Friday, August 10, 2012


If one were to browse through the cookery section of any reputed bookshop, one would definitely find a book (or many books) about Goan cuisine and gastronomy amidst several books dealing with diverse cuisines. What we eat and how we eat becomes part of our culture and identity. Food-related stereotypes are perhaps the few that we may not resent; that Goans are like fish out of water without fish, for there are Goans who are vegetarians and some do not like the taste of fish.
            For a person whose relationship with food has thus far been confined to only consuming it, reviewing a book about cooking and the history and tradition that surrounds such an act can be an unnerving task. Cozinha de Goa by Fátima da Silva Gracias is not a cookbook per se. It deals with the history and tradition of Goan food and includes some recipes as well. Along the way, Mrs. da Silva Gracias also reminisces about her own experiences with cooking and researching about Goan food. A historian who has authored books on colonial health and hygiene and women in Goa, Mrs. da Silva Gracias has crafted Cozinha de Goa in a Maria Aurora Couto-esque fashion, providing us with a daughter’s story in between.
            Along with acquainting the reader with the text of Mrs. da Silva Gracias, I would also like to situate her work as primarily trying to assert a Goan identity. I would try to point out a few possibilities and limitations as well. In trying to link cookbooks or books that deal with a particular cuisine to questions of identity, I shall refer the reader to a study of Caribbean cookbooks published in English which would help us in charting new understandings of books on gastronomy. B. W. Higman, the author of the paper titled, ‘Cookbooks and Caribbean Cultural Identity: An English-Language Hors D'Oeuvre’ says, “It can be argued that the emergence of the cookbook marks a critical point in the development of any cuisine and that the specialization and ramification of texts has much to tell about the character of national, regional, and ethnic identities. For these several reasons, a study of the history of cookbooks published in and having to do with the Caribbean can be expected to throw some light on what it means to be Caribbean or to identify with some smaller territory or grouping, and how this meaning has changed in response to social and political development.”
            The basic position that Mrs. da Silva Gracias assumes in writing this book and one theme that runs through the entire book is that of the east meets west. The meeting of east and west may have greatly influenced our food habits and culture but the use of this cliché over simplifies our understanding. Although Mrs. da Silva Gracias recognizes that Arab, Chinese, Brazilian, African, Anglo-Indian and other influences have enriched Goan food, the same is not reflected in the text; the treatment to these influences is meager. On the other hand, the picture that forms in the reader’s mind is that of Goan food being composed of the Catholic and Hindu cuisine. Such a line of thought is limiting, as is demonstrated by the following quote: “Portuguese rule created a culinary gap between the Hindus and Christians. On conversion, meat became part of the new diet of the Christians. Different measures and decrees introduced new food habits and discarded old ones.” We know today that tribal or aboriginal populations of South Asia before Hinduism and the advent of the Portuguese consumed meat on a regular basis and by making such assertions, Mrs. da Silva Gracias’ claims search for a pre-Portuguese past that is Hindu by conception.
            Food can be used to challenge the fascist arguments of what is Indian and foreign. This ‘Indian’ versus ‘foreign’ debate today has been defined by right-wing understandings of our history and culture. But nobody is aware about many of the food ingredients that were not native to the land and which should have effectively led us to question the whole idea of what is foreign in other spheres of social life: for instance, our dress. Although Mrs. da Silva Gracias could have used food to comment on such narrow tendencies, I still hold that some of her claims are useful to us, “The chili revolutionised Indian cuisine. Few realize that the chili, now widely used and deeply embedded in Goan and Indian cuisine, was a stranger to our continent and that it had been brought in from the Americas only a few centuries ago.” Or consider the following where the native is not Indian but Brazilian, “During my earlier visit to Brazil I noticed that even canjee [pez in our language] was popular in some parts. Some Brazilian researchers believe it came to them from sixteenth century Goa. In Brazil it went through changes. The Portuguese had already added chicken or chicken broth. The Brazilians included bay leaf, garlic, onions, pimenta-do-reino (pepper), carrots, cubed potatoes and so on. King D. Pedro II of Brazil, is said to have loved canja de galinha and even had it during intervals at the theater.”
            Mrs. da Silva Gracias, as mentioned before, peppers (to use a food metaphor!) her text with her own experiences and reminisces about Goan cuisine and food and also connects traditional practices to the preparation and consumption of food in her narrative, as food is an intrinsic part of any traditional practice and festivity. She is an accomplished writer and hence this account is delightful and one written with a pinch (food metaphor again!) of nostalgia. But she could have easily critiqued her own position and her memories. In recounting her memories, Mrs. da Silva Gracias paints a rosy picture of the past. “The life of a Hindu woman changed drastically when she became a widow. Although she cooked food for the rest of the family she could eat a very limited vegetarian diet.” This quote is cited as an example where a critical position could have been adopted by Mrs. da Silva Gracias.
            The book is written with much imagination and effort. The section where Mrs. da Silva Gracias has described a day in a Goan kitchen, albeit that of a rich family, is a splendid example of her imagination at work. In between the text, she has also provided trivia and recipes in a way that do not obstruct the main flow of the book.
            Although Cozinha de Goa is about the history and tradition of Goan food, it also concerns itself with the Goan identity in a subtle way. The parting lines of the book, in a way, make this concern abundantly clear, “Which road will Goan food take? Will it survive and thrive? Will it evolve further? Or will it simply lose out to stronger global trends? Only time can tell…whatever the outcome, this is undeniably an interesting cuisine, of a tiny region shaped by history from far and wide across the globe. It needs to be understood. It deserves to be cherished.”

