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Can Dalit food ever be Satvik? Devdutt Pattanaik writes

It is only now, through books of self-expression, that we are learning about Dalit food.
Last Updated 09 March 2024, 20:02 IST

Imagine a meal made of coagulated blood cooked with oil, salt and chillies, or a meal of the flesh of rats, or the flesh of a dead, not slaughtered, animal. Or imagine a meal which contains the brain, intestines and trotters of a goat or a sheep or a meal involving dried flesh of cattle or pig. Some of these could be delicacies in Christian and Muslim households, in Europe and America, in Africa and China, but not in ‘upper’ caste elite Hindu households.

This is Dalit food, eaten for centuries by many, not all, communities who identify as Dalit. Dalit is a political term of self-identification popular since the 20th century amongst numerous downtrodden, marginalised and backward communities of India. This includes castes who were forced to live on the fringes of villages and towns and were responsible for keeping the village clean, performing sanitation work, removing garbage, sewage and dead bodies.

These were the ‘untouchables’ of India, who were not given access to the community spaces, to markets and to water bodies. Their history is very different from, and often eclipsed by, the larger conversation of caste in India. We get access to their story and their dietary practices only if we read Dalit literature, which emerged only in the 19th century after Dalits gained access to education, after the arrival of Christian missionaries.

Though these communities participated in the village economy, they were not given what we would today refer to as a fair share of the village harvest. They were forced to eat food that was stale leftover food. Even today, in households across India, the staff continues to be given stale food, yesterday’s food, not the fresh food cooked for the master and his family. Even food kept in the fridge is frowned upon by the affluent. No guruji will be given yesterday’s rotis, preserved in the fridge and reheated in a microwave.

Food in India, as in other parts of the world, is a marker of tribal identity. Jews have Kosher food. Muslims have Halal food. No argument is possible against these foods as they claim to be following God’s law. In India, food laws, traceable to Bhagavad Gita, refer to a three-fold (tri-guna) division of food that creates the four-fold caste division of society (chatur-varna).

For aristocrats, there is spicy, oily, ‘rajasic’ (royal) food that can energise you and even makes you aggressive. For those steady-state seeking bureaucrats, accountants and merchants, there is fresh organic, relatively bland ‘satvik’ (honest) food that has been granted spiritual status as it is believed to be produced non-violently. Stale, fermented ‘tamasic’ (dark) food is to be avoided as they take away initiative, make the body and the mind dull, apathetic, and submissive. Where do you locate meat? Kings who loved to hunt, insisted it was rajasic. Temple priests insist it is tamasic, unfit for gods. Usually whatever the priest likes to eat becomes satvik, and part of temple rituals, too.

Dalit food was all food shunned by the elite: stale leftovers; sacred or dirty animals (cattle, pigs, rats); ‘unclean’ parts of the animal (intestine, brain, feet); dead animals! This was not a choice. This was an outcome of necessity. In poverty, this was the only food they had access to. Even the market was out of reach for the ‘impure’. Some argue this was a deliberate move, as part of the caste strategy, to keep those on the fringe dull and dependent enough through a ‘tamasic’ diet, so as not to revolt.

Globally, people are more tolerant about religious food than caste food. And so can mainstream kosher food and halal food, and Jain food, but activists will mock “pure” vegetarian Brahmin food on grounds that this is presented as superior food and so is inherently discriminatory. It is only now, through books of self-expression, that we are learning about Dalit food. We learn how coarse grain was the only grain available to make bread. To make the food edible, a lot of salt, onion and chillies were added, due to lack of access to other spices. Seeds that would otherwise be thrown, like watermelon seeds, were used to make the food edible and tasty. Sugar was not easily available, therefore, molasses were used. Dried meat of pork and beef was kept for the rainy day.

As there is a concerted move to annihilate caste, should young Dalits walk away from food habits their ancestors were forced to adopt for survival, and embrace the rajasic and satvik choices that they now have access to? Or should they hold on to their food as markers of a dark history, and caste identity? Or should Dalit food be mainstreamed, embraced by chefs on cookery shows, and turned into a delightful meal that everyone can relish? Every choice has repercussions, says the law of karma.

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(Published 09 March 2024, 20:02 IST)

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