humble tamarind by the great Bankimchandra
will surprise many, especially his recent post-colonial commentators who conjure
up a Bankimchandra embodying the ‘authentic’, earthy Bengaliness. This needs to
be read in conjunction with Bankimchandra’s other writings on ethics (Krishna-
charitra, 1987[1886] and Dharmatattva, 1987[1888]). Bankimchandra, the epit-
ome of the Neo-Stoic babu brought up on Comptian positivism and
neo-Brahminical Puritanism, denigrated tamarind and women who use tamarind
in cooking, as the markers of the subaltern, the sensual, the unrefined and the
uncivilized. Pradip Bose’s (1997) work on nationalism and Bengali cuisine goes on
to establish decisively that cuisine and taste were key and contested arenas in
nationalist reform of the ‘inside’. Through inculcation of a so-called civilizing
‘moderation’ in taste and by adapting the milder flavours of European cuisine,
abandoning the erstwhile Bengali ‘excesses’, the bhadralok conceived of eating itself
(what to eat, how to eat, etc.) as spiritual exercise (anusilan). The new cuisine
fabricated in the fancy kitchens of the Brahmos like the Tagores (see Dev 1997:
110–20), the Rays and others, and the less Anglicized but ‘enlightened’ clerks like
Bhudev, had no place for subaltern items like tamarind or chillies patronized by
the peasants, who turned to these to titillate their palate.
The project of constructing a ‘new’ taste contributing to building a more
rational polity, the nation, comes across even more clearly in Vivekananda’s
Prachya O Paschatya (1966[1900–02]) in those dry pedagogic sections of his
sermonizing. A puffed-up charlatan whose claim to be the spiritual ‘saviour’ of the
nation came from his self-congratulatory anecdotes of rubbing shoulders with the
whites, a pioneer entrepreneur in the business of exporting Eastern ‘spiritualism
to the West, he lacked Bankimchandra’s finesse and humour. His housewife-like
43Mukhopadhyay: Between Elite Hysteria and Subaltern Carnivalesque
cant against street food and spicy, fried, bazaar food (Vivekananda,
1966[1900–02]: 172–9) reeks of lower middle-class self-hatred and what in
Bengali we call chunchibiou, phobia of pollution through touch and eating. And
inevitably, the same ‘lentil dal and fish cooked in tamarind sauce’ remains the butt
of ‘reformist’ attack which now, in Vivekananda’s retelling, becomes characteristic
of the barbaric semi-tribal (‘Santhali’) cuisine of Birbhoom and Bankura!
(Vivekananda, 1966[1900–02]: 179). ‘True’ Bengali cuisine has been preserved in
East Bengal, the more one goes towards the ‘West’, ‘authentic’ Bengali flavours are
increasingly open to the dark, ‘savage’ and ‘tribal’ assaults of the non-Bengali
spirit. However, Vivekananda’s ‘East Bengal’ is deeply essentializing, for he does
not count Barisal, Chittagong, Shilet and the Burmese border of East Bengal
(whose fiery cuisines are laced with red chilli and ‘impure’, smelly dried fish,
shuntki) as being parts of his ideal East Bengal, which consists only of two
districts, Dhaka and Bikrampur, the seat of ‘authentic’ Brahminical cuisine.
Of course all these were thinly veiled allegories: these damning strictures were
really strictures against sex and sensuality. He lacked Gandhi’s flamboyance and
Bankimchandras restraint. His pathetic brand of Puritanism, throughout the 20th
century, has remained an important staple of the dark side of Bengali nationalism,
the bloodthirsty, sex-starved, secretive terrorism documented in Kamalkumar
Majumdar’s immortal story, Rukminikumar.
The narrative of the marginalization of chilli and tamarind in the construction
of Bengali haute cuisine in the late 19th-century remains to be documented. All
the ‘classic’ (of course, ‘classic’ in Bengali means 19th-century) recipe books in
Bengali from Bipradas Mukhopadhyay’s Pak-pranali (1987[1885–1902]) through
Pragyasundari Devi’s Amis O Niramis Ahar (1900) to Baisnabcharan Basak’s
Soukhin Pakpranali (1916) make passing references to tamarind only in sections
on amla (where there are recipes of chutney and pickles), and chilli of course
comes in as an inevitable ingredient, but such ‘excesses’ are not to be indulged in.
