Thursday, September 29, 2011


About sixty years ago, in my boyhood days I used to read the food related lines in the almanac, which I liked reading, and which, I suspect, were probably the only part of an entry about a day in the almanac that I understood. Born into a family in which the elders were believers in soft astrology and were amateur practitioners of it, I was familiar with the almanac at from early age. These lines about food were always in the nature of restrictions and they were never about cooked food or non-indigenous fruits and vegetables: adya alaabu bhakshaana nishedha (today, eating alaabu, i.e., bottle gourd, is prohibited), adya kusmaanda bhakshana nishedha (today, eating pumkin is prohibited), etc. I used to find the words very funny. Bottle gourd and pumpkin – of any variety – popularly known as laau and kakhaaru were looked upon as the ordinary among the ordinary vegetables, and it was hilarious the way these were distanced by being referred to in the text in Sanskritized terms in Sanskritized sentences. Incidentally these days in the almanac these are referred to in their popular names and the sentences are in colloquial Odia. The almanac never mentioned any particular vegetable or fruit to be consumed on some particular day, such as the following: adya alaabu bhakshana vidheya (today, eating bottle gourd is recommended). This is interesting; generally speaking, the prohibition strategy is the most economical form of stating the characteristics of a good life. “Economical”, because otherwise one ends up giving, for all practical purposes, an endless list!

In brata kathaas too food is a part of the discourse on moral life. A brata kathaa is a tale that depicts the glory of a god or a goddess, more often a goddess, and more often a local god or goddess. Part of it deals with how to worship the goddess, what benefits come to one who worships her in the proper way and what sufferings await one who offends her by not worshipping her duly. And built into all these are statements about how to lead a moral life. These are a series of prohibitions, many of these women-centric, concerning many domains of day-to-day living, including that of food. A brata kathaaa shares one characteristic with a proverb, which is that it is really concerned more with a comfortable life in this world than progress in the other world.

In Lakshmi Purana (which is indeed a brata kathaa and not a purana), an immensely popular tale throughout Odisha, the following are among the prohibitions listed with respect to food. On a Thursday which is dedicated to goddesss Lakshmi, a woman must not eat curd rice at night, non-vegetarian food, remains of the food from someone’s plate, roasted food, burnt food and non-vegetarian food cooked with bottle gourd. This last one may constitute a bit of careless writing, but popular tales are not free from this blemish. On Thursdays, amaabasyaas and sankraantis, one must not eat at night. There are other food-related restrictions pertaining to the manner of cooking, the mode of eating, etc. For instance, a woman must not fry uncooked rice grains on Thursdays.

Sometimes Puranas and often brata kathaas describe good meals – in fact, define what a good meal is, and a good meal is always a sumptuous meal. What is the point of a good dish if three quarters of the dish is empty? – the meal that goddess Parvati cooked for Lord Shiva or the meal that the guests in Draupadi’s wedding were served, for example. Both these occur in the fifteenth century Odia poet, Sarala Dasa’s Mahabharata. Another example is the meal that goddess Lakshmi cooked for her consort Jagannatha and her elder brother-in-law, Balabhadra in Balarama Dasa’s Lakshmi Purana, a sixteenth century composition. In each case, the items are many: different types of rice preparations, pancakes, vegetable preparations, sweets made of milk, such as khirs and the like. Each has a name. Incidentally, Lakshmi’s meal has a distinct identity from the others’, if not in terms of the dishes, in the manner of her serving them. At the end, she serves poda pithaa, a salted pancake roasted in embers.

Now, what explains this preoccupation with food in these cultural texts? There are well known, traditional explanations for the food-oriented prohibitions in our culture. Broadly speaking, our tradition postulated a connection between food and attitudes, inclinations and mental states; tamasik food was believed to create a negative attitude, satwik food, a positive mindset - this is just one aspect of the impact of food on personality, other aspects involving quantity of intake, etc. need not detain us here. So certain foods which were believed to arouse inappropriate inclinations and desires were forbidden on auspicious days, although it is entirely unclear to us today how bottle gourds, brinjals and pumpkins could matter in the relevant respect.

Such elaborate descriptions of food served in the weddings and other occasions, both festive and auspicious, might have a different explanation. My own understanding is as follows: a food loving people wanted to talk about food. Smelling food is half-eating it, as the saying in Sanskritized Odia goes: aaghraana ardha bhojana. In the same way, talking about a dish is like relishing that dish. It is commonplace to hear utterances like maacha bhajaa kathaa sunile taa paatiru laala gade (if he just hears about fish fry, his mouth salivates”). It suggests the power of talk. The food narratives could also be, partly at least, an expression of longing for some grand dishes that one almost never gets to eat at home or at others’ places even on festive occasions. One indulges in the pleasures of the palate by talking (or even writing) about the dishes of one’s desire.

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