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Between Digestion and Desire: Genealogies of food in nationalist North India

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  15 February 2013

Concordia University, Montreal, Canada Email:


This paper takes up the project of conceptualizing a new history of food in India through an exploration of conversations about food, digestion, desire, and embodiment that took place in Hindi-language publications in early-twentieth century North India. Through an exploration of cookbooks, guides to health and wellness, and food advertising spanning the 1920s to the 1940s, conversations about food preparation, consumption, and distribution come to be revealed as significant anchors of historical, political, economic, and cultural debates about the Indian nation in this period. The centrality of food to conversations that took up the reproduction and regeneration of the Hindu middle class helped to conceptualize an idealized Indian nation[A]. Subsequently, the focus on food advertising imagined the transformation of these citizens into consumers. Moving beyond the colonial fascination with native bodies and tropical constitutions, this paper demonstrates the ways in which the conversations that emerged out of a focus on food in popular culture did the work of envisioning new possibilities for post-colonial embodiment.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2013 

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1 William Hunter on the proper diet for an Indian lascar at sea, 1804. See Hunter, W. (1804). An Essay on the Diseases Incident to Indian Seamen, or Lascars, on Long Voyages, The Honourable Company Press, Calcutta, pp. 412.Google Scholar

2 Advertisement for Dalda vanaspati ghee (hydrogenated vegetable oil), Madhuri, January 1943, p. 38.

3 The connection between food and the caste system was a major preoccupation for different travellers to South Asia. An orthodox reading of inter-caste relations posits these interactions around avoiding contact with those who engage with ‘impure’ substances, thus touching, eating with or drinking water from the container of a lower caste person renders the upper caste person impure.

4 The breakdown of caste and its regulations was often articulated around sharing and eating food in the writing of travellers to India. For instance, the Spanish traveller, Friar Domingo Fernandez de Navarette experienced caste regulations first-hand: ‘My man touch'd it over the sack, the heathen saw it, and came to me in a rage, complaining that his pot was defl'd, and there was no pacifying of him. . . At last he pulled the pot out of the sack, and with wonderful rage dash'd it against the stones.’ Fisher, M. H. (2007). Beyond the Three Seas: Travellers’ Tales of Mughal India, Random House India, New Delhi, p. 269Google Scholar. In another turn, the thirteenth-century Marco Polo remarked upon a leaf called tembul that was chewed down to liquid form and spat out. At the same time, noted Polo, ‘when anyone wishes to insult another in the grossest manner, he spits this juice in his face’: see Murray, Hugh. (1858). The Travels of Marco Polo, Harper and Brothers, New York, p. 272.Google Scholar

5 This variety of historical investigation has been taken up primarily by historians writing for popular audiences. Highlights of this genre include: Keay, John (2007). The Spice Route: A History, 1st ed., University of California Press, BerkeleyGoogle Scholar; Turner, Jack (2005). Spice: The History of a Temptation, Knopf, New YorkGoogle Scholar; Krondl, M. (2007). The Taste of Conquest: The Rise and Fall of the Three Great Cities of Spice, Ballantine Books, New York.Google Scholar

6 Elizabeth Collingham's groundbreaking work on the career of curry in modern imperial history highlights the social and cultural uses of Indian food as both imagined and experienced artefact in these and other ways. See Collingham, E. M. (2005). Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors, Vintage Books, London.Google Scholar

7 This characterizes the variety of knowledge about food and the body that has been the focus of the history of public health, in which the temperament and constitution of the Indian body is in part the result of the diet of the native figure. See, for instance, Harrison, M. (1999). Climates & Constitutions: Health, Race, Environment and British Imperialism in India, 1600–1850, Oxford University Press, New Delhi.Google Scholar

8 Gandhian abstention is well documented throughout the various analyses of his life and times, and figures prominently in Alter, Joseph (2000). Gandhi's Body: Sex, Diet and the Politics of Nationalism, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia.Google Scholar Perhaps equally famous is Rabindranath Tagore's caricature of Sandip, the Bengali radical nationalist, who struggles to digest the meals prepared for him by Nandita, and who always asks for a glass of bubbly water to accompany his meals; see Tagore, R. (1919). Home and the World, Penguin, London.Google Scholar Interestingly, Stefan Ecks identifies indigestion and stomach ailments more generally as a manifestation and diagnostic tool of depression among Bengalis. See Ecks, Stefan (2010). ‘Spectacles of Reason: An Ethnography of Calcutta Gastroenterologists’, in Edwards, J. (ed.), Technologized Images, Technologized Bodies: Anthropological Approaches to a New Politics of Vision, Berghahn, Oxford.Google Scholar