In fact, the very gesture of writing recipe books in Bengali in the late 19th
century signified the formation of a new ‘leisure class’ whose women, suffering
from unemployment, could indulge in the luxury of experimenting with new
recipes. The mainstream Bengali culture is still very much a home-food eating
type and ‘meals’ are what really matter. The change of taste among the bhadralok
comes across clearly in Bipradas Mukhopadhyay’s Introduction: ‘Compared with
the past, tastes have nowadays changed significantly. Unless one caters to the new
taste, it is difficult to satisfy the eaters. So, one has to learn new recipes’
(Mukhopadhyay, 1987[1885–1902]: 28). As for amla, he writes that it is a
‘revitaliser’ for jaded tongues, it tickles the taste buds: ‘The tongue takes an
excessive pleasure in devouring the amla taste’. (Mukhopadhyay,
1987[1885–1902]: 248). The word he uses for pleasure is lalasa the Bengali
word for perverse lust.
A new wave of books on food start coming out from the 1920s onwards
where the accent is entirely on health, nutrition, the chemistry of food, ‘balanced
diet’ and vitamins, rather than on taste and palatability (see for example Basu,
1936; Bhattacharya, 1926; Datta and Ghosh, 1918; Roy, 1936[1910]). The
popularity of these books, some of which ran into tens of editions, testifies to the
44 South Asia Research Vol. 24 (1)
success of ‘pedagogic nationalism’ in making food an arena of reform and
‘regeneration’. It is around this time that ‘hygiene’ appears in the school syllabus.
Many of these scientifically oriented books condemn bazaar food as necessarily
adulterated and unhygienic (e.g. Basu, 1936[1910]: 260–328). The focus has
shifted considerably: from Bankimchandra’s semioticization of food, we have come
to what can be called scienticization of food. Taste and flavour have become
subservient to ‘nutrition’, in which chemistry more than taste has the decisive say.
Scienticization notwithstanding, desi cuisine got a shot in the arm in course of
cultural valorization of nation as arkh´e (roughly ‘origin’, see Derrida, 1995),
largely an early 20th century phenomenon coinciding with the deepening of the
swadeshi impulse. The archaic and the subaltern now get valorized as the
‘authentic’. The classic statement to this effect, which says that the ‘true’ nation is
to be found in the ‘folk’ rather than in the ‘classical’ sites, is contained in
Dineshchandra Sen’s Brihatbanga (1993[1935]: xxxiv). The fad of the ‘folk’
invaded Bengali food culture as well, the testimony to which is Kiranlekha Roy’s
Barendra Randhan (2000[1922]). Barendra is the ancient appellation of North
Bengal and the book was published by Saratkumar Roy (husband of Kiranlekha),
the famous Zamindar of Dighapatia of Rajshahi district (now in Bangladesh) who
founded the Varendra Research Society, one of the key institutions which took
upon itself the ‘recovery’ of local history. The book is littered with words from the
local dialect and the effort is to recover the ‘authentic’ Barendra cuisine. Tamarind,
again, emerges as a flash-point and the author says that, unlike the inhabitants of
Rarh, the North-Central part of undivided Bengal, the Barendrites are not so fond
of it (Roy, 2000[1922]: 133).
The ‘ancient’ Bengali palate becomes a marker of the national and the
authentic under ‘performative nationalism’. The best example of this kind of
valorization of food is contained in Haraprasad Shastri’s novel Bener Meye
(1983[1920]). The novel is set in Buddhist Bengal (Shastri was a Buddhist
scholar), in the year 995 AD in Saptagram, an ancient port on Bhagirathi. The
story begins with the description of gajan (hook-swinging), a Sahajiya Buddhist
festival, where the king has invited his spiritual mentor, Lui-Siddha, to be the
high-priest. A feast will be held and fishes are being caught from the tank. It was
one of the contentions of Shastri and other nationalist scholars that Brahminical-
Aryan influence in Bengal had not really penetrated deeply. Deep down, there are
still strong undercurrents of folk Buddhism and Tantra, practices critical of
Brahminism. So in the novel, the holy man, as a ‘true’ Bengali, does not seem to
be much interested in eating fish as such. He is more fond of what Shastri
(1983[1920]:202) called antri (it is also called chanchra or kanta-chachchori), a
subaltern but uniquely Bengali (and, in my opinion, delicious) preparation made
from fish left-overs, oil and guts. Shastri makes the fondness for antri an essential
ingredient of Bengaliness and a certain homology is easily established between the
two subalternities: subalternity of antri in the food hierarchy and the somewhat
contrived subalternity of the Bengali race as a whole, which has not really
succumbed to the invasion of Brahminism from above. The distinctiveness of the
Bengali is thus established by an index which is flavour (North Indians would be
nauseated by antri) and Shastri makes an eternity out of it: a thousand years have
45Mukhopadhyay: Between Elite Hysteria and Subaltern Carnivalesque
passed, but nothing really has changed! Bhabha (1994: 145) has rightly pointed
out ‘the repetitious, recursive strategy of the performative’ nationalism as opposed
to ‘the continuist, accumulative temporality of the pedagogical’.