(A version of this article appeared on Gomantak Times, dt: August 11, 2012).

Friday, August 3, 2012


  • If change could be brought by a king,
why did the Buddha become a beggar? (p. 382)

  • The Buddha preached his Way, they went theirs (p. 334)
Before Hinduism, in Ancient South Asia, Buddhism was a major religion. What the common man as well as the student of history knows about Buddhism has come, generally,  from the old Jataka story of how the Buddha who was a prince was isolated from all the ills of the world and a chance encounter with old-age, sickness and death transforms his whole life, eventually leading to his enlightenment. Sadly for all of us this legend has been – verbatim – passed off as history. The Buddha is viewed as godhead, when charting the history of Buddhism with the actual historical processes that the Buddha as a person had experienced, given scant attention.
            How we understand and construct the history of Buddhism (or for that matter the history of any other religion of Ancient India) is on many occasions found to be lacking in a rigorous imagination coupled with erudition. While studying Buddhism, I have always felt that the thrust is on the philosophy (and sometimes only philosophy!) rather than the historical conditions that required such ideologies and philosophies – such as Buddhism – to be produced. Hence, when I read the debut novel of the Goan writer and academic Amita Kanekar, now based in Miramar, I felt that my knowledge and imagination about the Buddha in particular and the historical setting of Ancient India in general was enriched.
            A Spoke in the Wheel (2005) by Amita Kanekar, to be simply put, is a novel about the Buddha and Buddhism along with other historical personages. In attempting the portraits of such historical personages like the Buddha and the Emperor Asoka, Amita Kanekar also interrogates the history of that time as well as critically examines the conventional wisdom that has been handed down to us. (In particular, the thrust is towards rethinking the whole nationalist historiography and construction of Ancient Indian history).
            The protagonist of the novel is a monk named Upali, who has been commissioned by the great Emperor Asoka himself to produce a biography of the Buddha in prose. The novel opens in 256 BC, four years after the bloodshed in Kalinga and three centuries after the death of the Buddha. Upali, a native from Kalinga, had witnessed first-hand the destruction of Asoka’s military campaign there. He is now based in a small monastery, in the middle of a thick and treacherous jungle. Upali is portrayed as a scholastic who has to work with legends or suttas which contain several discrepancies in their content as a primary source. He is caught between providing a faithful account of the life of the Buddha as well as staying loyal to the spirit that Gautam, the Enlightened One, had embodied. He is an upstart, getting into frequent arguments with the elders on the finer theoretical points of the Buddha’s life.
            Upali, through his keen, interrogative mind and fearless questioning of the handed-down-wisdom manages to produce an account that shocks and revolts a lot of elder monks. But the Emperor Asoka likes it. A Spoke in the Wheel gives a picture of the time when the first largest empire in history was consolidated in South Asia; the author describes the cities, the people and the social atmosphere in which the daily business was carried out with much élan. The Mauryan Empire under Asoka was vast containing equally varied identities: tribal, caste and class. Amita Kanekar is not just writing a novel, but is also arguing, informing and providing an alternate view of the history of Buddhism and Ancient India. For instance, consider the very popular myth about the 84,000 stupas that were constructed by Asoka. She says, “…since he ruled some thirty-seven years, averages 2,270 each year, or more than six a day, a feat clearly impossible for anyone not Beloved of the Gods.”