9 Attempts to think through an Indian history of food are a recent undertaking, but a serious one at that. In the Bengali context, Jayanta Sengupta has recently explored the role of imperial perceptions of diet and the resulting emergence of a discourse of indigenous cookery. See Sengupta, Jayanta (2010). ‘Nation on a Platter: The Culture and Politics of Food and Cuisine in Colonial Bengal’, Modern Asian Studies 44:1, pp. 8198.CrossRefGoogle Scholar Sunil Amrith has also investigated the connection between food and welfare in the early twentieth century, juxtaposing Gandhian thought with government and imperial rationale about the role of nutrition in maintaining the health and economic viability of the population. See Amrith, Sunil S. (2008). ‘Food and Welfare in India, c. 1900–1950’, Comparative Studies in Society and History 50:4, pp. 10101035.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

10 I draw this term from Joshi, Sanjay (2001). Fractured Modernity: Making of a Middle Class in Colonial North India, Oxford University Press, New Delhi.Google Scholar

11 Sengupta, ‘Nation on a Platter’.

12 Chatterjee, Partha (1989). ‘The Nationalist Resolution of the Women's Question’, in Sangari, K. and Vaid, S.Recasting Women: Essays in Colonial History, Kali for Women Press, New Delhi, pp. 233253.Google Scholar

13 Hancock, M. (2001). ‘Home Science and the Nationalization of Domesticity in Colonial India’, Modern Asian Studies 35:4, pp. 871903.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

14 Hancock, ‘Home Science’, p. 873.

15 The nature and expanse of women's writing has been thoroughly explored in Charu Gupta's groundbreaking work on issues of sexuality and the obscene in Hindi literature. See Gupta, Charu (2002). Sexuality, Obscenity, Community: Women, Muslims, and the Hindu Public in Colonial India, Permanent Black, New Delhi.Google Scholar Francesca Orsini provides insight into the broader context, circulation, and reception of women's writing in Hindi in Orsini, F. (2002). The Hindi Public Sphere, 1920–1940: Language and Literature in the Age of Nationalism, Oxford University Press, New DelhiGoogle Scholar, Chapter 4.

16 This is a point made in Burton, A. (1997). ‘House/Daughter/Nation: Interiority, Architecture, and Historical Imagination in Janaki Majumdar's “Family History”’, The Journal of Asian Studies 56:4, pp. 921946.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

17 See Malamoud, C. (1996). Cooking the World: Ritual and Thought in Ancient India, Oxford University Press, OxfordGoogle Scholar, Chapter 2, on textual and sociological perspectives on food and society in ancient India. See also Khare, R. S. (1976). Culture and Reality: Essays on the Hindu System of Managing Foods, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, SimlaGoogle Scholar, on the more contemporary systems of managing food in Indian society, especially from the point of view of class and caste distinctions.

18 See Leslie, Julia (1996). ‘Menstruation Myths’, in Leslie, J.Myth and Mythmaking, Routledge, London, pp. 87105Google Scholar, on the prohibitions relating to menstruation in Hinduism.

19 Sarma, J. A. (1933). Paka-Vijnana, BenaresGoogle Scholar.

20 Sarma, Paka-Vijnana, p. 3.

21 Sharma, Manirama (1926). Pak-Chandrika, Allahabad, pp. 34Google Scholar.

22 Sharma, Pak-Chandrika, pp. 1–2.

23 Devi, Yashoda (1915). Grihini Kartavya Sastra, Sriram Sharma ne Banita Hitaushi Press Prayag mei, Allahabad, pp. 12Google Scholar.