Street-food as Carnivalesque
My concern with nationalist reform and counter-reform of Bengali taste and
cuisine has come to a resolution: I have tried to demonstrate that the ‘civilizing
project of Bengali nationalism tried to eliminate what they perceived as excess, the
extremes in the spectrum of Bengali taste hierarchy, namely, tamarind and chilli.
In the new Bengali haute cuisine which emerged in the late 19th century, these
two items were considered taboo, as unfit for polite cuisine, and increasingly came
to be recognized as markers of the subaltern. However, as these extreme tastes
were repressed and prohibited in the dominant discourse, simultaneously, these
were also made alluring. To prohibit something is also to invite people to
transgress the taboo, this is how the economy of pleasure has always worked.
Repugnance and fascination are the twin poles of the process in which a political
imperative to damn the debasing low conflicts powerfully and often unpredictably
with a desire for the other. The net effect of prohibition has thus been to make
chilli and tamarind tempting ‘transgressions’ to certain sensitive sections of the
population: young girls, adolescents, pregnant women and others. One of the
recurring memories of my early adolescence is the clandestine preparation of a
paste of tamarind or green mango with fiery chillies, and sharing it with a bunch
of cousins or playmates. Today’s Bengali street-food, which uses tamarind and
chilli in plenty, inheres the subalternity inscribed historically on the two tastes
constitutive of the Bengali palate: katu (hot) and amla (sour). As for their quality
of being tempting to young people, I want to hazard a certain homology between
sexual flowering, promiscuity, adolescence and the burning hot and vicious
sourness of a certain genre of Bengali street-food. The connection has been
exploited recently by a top-selling Bengali teenage magazine whose advert runs as
follows: Teenage mane fuchka, jhalmuri, adda, cricket and Anandamela (roughly:
Teenage means fuchka, jhalmuri, chatting, cricket and Anandamela – the
magazine). This establishes decisively the cultural locus of these anti-foods as
lifestyle or status food.
Since the publication of Bakhtin’s monumental Rabelais and his World in
English in the late 1960s (Bakhtin, 1965[1987]), the carnivalesque has become a
fairly standard item in European cultural criticism. It is no longer simply a ritual
feature of Christian European popular culture of the medieval period but also a
mode of understanding, a positivity, what Stallybrass and White (1986) called ‘a
cultural analytic’. Irrespective of Bakhtin’s intentions in studying Rabelais in
Stalins Russia, the carnivalesque has emerged as a metaphor for critical inversion
of the official hierarchies. Central to the carnival laughter is what Bakhtin termed
a ‘grotesque realism’ which valorizes the body understood as corpulent excess.
Thus the carnivalesque can act as a central organizing metaphor for popular
culture at large. The explosive politics of the body, of the tongue, of the erotic,
the licentious, the semiotic, which characterize our popular films, street-culture,
46 South Asia Research Vol. 24 (1)
gastronomic traditions, festivals, our bazaars, our maidans and our ‘outsize
realities’ in general, can be meaningfully captured with the trope of the not-so
Bakhtinian carnivalesque.
Having said that, one should also recognize that the carnivalesque has often
been overrated for its emancipatory potential. Carnival as such is no emancipa-
tion, it is merely a sanctioned reversal of hierarchies. From observations of cultures
like India where carnivalesque traditions are still alive (think of Holi, for example),
it is quite plain that there is no a priori revolutionary vector to carnival or
ritualistic transgressions. In other words, rather than treating carnival as a
departure from discourse and code, one should rather think of carnival itself as a
discourse. Hence, the ‘transgression’ implicated in carnival is played out not
outside of discourse, but alongside it. Which is to say, there is a rhetorical
counter-investment in the discourse of carnival. As Eagleton (1981: 149) has
noted, by a temporary retextualization of what I want to call the ‘social text’ –
society as text and text as society – the rhetoric of carnival exposes the ‘fictive
foundation of the ‘real’. By the same token, it renders possible the thinking of the
social on other (but equally ‘fictive’) lines.
