Relationship of Food and Ritual in India Thesis

Saving the Cows, Starving the Children” by Sonia Faleirojune and the article entitled “Food Price Inflation in India: Causes and Cures” by Pradeep Agrawal and Durairaj Kumaraswamy in the Indian Economic Review available from JSTOR both address food issues in India. These articles appealed to me because I find India to be a fascinating country where there is so much potential for greatness yet so much inherent contradictory actions and agendas that frustrate the country’s advances. Faleirojune focuses on the contradiction at the heart of India’s policy towards banning beef: cows are literally everywhere in India and could be used to help feed the nation’s poor and malnourished, but the government won’t allow the sale of beef in many states — neither will it permit state schools to offer eggs to school children as part of a meal plan. Even though eggs would be a good solution to the problem of malnourishment because they are cheap and rich in protein, political leaders in India want to promote a Hindu-oriented vegetarian diet — and that means no eggs for children. The article by Agrawal and Kumaraswamy highlights structural problems within India as a cause for the various food issues the nation faces — including food inflation.


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I thus chose both articles because they focus on problems in India related to food consumption and offer possible solutions to those issues. India is truly unique in its food dilemma (the Hindus believe the cow to be a sacred animal and thus will not slaughter it), and its food issues are unlike those in any other part of the world — mainly because it has the potential to solve its problems easily yet will not because of religious/Hindu ideas that the states want to promote as well as because of bureaucratic, structural obstacles of its own construction.

Narrative: “The Ashram”

Prajeet, Stalin and Bibiana were walking in the ashram grounds. Prajeet was the only orphan. He came from Madra Pradesh, a few states to the north of Tamil Nadu, where the three children now lived. Originally, Aunty and the other orphans had lived in Madra, but when Aunty became a traditional Catholic sister, she moved the ashram to Tamil to be closer to the traditional priests who offered the traditional Latin Mass there. Aunty wanted to raise the orphans in her care in the religion of the Church and wanted the traditional sacraments to be available to them. Stalin and Bibiana were not orphans, but both attended the school that the priests had set up for the orphans in Tamil. The priests welcomed locals into the school. Stalin was a border with the orphan boys who stayed at the priests’ rectory. The girls stayed at the ashram with Aunty. Currently, classes were being held at the ashram and the boys would bus over to the ashram where Aunty and the girls were. The male teachers would bus over with the boys (the female teachers were already there staying at the ashram).


It was recess time after lunch and Stalin, Prajeet and Bibiana were walking away from the mango tree, talking about life outside the ashram. Bibiana and Stalin were from different villages in Tamil but they shared enough similarities that they could talk about things together. Prajeet was interested in what they had to say. Even though his native language was Telegu and Stalin’s and Bibiana’s was Tamil, Prajeet had learned enough Tamil to understand what they were saying. Likewise, Stalin had learned enough Telegu to understand what the boys from the north were saying around him as he lived in the ashram with them. All the children were also learning English as well.


The boys from Andra called Stalin kaka, which means crow, because being from the south of India, his skin was darker than theirs. They did this teasingly: all the boys had nicknames. A fatter boy from a village in Tamil who also attended the school was nicknamed doobada, which means fat. He spoke English very well and was attending the priests’ school because his parents wanted him to continue to learn English from proper English speaking teachers — that and the school was free.


Stalin was named after the Russian dictator: in India, parents often named their children after famous people, regardless of the reputation those famous people had. Thus, there was a George Bush who had come through the school, as well. It made the American teachers who volunteered at the school for six months at a time laugh when they heard the names of some of their pupils.


Bibiana was an anomaly in her town. There were very few Catholics in her village: before her parents had moved there from Kerala, they had been around more people like themselves — but now they were vastly outnumbered by Hindus. The Hindus did not eat meat: cows roamed the dirt streets through the town where the priests’ rectory and Aunty’s ashram were located. The cows were considered sacred animals by the Hindus — but an outsider would not think it to look at them, as they seemed to roam aimlessly among the litter. The streets were very dirty and garbage typically lined them. Goats would eat the garbage and cows would eat what little grass seemed to grow along the roads. Cows were always trying to get into Aunty’s fields where the ashram was. Whenever a cow got in, the man who looked after the grounds would chase it out with a stick or the children would throw rocks at it. If the children ever found a viper or a cobra on the premises, Aunty herself would come out with a stick and beat it to death. The children were deathly afraid of snakes — and for good reason, as these snakes were deadly.


Currently, Bibiana and Stalin were talking about food: they had just eaten and were discussing the deserts that they both liked: they liked kulfi and kheer. Then they began to talk about idli and dosa, which were dishes they never got to enjoy in the ashram and boys’ dormitory. Their meals there mainly consisted of rice with a meager portion of sambhar. Only on someone’s birthday did they receive a treat — an individually wrapped sweet candy that Aunty or Brother from the rectory would provide (usually an entire bag that the birthday boy or girl would pass out to his or her schoolmates). “Mm, dosa!” now said Stalin. He had a big smile on his face as he rubbed his belly remembering fondly this dish. “What is dosa?” asked Prajeet. Stalin explained, “Dosa — you know, it is like this,” he said flattening out his hand and then taking his two hands and folding them together. “Dosa!” “I don’t know!” cried Prajeet smacking his forehead. Bibiana laughed out loud: she was delighted by the comical antics. She also liked to laugh a lot.