24 Devi, Grihini Kartavya Sastra, pp. 2–3.

25 The notion of the communal is particularly prescient in the modern Indian context, where it refers specifically to a community-based identity constructed along lines of religion and caste. The term ‘communalism’ comes not from community, but rather from ‘tension between (religious) communities’ and is often characterized by the potential for—or eruptions of—violence done in its name. See Pandey, Gyanendra (2006). The Construction of Communalism in Colonial North India, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, p. 9.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

26 A now-classic take on the role of the census in the determination of Indian identity can be found in Appadurai, Arjun (1993). ‘Numbers in the Colonial Imagination’, in Van de Veer, P. and Breckenridge, C.Orientalism and the Postcolonial Predicament: Perspectives on South Asia, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia.Google Scholar

27 Sanjam Ahluwalia, whose work synthesizes a wide range of historiography on issues of birth control in India, posits that, ‘India was. . . an important location where these Western advocates contended to accumulate cultural and economic capital, prestige, and patronage, as well as markets for their newly developed contraceptive technologies’. In Ahluwalia, S. (2007). Reproductive Restraints: Birth Control in India, 1877–1947, University of Illinois Press, Chicago.Google Scholar See Chapter 4 of the same volume for an elaboration of the birth control campaigns launched in India or with an Indian focus.

28 The interplay is taken up neatly in Stephen Legg's work on Delhi's urban geography following the construction of New Delhi, an urban planning project justified in part by the biopolitical demand for a more rational use of space, in which populations could be visualized, despite the crippling expense to empire. See Legg, Stephen (2007). Spaces of Colonialism: Delhi's Urban Governmentalities, Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

29 ‘Dampati Milna’, in Sen, G. (1929). Pratyaksha Shariram, DehradunGoogle Scholar.

30 Classen, al. (1994). Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell, Routledge, New York, p. 3.Google Scholar

31 See Sharma, P. B and Vanita, R. (2009). Chocolate and Other Writings on Male Homoeroticism, Duke University Press, Durham.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

32 ‘Garbh-Pira ka upay’, in >Devi, Yashoda (1931). Dampati Arogyata Jivanshastra, Stri Aushadalya, AllahabadGoogle Scholar.

33 ‘Putr ke Lakshan (How to tell if it's a son)’, in Devi, Yashoda (1924). Dampati Arogyata Jivanshastra arthat Ratishastra Santantitshastra, Stri Aushadalya, Allahabad, p. 237Google Scholar.

34 See Gurunncharay (1926). Hindu Mata athart hindu shishu svastya raksha (hindu streeyon ke liye shishu svastya aur shishu sambandhi pustak), Lahore. Sharma, Srinarmdeshvar (1933). Shishu Palan, LahoreGoogle Scholar.

35 Sharma, Pt. Ramnarayan (1918). Dudh-Chikitsa, Bombay, p. 1Google Scholar.

36 Sharma, Dudh-Chikitsa, p. 2.

37 The historiography of advertising specifically and consumption more generally is only beginning to develop in the South Asian context, and is more concerned with themes of globalization, communalism, and caste/class in the post-colonial period. As yet, there has been no attempt to compile or analyse data that might shed light on the constitution of the field of advertising, from either quantitative or qualitative perspectives. Various scholars have made inroads into determining patterns of advertising, as well as major themes taken up by—and often constituting different varieties of— advertisements. Particularly instructive are the essays collected in Haynes, Douglas al. (2010). Towards a History of Consumption in South Asia, Oxford University Press, Oxford.Google Scholar See also the chapter on advertising in Daechsel, M. (2009). The Politics of Self-Expression: The Urdu Middle-class Milieu in Mid-twentieth Century India and Pakistan, Routledge, Abingdon.Google Scholar Also instructive is Mazzarella, W. (2003). Shoveling Smoke: Advertising and Globalization in Contemporary India, Duke University Press, Durham.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

38 Haynes, D. (2010). ‘Creating the Consumer? Advertising, Capitalism and the Middle Class in Urban Western India, 1914–40,’ in Haynes, Towards a History of Consumption in South Asia, pp. 188–189.

39 Abigail McGowan has identified these and other objects of desire for middle-class housewives in western India, and has posited them as desired goods rather than those deemed to fit into a rational household budget. See McGowan, Abigail (2010). ‘Consuming Families: Negotiating Women's Shopping in Early Twentieth Century Western India,’ in Haynes, Towards a History of Consumption in South Asia, pp. 155–184.

40 Advertisement for Dalda vanaspati ghee (hydrogenated vegetable oil), Madhuri, January 1943, p. 38.

41 Collingham, Curry, pp. 190–191. Collingham also notes that tea was the prime commodity imported from China between 1811 and 1819, but it was unreliable, as tea was grown on private, family-owned plantations and so its availability was haphazard.

42 Collingham, Curry, p. 196.