I have tried to document the elite hysteria around the carnivalesque elements
of our culture in an attenuated form through the prohibition of excesses in
matters of modern Bengali taste, whose formation is coeval with the formation of
neo-Bengali domesticity under nationalism from Bankimchandra and Bhudev
through Tagore and beyond. Cultural dynamic is fairly complex and the repressed
keeps returning, sometimes in forms which are even difficult to recognize. In
Bankimchandras works (1987[1874]: 44–7), one can think of the periodic return
of the figure of the sensual, earthy and gross female (prachina) – a figure
embodying the vernacular, the ethnologically resistant, atemporal and archaic
‘woman’. Tagore’s Damini (in Chaturanga) and similar figures are cases in point.
Tracing the map of the transformation of the earthy carnivalesque through the
various trajectories and channels involves reading absences, migrations, conceal-
ments, fragmentations, internalizations and sublimations. The grotesque, robust
body of carnival finds curious lodgements throughout the social body of 19th and
20th century Bengali repertoire from Haridaser Guptakatha (1898) to a certain
puritanical, blood-thirsty extremist activism or its counterpart, an other-worldly
asceticism in the earlier half of the 20th century.
In the long process of disowning the carnivalesque and its celebration of the
body, the irruption of street-food, as a marker of adolescent ‘rebellion’ against the
adult meal-ontology in today’s urban culture, is but a small fragment. But the
carnivalesque does keep erupting, and sometimes from unexpected places. Social
historians like Sumanta Banerjee (1989), who meticulously documented the
historic disavowal of the carnivalesque in modern Bengali high culture, seem not
to believe in the return of the repressed. In Badi Theke Paliye (1965), of Ritwik
Ghatak, one of the greatest Bengali film-makers, whose entire work is heavy with
the traces of the half-forgotten dialect of the Bengali carnivalesque, we find a dream-
like sequence about street-food involving school children and a grandfather-like
figure (the seller) who looks like a Santa Claus. This is not a solitary example. In spite
of prohibitions, the repressed keeps returning as apparition, as art, almost as
47Mukhopadhyay: Between Elite Hysteria and Subaltern Carnivalesque
regularly as the hawkers of fuchka and alukabli who keep returning to Calcutta
streets with their little hand-carts after the police, the pedagogues and the parents
have departed from the scene.
I am grateful to Rachel Dwyer for inviting me to the conference on food in South Asia at
SOAS where the argument took more focused shape, thanks to the interventions of Markus
Deschell, Peter Robb and John Hutnyk. Goutam Bhadra, Arun Nag and Pradip Bose
shared with me their deep knowledge of Bengali food-culture. Sami Zubaida, a fellow eater,
helped to clarify certain points. The responsibility for errors and inaccuracies is of course
1 Stephan Ecks’s PhD dissertation (Department of Anthropology, London School of
Economics and Politics, 2003, unpublished) ‘Digesting Modernity: Body, Illness and
Medicine in Kolkata (Calcutta), contains interesting insights into the culture of the belly
in Calcutta.
2 Writing on Brillat-Savarin, Barthes (1985: 61–75) has noted a certain homology between
desired food and sex: both are a ‘great adventure of desire’. ‘The question however
remains’, Barthes muses, ‘why the social subject . . . should assume sexual perversion . . .
as the purest form of transgression, while gastronomic perversion . . . always implies
a . . . gently obliging avowal which never departs from good manners.’ (1985: 62). Later
he notes that ‘between these two pleasures, there is a capital difference: orgasm’ (1985:
73). Gastronomic pleasure does not lead to orgasm. Surely, Brillat-Savarin’s bourgeois
casuistry of taste would have no place for the kind of anti-food I am talking about.
Baudelaire also held a grudge against him for not understanding the ‘excess’ implicated
in wine. For Brillat-Savarin, wine was a mere accompaniment to food, almost an
appetizer. For Baudelaire, it was a drug, a transgression.
