The Flavours of Nationalism – An unbinding faith in the hope of a future


Rakhi Dalal reviews The Flavours of Nationalism,(Speaking Tiger, 2018) analyzing how through this personal memoir, Nandita Haksar hopes for a future where every Indian will have Justice of Eating.

Nandita Haksar is a pioneering human rights lawyer, campaigner, teacher and writer. She is the author of over 15 books including: Framing Geelani, Hanging Afzal: Patriotism in the Time of Terror (2009); The Judgement That Never Came: Army Rule in North East India (with Sebastian Hongray, 2011); ABC of Naga Culture and Civilization (2011); Across the Chicken Neck: Travels in North East India (2013); The Many Faces of Kashmiri Nationalism from the Cold War to the Present Day (2015), Framed as a Terrorist (with Mohammad Aamir Khan) (2016) and the Exodus is Not Over: Migrations from Ruptured Homelands of Northeast India (forthcoming). The Flavours of Nationalism won the Book of the Year award at LF Epicurean Guild Awards 2020.

The introduction to the book is titled “The Justice of Eating”, which takes its name from the poem “The Great Table Cloth” by the Communist Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda. Through this poem, Neruda expresses his wish for a world free of hunger. Nandita Haksar quotes the poet to bring forward the still pertinent question of inequality, when it comes to accessibility of food in Indian society. That the farmers continue to commit suicide, that some of those unprivileged go without square meals for days, that the social fabric is still marred by discrimination and oppression practiced towards people with respect to their food choices because of their caste/class/religious/regional identities, are some of the questions that the author grapples with in this book.  

Growing up in a family with a diplomat father, where her parents used food as an instrument to build friendships, Haksar realized the role of food in forging alliances and making friends across communities and nations. So it unsettled her, when out in the world by herself, she discovered how food is sometimes used as a way to demean some communities or to degrade the eating habits of people of a particular class or caste, citing in particular the controversy over beef-eating. A human rights activist and a lawyer, she then decided to write a memoir to describe her journey from childhood to adulthood, chronicling those memories where food had been integral to her experience. 

In writing this book, Haksar has not only attempted to address the questions which are posed due to the prejudices around food habits, but has also focused on bringing social narratives around food from different regions across the country. This, along with nuggets of food recipes sprinkled in between the narrative, makes it a delectable and apposite read. 

Her narrative is subtle and gleams with clarity. At places it is also humorous, like when she muses over the efforts to make ‘humble khichdi’ a national dish as well as over the conflict between West Bengal and Orissa for the GI tag for ‘Rasogolla’.

Starting with her Kashmiri Brahmin origins, she tells of a particular incident where on the occasion of Shivratri, the most sacred of their festivals, her grandparents had agreed to stay back in Delhi with them. She recalls how the priest was left utterly shocked when her grandmother had presented the prasad thali, for it was a platter of rice cooked with lamb and fish with a raw fish on the top of the pile! She writes in detail about the food practices of meat-eating Kashmiri Brahmins and gives recipes for Khubani and Raan.

Her narrative is subtle and gleams with clarity. At places it is also humorous, like when she muses over the efforts to make ‘humble khichdi’ a national dish as well as over the conflict between West Bengal and Orissa for the GI tag for ‘Rasogolla’. She writes about the history of ‘Indian Coffee House’ and the planting of first Coffee seeds in India. As a woman, she also explores the role of patriarchy in dividing women, on the prejudices and biases against women in society. Presenting an example of imposed patriarchal roles for everyday activities like cooking, she writes about her own experience of having to cook for some male human right activists in the evenings while fighting for their cases in Supreme Court in the mornings. That it did not strike them to offer help, explains the extent to which patriarchal decree is ingrained in mind.

As a woman, she also explores the role of patriarchy in dividing women, on the prejudices and biases against women in society.

Without mincing any words, she takes a dig at state cruelty and general public’s apathy towards the tribal, the poor and the people from North-Eastern States. She cites examples from the cases she has fought and states she has visited. Mizo insurgency which was the aftermath of a famine, human rights violation by armed forces in north-east, exploitation of iron-ore miners going to the extent of unavailability of clean drinking water and discrimination towards Dalits and tribal communities for their pork eating practices are the issues she dwells upon extensively. Quoting Sujatha Gidla’s memoir Ants among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India (2017), Haksar focuses on the inhibition of Dalits while consuming pork which comes from their living in close proximity to upper caste Hindus.

Her concerns, however, are not restricted for the rural poor and tribals. She also addresses the general perception around hygiene in the case of food sold by the urban poor. Her unequivocal writing comes from the humanitarian regard she has for the issues of food affecting people across caste and communities.  

She revisits the debate between Mahatma Gandhi and B.R. Ambedkar on caste and inter-dining. To address the issue of controversy over beef eating, she quotes from Ambedkar’s book The Untouchables which focuses on the reason Brahmins chose to practice vegetarianism and renounce the ritual of animal sacrifice. She also refers to one of the most revered food historians in India, Kollegal Thammu Achaya who chronicled the origins of beef eating in India. 

Nandita Haksar writes this memoir with a humanitarian perspective, with a desire to bring awareness around the controversies and conflicts regarding food practices mired by the biases handed down to us. In the end she points out the pernicious caste system which gives Brahminism the justification for the denial of the right to dignity and equality to Dalits and tribal communities and opines that along with showing solidarity to the oppressed classes and communities, we must also recognise our own complicity in their exclusion.  

Nandita Haksar writes this memoir with a humanitarian perspective, with a desire to bring awareness around the controversies and conflicts regarding food practices mired by the biases handed down to us.

The Flavours of Nationalism – Recipe for Love, Hate and Friendship is the result of an unbinding faith in the hope of a future where, in Haksar’s words, Indian citizens may all learn to sit at the national table, eat together with dignity and where no one goes hungry. 


Reviewer’s Bio

Rakhi Dalal is an educator by profession. When not working, she can usually be found reading books or writing about reading them. She writes at https://rakhidalal.blogspot.com/ . She lives with her husband and a teenage son, who being sports lovers themselves are yet, after all these years, left surprised each time a book finds its way to their home.

One comment

  • Complelling Review Rakhi Ma’am.
    Since a lot of us are now living is a mixed society it can be easliy seen how food choices is being primarily being dictated by our caste-religion. Globalization is actually helping a lot of us to discover our varied taste buds.

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