            Did the Buddha really lead a sheltered life totally buffered from the harsh realities of the world? Amita Kanekar argues otherwise, “He probably led the most luxurious life possible, but it was not that of a lotus-eater. Otherwise Shudodhan [Buddha’s father] could never have hoped to make his son Chief after him. It was a time of confusion, even chaos, and a Chief had to at least understand both the old and the new divides, to defend his own interests and also swing popular feeling behind him. It was a tall order, as Shudodhan knew only too well.”
            It is also interesting to note how perfectly Amita Kanekar weaves the importance of iron in the whole narrative. Yes, although this ubiquitous dark metal transformed our society and history, sadly this is not taken into much consideration by most established scholarship when discussing the history of Buddhism. Amita Kanekar’s concern and commitment to the cause of the subaltern is seen through the protagonist Upali (who is revealed to be a Chandala, a low born) as well as how she tries to represent the Nagas who were perceived to be racially inferior by the Arya society. Describing the first long-distance trek that the Buddha undertook, Amita Kanekar says, “It was a difficult trip, the first of many cross-country treks, and unforgettable. It was really the beginning of a new education, not in any lofty or esoteric philosophy, but in ordinary, even familiar things. Like the heat of the sun. He had never  noticed how it built up from a mild lighter of the path at dawn to a ferocious torch by midday, pulling out all the water from his body, burning his uncovered head, burning the top and the bottom of his feet, drying the skin of his eyes, tearing the skin of his nose and throat. The Shakyas worshipped the sun in every form, from Ushas, gentle goddess of dawn, to burning Aditya of the noon sky, and not surprisingly, for they too were rulers – arrogant, uncaring, robbing the earth and all who walked on it for their juices. Nobody dared to look the sun in the eye. How sharply different was the moon. Yes, now he could understand why so many of the low-caste worshipped that gentle lantern of cool white light. Anybody who had to expend sweat and energy through the day unprotected by the flimsiest of shades would. The moon was a reinvigorating friend, so that even the tiredest could think of poetry and love in the night, or sleep well and find the strength to rise and face the sun again.”
            The Enlightenment of the Buddha is spoken in a much nuanced way, situating it in the social and historical setting. The portrayal of the Buddha’s Enlightenment is minus the mystical glamour. It is more prosaic, “He thought and thought, till he was satisfied that he had some answers. Such was his enlightenment.”
            Amita Kanekar dwells on how the Emperor Asoka had appropriated the ideology of the Buddha and the Buddha himself and she also tries to show how such an ideology like Buddhism could be, thereby, helpful to the State. The religious ideas may have (unwittingly) helped the State to control its subjects. “Look at the issues of tolerance, peace and renunciation. They [rulers] liked them, they said. Enough to encourage them among their subjects. Tolerance in the poor and dispossessed made for a more peaceful kingdom. And renunciation was a brilliant idea – if people scorned wealth, they would not notice the inequities in its availability. The matter was different for themselves. Their own tolerance, of their neighbours for example, remained low. Their avarice for greater land and revenues remained largely unabated. Nor did they forswear violence towards anybody – their neighbours, their subjects, even their own kinsmen who chanced to cast a covetous eye on their throne,” Amita writes.
            History and polemics aside, there is murder and intrigue woven in the novel. Amita Kanekar also discusses how using subtle suppressive measures, the Asokan empire was kept intact, particularly when the established historiography can rarely see anything beyond the greatness of the tyrant and mass-murderer that Emperor Asoka was.
            The novel provides fresh insights into the life of the Buddha as well as the history of Ancient India. For a person interested in history and Buddhism, this book will be a smart and discerning read.

(A version of this article appeared on Gomantak Times, dt: August 4, 2012).