3 For a critique, see John Frow’s (1997) awesome study.
4 This is a neologism coined by Alfred Jarry (1965).
5 I am drawing here from Armelagos and Farb (1980) and Wilentz (1968).
6 For other, non-Western traditions see Eoyang (1997[1979]).
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Bhaskar Mukhopadhyay is a Research Associate at the School of Media,
Communication and Culture, Jadavpur University, Calcutta. He taught at Victoria
University of Wellington (New Zealand), at Calcutta University (India) and held
postdoctoral fellowships at SOAS, at Birkbeck College and at Maison des Sciences
de l’Homme. He has published widely in international journals and anthologies
and his book, Memory of Economy: An Ethnography of Political Economy in Early
Colonial Bengal, will come out in the near future.
Address: 52/1 Block D, New Alipur, Calcutta 700053, India. [email: b.mukho-]
50 South Asia Research Vol. 24 (1)
... While Calcutttans are as yet far from the total change of eating occurring somewhere else-see for example Caplan's perception right now older guardians in Chennai are getting dinners on-wheels without kids to take care of their needs-various inconspicuous changes and moves can be watched (Donner, H. 2008). Mukhopadhyay, B. (2004) in his study found that Calcutta road side food are various: from simmered peanuts to jhalmuri or bhelpuri (puffed rice blended in with different flavors and vegetables), from telebhaja (broiled vegetables in player) to desi frozen yogurts and kulfis, from candy-floss to cooked maize, the gastronomic cartography of Calcutta is probably not going to be coordinated by some other city of the world. It is one of my disputes that, verifiably, the way of life of road nourishment isn't exceptionally old in Bengal. ...
... It is one of my disputes that, verifiably, the way of life of road nourishment isn't exceptionally old in Bengal. Prior to the late nineteenth century and that, as well, with regards to Calcutta, there is no notice of road side food anyplace in old Bengali writing, however references to food and suppers are bounty, the bigger piece of Bengali speculation on body being generally through food (Mukhopadhyay, B. ,2004). ...
Full-text available
Bengali cuisine is diversity in nature. There is no doubt that Bengal is famous for its style of food as well as the availability of verity varies from bitter to sweet. The current study explores the roots, history and the current scenario of Bengali cuisine. The study also explores the traditional influence as well as cultural influence. The paper evaluates the food attributes, types of meal and style of meal with reference to Bengali cuisine. Data is collected through self assessment and through some previous research paper to authenticate the study.
... The urban middle classes have concentrated the attention of scholars working on food change in India for the past ten years. The emergence of national, regional and ethnic cuisines (Appadurai 1988;Nandy 2004), the arrival of new products (Baviskar 2012;Dittrich 2009, Donner 2011, Srinivas 2007, the evolution of the retailing sector (Dittrich 2009, Srinivas 2007) and the mushrooming of street food stalls (Mukhopadhyay 2004) and restaurants (Appadurai 1988;Conlon 1995;Quien 2007;Ray and Srinivas 2012;Siegel 2010;Srinivas 2002Srinivas , 2007 have been extensively investigated. In a nutshell, food has been mostly described as a marker for middle-class identity (Donner 2011, Srinivas 2007. ...
... Some authors emphasise the rapid changes that urban food patterns undergo in contemporary India. Arguing that food choice is increasingly individual, they consider eating as mostly a practice of conspicuous consumption, in a strategy of class distinction (Dittrich 2009;Dolphijn 2006;Mukhopadhyay 2004). Others who are more cautious state that Western or cosmopolitan products or diets are indeed entering the Indian food culture but are still negotiated (appropriated, adapted or discarded), intersecting with vernacular categories (religion, caste, gender, kinship, etc.) Thus, Tulasi Srinivas tries to go beyond the apparent contradiction between 'gastro-nostalgia' and 'gastro-adventure', analysing these attitudes in Bangalore as two faces of the same 'cosmopolitan narrative' (Srinivas 2007: 100). ...
... In this context, attitudes of the Indian middle class towards street food culture is at best ambivalent, as their modern values might compel them to reject the rigid and unjust caste-based hierarchies, while at the same time, their upper caste identities would make it difficult for them to challenge the primacy of a traditional caste-based hierarchical order. It is in lieu of the latter that 18/07/2013 Mukhopadhyay (2004) in a rather self-reflective manner views street food as an absolute no-no for a respectable member of the middle class. But as he himself clarifies, while it is not uncommon to find members of the middle class frequently snacking at roadside eateries, it is precisely because non-ritual snacks do not interfere with their need to conform to the stricter requirements of the more sacrosanct, ritual meals. ...