Though the orphans in the ashram and at the dormitory did not always realize it, they actually had it much better than many children who lived outside in the villages of Tamil. Some of the children in these villages were very poor and malnourished and did not get enough protein in their diets. The children at the ashram and dormitory did not have to worry about this. The aunties who made their food would make sure that they got enough nutrients in their sambar and the orphans would often climb the mango trees to pick mangos from the grounds. The children were always showing up with some kind of fruit that they picked from the trees wherever they went. Likewise, they always had tea in the afternoon — chai, they called it. This was a staple of the Indian diet, no matter what one’s caste was. It was a holdover from the days of British colonialism.


Outside the ashram and dormitory, Hindu children lived on wholly veg diets: they did not consume eggs or beef or any such foods. The children under Aunty’s and the priests’ care were given these foods on holidays — and there were many holidays in the Church’s calendar — so in this sense these orphans and the boarders who stayed there from town did have life much better.


With new leaders governing India now though there was some concern among Aunty and the priests that they might be pressured by the State to adopt the new meal plans being pushed by the Hindus. India had been taking active steps to celebrate its Hinduism for many years now. It had changed the names of many of its cities away from the Western (Christian) names given them by earlier conquerors. Thus, Bombay had changed its name to Mumbai and Madras had been renamed Chennai. Now the leaders of India were looking to promote Hinduism in the schools in terms of what school children were permitted to eat. The Hindus did not want the school children being able to have the option of eating a non-veg diet. Aunty and the priests were concerned that the State might put pressure on their school — first, because they were of a different religion and, second, because they did not adhere to a completely vegetarian meal plan. The Western priests did not expect much interference — however, the native Indian priest was concerned because, like most Indians, he always expected the worst from his countrymen. Aunty too was concerned and felt in many ways like an outsider in Tamil, since she, like her orphans, were from Andra.


Eric, an American volunteer teacher, happened to be walking by the three children now. Prajeet slapped his head and raised his arm and said, “You are lucky, Brother!” (All the teachers in the school were brother or sister). “Why am I lucky?” Eric asked, stopping and smiling. “You have good food, no, Brother?” Eric smiled at this: he did not consider the food he ate to be “good” — in fact, he missed his American food very much and took every opportunity he could to get out of the rectory and visit the nearest Western establishment — a Domino’s pizzeria all the way in Chennai — that had recently opened its doors. (This was an all-day journey and Eric could only do it on the weekends). Eric now scratched his head and answered Prajeet, “I guess so,” and shrugged.


Stalin now chimed in: “Yes, Brother, you have parotta, no, Brother?”


Eric smiled. Ah, parotta. They had so much parotta he was sick to death of it. The aunty who made the food for the priests and male teachers seemed to think they all loved parotta so much: it was practically served at every meal. Eric had enjoyed it early on but now he cringed every time he sat down for dinner and opened the lid to see — more parotta. The same went for dosa and idli, too. Parotta was a flat, doughy bread while dosa and idli were light — the former fried and the latter fluffy like a sponge cake.


“And you have dosa and idli, no, Brother?” continued Stalin.


“Yes, we have dosa and idli,” answered Eric. “You like?”


“Yes, Brother!”


“You want to have?”


“No, Brother!” laughed Stalin. “It is only for you, Brother! We eat rice only! Always always rice!”


Bibiana laughed at this ridiculous conversation. “Yes, rice!” she chimed in laughingly. Her English was very limited so this was really the extent of what she could say. (She did not get good marks at all in her English classes, which frustrated her teachers to no end — try as they might they simply could not find a way to get through to her — which made the other children in the class laugh).


“You want have?” asked Eric teasingly. He liked to speak to the Indians in broken English, mimicking them. “I will sneak to you. I will put under your pillow for you!”


The children laughed and smacked their foreheads and raised their arms to indicate the ridiculousness of what Eric was saying.


“You not do that, Brother! Aunty will take away and scold!” said Prajeet.


“Yes, and Fr. Thomas will beat!” added Stalin.


Eric laughed and shook his head. Some of the children did receive lashings for misbehavior from Fr. Thomas, but these instances were rare. Obviously they had an effect on the children though and instilled fear in them. “Well, maybe you will get idli one day for something special!” exclaimed Eric thoughtfully.


“Yes, for Christmas, Brother! We get special food for Christmas!” cried Stalin.


“No!” answered Prajeet. “We will have byriani! We always have byriani for Christmas! Sebastian Brother brings! You know Sebastian Brother, Brother?”


