I met Lamai at a spa in Bangkok. She was eager to talk, and told me about her village eight hours to the north of Bangkok. Her father was a farmer who owned land. She had worked with him until she had finished school and moved to Bangkok to start college. When she was finishing her first year, her father’s lands were flooded and he lost his entire produce. It happened again the next year. “Because of climate change,” she said. Lamai dropped out of college and began to work at a hair salon. She missed the country, particularly its silence, but she knew she would make more money in the city. After working at many a hair salon and restaurant, she finally came to work at the spa where we met.
Male tourists frequented the spa. Sometimes they asked her out to dinner after she had finished work.“I cannot go out with men when I am in my village. My father won’t like it,” she said. There was something delicious in being able to do this forbidden thing. Her last ‘boyfriend’ had been German. He had stayed in Bangkok for a month, and taken her out to dinner everyday. To “big places with good food.” Then he had moved back to Germany. “I wrote to him, but he did not respond. How long do you think I should wait before I move on?” She had loved him more than the others. She missed him.
Some of her friends paid her well or got her things she needed. She sent her parents the money she earned at the spa; the money from her boyfriends she kept for herself.
Being taken to dinner, for Lamai, was never about food. It was about breaching boundaries, being bold and taking her life into her own hands. It was about the finer things she did not see when she was at the spa. It was about falling in love and getting her heart broken.
And like Lamai, to many of us food is not the thing we eat to satisfy the biological pangs of hunger. Food is more than that. Food is about well-being and social status. It is intertwined with ideas of blessing and god. It is about community, sharing and giving. It is also about avarice and gluttony. [inlinetweet prefix=”” tweeter=”” suffix=””]Food shapes the way we think about sins and virtues.[/inlinetweet] It also shapes our gendered and sexualised experiences of our lives, perhaps even more than we realize. This article gives you a string of ‘F’ words all of which are meant to give us a glimpse into our relationship with food. Let’s begin with the ‘F ’word that comes before food.
The 1957 movie Mother India, an epic by Bollywood standards, begins with the inauguration of a canal that is meant to bring progress to the village where Radha (played by Nargis) has toiled to raise her family. Standing on the threshold of this modernity, Radha recalls a troubled past: a marriage cut short by poverty, the death of people she loves, a prodigal son, and sexual exploitation. An entire country is meant to see itself in her, and with her, bid goodbye to a past of scarcity. Progress is that which will rescue her and others like her from poverty, by replenishing the land on which she works.
I wonder what Radha would have to say of the modernity we have now embraced: land acquisition, hybrid crops, mass-scale production and cheap wages for labour. A modernity where about 80% of rural women work in farming and food production, against 60% of the men, but make anything from a half to three-quarters of the wage for the same amount of work. Only 9% own their own land, while the rest work as underpaid wage labourers. Their wages serve to reinforce their inferior status within the agricultural sector. But both these men and women have less ‘viable’ careers than those who are employed outside of this sector. While Vina Mazumdar calls this shift away from agriculture and towards industrialization, the masculinization of the economy (Mazumdar 1992), Veena Talwar Oldenburg also notes that this immediately makes these men more ‘marriageable’ and allows them to demand better dowries (Talwar Oldenburg 2002).
In spite of this rapid shift towards industrialization, fertility metaphors linking women to land have remained. Women and land are still ‘fertile’ or ‘barren’, ‘nurturing’ or ‘dry’. And within the industrial economy, both have become commodified and exploitable. In Fertile Ground, ecofeminist Irene Diamond writes, “In the practical cosmology of ecofeminism, mystery and diversity are occasion for celebration.” (Diamond 1997: 158) But in an age of capitalism, science and rationality, such mystery, diversity, and ritual are stripped of their spiritual and cosmological meaning. The metaphors of fertility persist in a vacuum, shaping women’s gender identity in relation to their ability to reproduce. What we have instead are medical technologies which could make conceiving a lot easier and further essentialize motherhood. In an atmosphere where the emphasisis is on reproduction, medical advancements that spell out other choices like contraception and abortion, are still marginalized and frowned upon.
Family and Feeding:
It only takes one of the many ads on television to show that men still wear the pants and women still hold the ladle. Only, this MTR ad takes the goddess a little too serious. I am not sure what is more annoying – the many arms she sprouts or one of them reaching up to tuck her hair away while the others chop vegetables and mix batter. If you thought living in a nuclear family would make things easier, put those comfortable thoughts away. The goddess is here to taunt you about being a good home-maker, mother and wife, and food is still at the centre of it all. And then there is the DINK couple as in this Airtel ad. Even if the woman is her husband’s boss at work, she must seduce him at home with food. One can never tell if it is seduction or absolution or if the lines between them are wearing thin.
And then there is the baby that must be breast-fed. That time when the woman can ‘make’ the food her child needs in her own body. It tests the strengths of our individualistic existence and our ideas of choice. Where does the mother end and the child begin? And while we figure that out, we also have to figure out if breast-feeding like other forms of feeding can be visible. Women are expected to throw dinner parties, surprise their families with good food, seduce husbands, appease children, but can they ‘display’ their nurturing talents while breast-feeding a baby? The jury is still out on that one.
The Femme Fatale and Food Fetishes:
There are a million advertisements on the Internet where women morph into food, women bite into food, and women eat food while trying to look sexually appealing. I have never been able to tell if this anthropomorphizes food or if it objectifies women. There seems to be a blurry line somewhere in our minds, a little rabbit hole of sorts that allows us to buy into the idea that women are food and food is sexy, and that if we eat sexy foods then we must very much be eating the femme fatale (or turning into her).
I only wonder if we can sell these products using men. Take the Aam Swayaamvar (it is cool like that), and imagine Ranbir Kapoor doing everything that Katrina Kaif is asked to do exactly as she is asked to do it, and see if the bottle of Slice still holds the same meaning for you. I don’t doubt that the ad will be entertaining, but somehow doubt it will be entertaining for the same reasons.
It is within this fast industrializing, rationalizing world that women and men must negotiate their modern relationship with food. If once, men and women sought a relationship with the land, the land is now an alienable, commodified object to most of us. But still we seem to hold on to phantoms of the ‘past’ and derive meaning from the way we make, consume and envision food. And then there is Lamai, for whom food had nothing to do with produce or preparation. Neither was it merely a means to survival. It was a rite of passage and a symbol of aspiration. The question is, what world are we passing into, what are we aspiring for?
Picture courtesy: Mother India‘s Wikipedia page
 This is not her real name.
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