This book produced by a group of interdisciplinary and international researchers working on a wide variety of cities throughout Asia, Latin America and Europe, addresses, rethinks and, in some cases, abandons the notions of formal and ...
... Likewise, the guests deemed the ice cream far superior to the cheap but uninspiring popsicles sold by itinerant salesmen in the village. The inclusion of these items echoes Bhaskar Mukhopadhyay's (2004) observation, writing about street-food cultures in Kolkata, that the city becomes an arena for asserting one's national identity through food practices. ...
Full-text available
The Ilford Carnival was a procession of costumed individuals and decorated vehicles held annually in this then outerlying London suburb between 1905 and 1914 to raise funds for establishing a local hospital. This thesis utilises the carnival to provide an insight into how different suburban organisations and social groups came together in a particular performance of community. It argues that the carnival’s administrative body, a nd other organisations involved, provided opportunities for inclusion and social capital attainment. It also demonstrates how a local culture of voluntary action provided the basis of a largescale charitable initiative with an ethos of communal self-help. The suburban setting demonstrates the continued relevance of carnival, originating in the premodern ritual year, within a modern urban environment. In the wake of Ilford’s drastic expansion, the carnival’s annual recurrence provided reassuring familiarity , and an opportunity for inversionary performances, with the carnival’s philanthropic rationale providing a justification for what might have otherwise been seen as transgressive. The thesis illustrates that the procession functioned as a suburban public sphere. Performances throughout operated between poles of artifice and sincerity, with dominant ideals about national and imperial identity, or class and gender roles, being projected through acts of dressing up, while such ideals were both transgressed and upheld through practices like crossdressing and blackface. The suburb too was reimagined, as both rural idyll and metropolitan tourist attraction. It also highlights how the carnival’s timing, structure and content were impinged upon and influenced by exp anding cultural industries, with the carnival commodified by participating businesses and media, but also appropriating fundraising models and imagery from commercialised formats like sport and theatre, connoting the topicality and recognisability that ena bled it to compete within the metropolitan market for people’s spare time and money.
Bengali food, especially in the domestic context, has received much attention in recent academic scholarship, but there is a relative scarcity of studies on cultures of public dining practices in restaurants. This paper attempts to address this gap by exploring how a burgeoning ethnic restaurant industry serving Bengali food in Kolkata conditions class-inhered food practices. Based on in-depth interviews of 46 respondents who assessed the content of restaurant menu cards, this paper examines the branding of a local cuisine and the moulding of a neo-ethnic ‘global’ identity by steeping tradition and authenticity in an aura of the global. The acts of eating out in Bengali restaurants manifest an attitude of ‘gastro-cosmopolitanism’, practiced mostly by Bengalis who live or are perceived to live in the scope of a transnation. The paper observes that while the global latitude in the culinary order has paved the way for blending of cultures, as evident in fusion cuisine, it has simultaneously reproduced a revalorisation of an ethnic cuisine as heritage, exotic and exclusive. Further, class inflections have opened up more options to select from diverse multicultural food items revealing gustatory antinomies among consumers, who are eager to stake a global cosmopolitan identity while attempting collaterally to align with a past that is only alive in their imagination.
Purpose The dialogic nature of new organization development practices brought a dramatic shift in relation to the way OD has had been practiced in the past. However, contemporary literature indicates that OD still has to go a long way if it has to play a central role. The purpose of this paper is to speculate for the concerns being raised about OD practices and propose an interpretive approach to fill in the gaps. Design/methodology/approach This paper traces OD’s glorious journey, which began with egalitarian values. This section builds on the dynamics of power and politics which was integral to the OD movement and further reviews and critiques the contributions of new OD approaches that has its foundations in postmodernism and social constructionism. In the second part, the paper discusses the critical perspective and introduces the concept of subaltern to fill in the gaps in new OD approaches. Further, the paper finds a ground to integrate and redefine the boundaries of critical and subaltern studies. Findings The paper proposes an interpretive approach for designing and carrying out OD interventions and introduces the concept of critical-subaltern OD. This approach recognizes the importance to engage with the dialectics or contradictions present between (and within) OD interventions. Through this interpretive approach, the author positions critical-subaltern voices as an integral part of OD interventions and change management. Practical implications The interpretive approach gives an insight into the unacknowledged and unheard socially constructed realities of change and OD practices for sensemaking. The approach would also be instrumental in enhancing the levels of engagement and productivity in unacknowledged and non-dominant employees. Originality/value This paper is a departure from the modern literature of critical management studies and builds on the critical theory on OD. The paper proposes by roping in the benefits of subaltern studies into OD practices. The paper builds ways to include voices of those, who never gain a voice. In brief, toward the end of the paper, the author proposes an interpretive approach and moves toward critical-subaltern OD. Through this interpretive approach, the author positions critical-subaltern voices as an integral part of OD interventions and change management.