Eric smiled and nodded. “Yes,” he said. Sebastian was a parishioner at the church who lived in the town. He was very friendly and kind to the orphans and borders and liked to do special things for them now and then — and one of them was to bring in a special holiday dish for the children. They all liked to have byriani — a spicy, chicken and rice dish that they would scoop up with their fingers and shovel into their mouths. The Indian children did not use utensils when they ate. They were given rice and sambar on metal plates during lunch at school. On occasions when they took field trips and packed their rice and sambar, the children would tear off leaves from the palm trees and use these palms as plates. The American teachers were always in awe of the students’ ingenuity in these matters. Few of the American teachers, however, enjoyed the Indian customs — such as eating rice and sambar with one’s fingers.


Eric left the children and returned to his classroom. He was happy that the orphans and borders were able to enjoy a nice meal on the holidays. As he sat thinking this, he looked out the window of his second-floor classroom. He could see over the wall that went around the ashram property. On the other side of the wall, was a hunched over mother wearing a sari and a small girl who looked to be her daughter. They were sitting on the corner of the road at the intersection across the ways. Eric could not tell if they were begging or not. So little of India made sense to him — and many Indians looked to him like beggars. At any rate, the mother and the daughter looked very hungry. There was hunger in their eyes, in their brows which were folded down as though from years of hardship. Nearby them a cow munched on something growing next to a pile of garbage that had collected there waiting for the garbage men to come and rake it onto a lorry.


Eric wondered what holiday foods these two would enjoy and what type of life these two led. Whenever a Hindu celebration occurred, the town came to life with firecrackers and all-night processions through the streets, statues of Ganesh transported in the backs of trucks. Eric could not imagine a life of celebration without a non-veg diet. His own belly rumbled — it was only Wednesday — and he was looking forward to his weekend excursion to Chennai for a slice of Domino’s. He turned away from the window and sat down his desk to prepare for his next lesson.

Conclusion and Analysis

The process for this paper was fairly simple. I was attracted to the two articles on India and food because I enjoy reading about India and I am familiar with some of its customs and issues. I used these two articles as the basis for developing a free-floating narrative about life in an ashram where foreigners and native Indians mix and talk about food — with a glimpse of life outside the ashram thrown in. I made the ashram characters to be Catholics because I thought this would juxtapose nicely with the predominant Hindu context of the nation outside the walls of the ashram. With this juxtaposition, I attempted to explore the relationship between food and ritual. I was able to provide a little glimpse of this; however, I feel that if I was afforded more time and was able to use more pages I could flesh it out into something much better. I would probably try to focus in another chapter on the Hindu perspective with regards to food and ritual. With this narrative, I focused mainly on a Catholic-in-India perspective.


The characters discussed in the story — Prajeet, Stalin, Bibiana and Eric — relate to the articles I selected in various ways. The three Indian children represent the plight of the Indian school child, which, as Faleirojune shows is very dismal because of what essentially amounts to state-sponsored malnourishment. However, unlike the child outside the walls of the ashram, these three are able to enjoy non-veg meals on occasion, so their diet is not so bad. Still it is far from ideal (after all, they do live in an orphanage). So the children are envious of the foods the priests and teachers eat — as Stalin notes, they get to enjoy idli, dosa and parotta on a daily basis while the children must wait till Christmas to have a special meal like byriani. In this manner, I showed the discrepancy between what children who are weak in the authority chain sense are permitted to eat and what those in positions of authority enjoy for themselves. I also showed the relationship between food and ritual from this Catholic perspective in India: a parishioner helps the children to celebrate Christmas — a joyous religious holiday for Catholics — by bringing them a special Indian dish that many Hindu children will not be permitted to eat by the state. The mother and child, for instance, whom Eric sees out the window are not likely to be able to enjoy a meal of byriani at any time because they are poor and the infrastructure of India is not designed in such a way so as to promote class movement and progress: they are likely to remain poor and, being Hindu, are most likely to refrain from non-veg dishes no matter what the celebration.


In conclusion, I enjoyed reading these articles and writing this narrative as it allowed me to explore the world of food and relationships and religion in India. India is a country of so many conflicting elements that it truly is a delight to read and write about — there are so many possible juxtapositions that can be made that serve to really bring out the flavor of Indian life. Hopefully, with this narrative I was able to touch on something truly unique about India. I wanted it to be subtle and not too dramatic — because India is a country where things move slowly and life can stand to be revealed in slow and subtle ways. The relationship between food and ritual is one that could stand to be explored in much more detail I feel — and with so many religions in India, this could serve as just one entry point. There are Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims, Catholics, Protestants, and many others in India — and all could be described in later chapters. I would enjoy doing that and adding to this story. Perhaps it could be come my own book one day.


Works Cited


Agrawal, Pradeep; Kumaraswamy, Durairaj. “Food Price Inflation in India: Causes and Cures.” Indian Economic Review, vol. 49, no. 1 (2014): 57-84.

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