Review: The Flavours of Nationalism by Nandita Haksar
A memoir that dwells on food and its association with politics and prejudices
Nandita Haksar is a human-rights lawyer, teacher and campaigner. She is also a prolific writer. Her latest book ‘The Flavours of Nationalism: Recipes for Love, Hate and Friendship’ is not a traditional food memoir that limits itself to discussions on dishes and cuisines. Instead, it also dwells on food and its association with politics and prejudices, a theme of significant relevance in modern times.
Daughter of the diplomat PN Haksar, she had the good fortune of living in various countries, which familiarised her with international cuisines. That she has also travelled widely across India has enhanced the range of her culinary descriptions manifold.
Born into a Kashmiri Brahmin family, in childhood, the author’s mother taught her eating etiquette. She was advised not to eat with her left hand, and also to ‘make sure no more than the tip of fingers are used to make a luqma (a mouthful) and then put it into the mouth with the aid of the thumb….” She adds, “Amma did not realise that much of this etiquette was based on caste rules of purity and pollution.” The author makes such insightful observations in different contexts and situations, which makes the book immensely readable.
How to eat and who to share the dining table with are questions that tradition has sought to answer for us. The author refers to Mahatma Gandhi’s 1920 statement that Hinduism discourages inter-dining and inter-marriages. Gandhi would share a different point of view in November 1932, when he wrote that such restrictions had “…crept into Hinduism when perhaps it was in its decline.” Decades have gone by and technological advancements have changed society. Yet, sadly, certain sections of our society continue to avoid inter-dining.
Growing up in a liberal environment, Haksar recalls living in London where she and her sister sat down to their meals with Lily Miller, their domestic help. Since they ate together, class barriers did not come into play. “So I grew up thinking that sharing of food was a way of forging alliances and making friends across communities and nations,” she says. During her father’s postings abroad, her family often invited acquaintances home and the young Nandita Haksar realised, time and again, that food brought people together and strengthened relationships.
The book’s references to dishes from across the globe will fascinate every foodie. Trivia collectors might be surprised to know that a Kashmiri dessert cooked with goat’s meat is called khubani, which means apricot. Any experience of Austria would be incomplete without savouring the famous Wiener Schnitzel, a thin breaded pancake made from veal. She informs the reader that the Goan dish Chicken Cafreal indicates the state’s connection with Africa. It is a spicier version of a dish from Mozambique that was brought to Goa by the African soldiers serving under the Portuguese. These nuggets of information sprinkled across the book are simply delicious.
Food gives rise to pleasure. It also leads to conflict. Not long ago, a debate sprang up out of nowhere after reports suggested that the humble khichdi would become the national dish. Haksar welcomes the idea of a special identity for khichdi without endorsing a standard recipe since the dish has various versions, “from the bisi bele anna of Karnataka to the pongal of Tamil Nadu, to the keeme ki khichdi of Hyderabad, to the simple moong dal ki khichdi, which many of us have when we have a stomach upset.”
What one eats must be a matter of individual preference. Regrettably, one’s liberty to choose is under siege. Haksar notes, “The militant vegetarianism of the upper caste Hindutva followers is a far cry from the vegan movement in the West... The vegans do not form vigilante groups and beat or kill to enforce their non-violent ideology.” Subplots of this story of imposition write themselves from time to time, fragmenting a divided society even more.
Haksar has stood up for refugees, migrant workers, Kashmiris framed for terrorism, and other hapless victims of circumstance. Her latest book shows a nation locked in a debilitating struggle against divisive forces. One of them is caste: “The heart of India’s problems, the stumbling block to her progress and flowering of her creativity is the pernicious caste system and till it is annihilated we can never call ourselves a truly civilized people.”
In a society where dietary preferences are being scrutinised by self-styled guardians and protectors of tradition, Haksar’s book makes for illuminating reading. An exploration of the deep-rooted connection between society and food, it is also an important reminder that not all is well with modern-day India.