This article argues that a Russian analytical paradigm of carnival culture can help explain the successful presidential campaign of President Donald J. Trump. Russian philosopher and literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin developed the notion of carnival culture while analyzing Francois Rabelais’ work and its connection to the popular culture of Renaissance. Carnival ethos stood in opposition to the ‘official’ and ‘serious’ church sanctioned and feudal culture, by bringing out folklore and different forms of folk laughter that Bakhtin denoted as carnival. Carnival culture with its opposition to the official buttoned-up discourse is supposed to be polar opposite, distinguished by anti-ideology and anti-authority, in other words, anti-establishment – the foundation of Trump’s appeal to his voters. This article examines the core characteristics of carnival culture that defined Trump’s presidential campaign from the start.
This essay surveys a broad landscape of studies that take up the preparation, imbibing, and distribution of food in significant ways, focusing on the way in which the field of food studies in South Asia is cohering in recent scholarship. It begins with histories of the imperial period that frame food around imperial encounter and then move on to studies that address the crises of food through famine and their political aftermath. It then turns to the postcolonial, globalized context of making food Indian in a large-scale market and concludes with thoughts on where food studies and food cultures are headed. Ultimately, food is determined to have symbolic and pragmatic meaning as an icon of national presence in the greater world, a tool for assessing social relations, a measure of taste and values, a challenge for the political and environmental systems of a geo-economic space. As eating in India has taken on new political dimensions that have arisen from the synchronous rise of both neoliberal practices of political economy and the rise of Hindu fascism, the anxieties articulated through the cultures of food at work in the region are revealed.
George Lakoff and Mark Johnson take on the daunting task of rebuilding Western philosophy in alignment with three fundamental lessons from cognitive science: The mind is inherently embodied, thought is mostly unconscious, and abstract concepts are largely metaphorical. Why so daunting? "Cognitive science--the empirical study of the mind--calls upon us to create a new, empirically responsible philosophy, a philosophy consistent with empirical discoveries about the nature of mind," they write. "A serious appreciation of cognitive science requires us to rethink philosophy from the beginning, in a way that would put it more in touch with the reality of how we think." In other words, no Platonic forms, no Cartesian mind-body duality, no Kantian pure logic. Even Noam Chomsky's generative linguistics is revealed under scrutiny to have substantial problems. Parts of Philosophy in the Flesh retrace the ground covered in the authors' earlier Metaphors We Live By , which revealed how we deal with abstract concepts through metaphor. (The previous sentence, for example, relies on the metaphors "Knowledge is a place" and "Knowing is seeing" to make its point.) Here they reveal the metaphorical underpinnings of basic philosophical concepts like time, causality--even morality--demonstrating how these metaphors are rooted in our embodied experiences. They repropose philosophy as an attempt to perfect such conceptual metaphors so that we can understand how our thought processes shape our experience; they even make a tentative effort toward rescuing spirituality from the heavy blows dealt by the disproving of the disembodied mind or "soul" by reimagining "transcendence" as "imaginative empathetic projection." Their source list is helpfully arranged by subject matter, making it easier to follow up on their citations. If you enjoyed the mental workout from Steven Pinker's How the Mind Works , Lakoff and Johnson will, to pursue the "Learning is exercise" metaphor, take you to the next level of training. --Ron Hogan Two leading thinkers offer a blueprint for a new philosophy. "Their ambition is massive, their argument important.…The authors engage in a sort of metaphorical genome project, attempting to delineate the genetic code of human thought." -The New York Times Book Review "This book will be an instant academic best-seller." -Mark Turner, University of Maryland This is philosophy as it has never been seen before. Lakoff and Johnson show that a philosophy responsible to the science of the mind offers a radically new and detailed understandings of what a person is. After first describing the philosophical stance that must follow from taking cognitive science seriously, they re-examine the basic concepts of the mind, time, causation, morality, and the self; then they rethink a host of philosophical traditions, from the classical Greeks through Kantian morality through modern analytical philosophy.