Monday, April 25, 2022

On Nico Slate's Gandhi's Search for the Perfect Diet

There are two kinds of people, the saying goes: those who eat to live, and those who live to eat. But over the course of a lifetime, each one of us is perhaps both kinds of person. One could just as easily discern a pattern in which human beings typically eat with a bias toward pleasure, taste, excess and conformity in the first half of their lives, before gradually listing towards seeing food through the prisms of health, nutritional value, novelty, and diversity, as well as dietary questions of a social and political nature and a sense of the importance of tradition in cooking and eating. Hyper-aware and pleasure- virtue-signalling moderns, we are sometimes both these people on the same day.

But whichever way you look at it, our relationship with diet and consumption is profoundly detailed and layered, encompassing our deepest, most primitive instincts, our childhood memories, centuries of culture and tradition, and large social and political crosscurrents. As our relationship to our own bodies and to the world changes over the course of a lifetime, so does our thinking about food.

And modern consumer society makes huge demands on our eating lives — both in the negative sense of continuously presenting us with scores of tempting food choices, many of them unhealthy, that we must discipline ourselves to resist, and in the more positive one of offering us culinary possibilities from the entire world and the chance to grow and learn from the experience of traditions not our own. In England, when I combine in a single morning a visit to Sainsbury’s with the South Asian and East Asian and Caribbean supermarkets, I often come away with the same feeling of gastronomic pleasure and possibility that I did intellectually as a student when I visited the Cambridge University Library (home to a few million books, and therefore all the knowledge acquired by humanity).

But I also find myself asking many questions, as I’m sure you do when you shop for food. Pleasurable though it is to eat, what is the carbon footprint of the Chinese pear or Brazilian mango in my shopping bag? Do microwave meals cut down time in the kitchen and allow harried parents a spot of leisure, or do they help create a convenience culture of culinary illiteracy and dependence on processed food? What food system is better for farmers and food sellers: The highly consolidated, corporatized, imports-oriented model of the West or the much more diversified and localized but disorderly one of India, with its millions of small farmers with a deep relationship to the land but without proper access to (or any power over) markets and often themselves living in food insecurity? With every meal that I put on the table, what ripples in the food universe do I create or participate in?

These questions have acquired a deeper resonance for me since reading Gandhi’s Search for the Perfect Diet, the American scholar Nico Slate’s deep, wise book about the eating life of one of the moral giants of the modern world. Very few people think of Mahatma Gandhi as an authority on food. His emaciated figure seems, if anything, to suggest a lifetime of ignoring the rich and varied culinary delights of the Indian subcontinent. And, of course, he was vegetarian too; he never knew the pleasure of a Lucknowi galouti kabab, a Bengali daab chingri, a Peshawari raan, a Konkani surmai rava fry, or a fiery Kerala crab roast. Sad.

But, as Slate shows, Gandhi was, in his own way, an extremely ambitious eater -- even a peculiar kind of gourmet -- continuously experimenting with new foods and new dietary combinations throughout his life. Although brought up in a strict vegetarian environment, he lived for 25 years of his adult life in vegetarian-unsympathetic England and South Africa, becoming part of the small vegetarian and radical countercultures in these countries (meaning that, even while eating less food than most, he had a more varied and cosmopolitan diet than most).

Food was an integral part of Gandhi’s politics and spirituality. Sometimes he changed his diet to identify with an oppressed community, such as when he started eating mealie pap, a corn porridge that was a staple of the Blacks of South Africa, after first resisting it when given it in jail. When the relationship between sugar, slavery and empire became clear to him, he stopped eating sweets. And when he wanted the people of India to rise up unitedly against the British Raj, he launched an agitation for their right to produce their own salt, a basic necessity of life that was produced and heavily taxed by the state.

A critic of many aspects of modernity, Gandhi also criticized the growing industrialization of food culture. He pointed out that eating highly processed food was not only unhealthy, but that it could also insulate the consumer from inequalities and injustices in the chain of production. The raw food, organic food and local food movements of our time can all find an ally in him.

Gandhi strived all his life for mastery of his palate, believing that gluttony was a symbol of indiscipline and spiritual corruption, not to mention unhealthy and unseemly in a world where so many people do not have enough food to eat. He was highly impressed by those who kept fasts, believing that fasting was not only good for health, but that it also developed self-mastery. Sometimes, Slate points out, his austerity and quest for dietary perfection could become obsessive — almost an egotism of sacrifice and renunciation. Yet he was alive to the social and pleasure-giving power of food and — for someone who ate so little — he gave, or attended, a surprisingly large number of dinner parties.

Most importantly, unlike many food (and other) crusaders of today, Gandhi was not arrogant and inflexible about his moral positions on diet. For such a passionate vegetarian, he was a greatly tolerant one. To those who defended meat-eating, he asked only that they make an effort to eat less meat. “Understanding Gandhi’s diet," writes Slate, "is… to connect two of history’s perennial questions: How to live and what to eat.” It might be hard for ordinary people like you and me to subject their diet to such rigor and moral ambition. But we could all do with inviting Gandhi, metaphorically speaking, to dinner.

And two old posts on The Middle Stage: on Rajmohan Gandhi's biography of Gandhi, and on Gandhi's autobiography.

Tuesday, April 05, 2022

On Upendranath Ashk's Girti Deevarein

In the novel form’s capacious chest of mysteries, one intriguing phenomenon is the attraction of so many novelists who call themselves realists to protagonists who are anything but. (Of course, they can be “realists” in different senses, but equally, sometimes they are not.) Like all paradoxes, this one too points to an important truth.

From Cervantes onwards, naïve protagonists in fiction, their hearts full of great dreams and noble ideals, believing that a more just world can be realised, often rudely schooled in worldly truths by the cynical, provide a point of view on human nature that eventually unsettles the reader just as much as their fictional milieu unsettles them. Of course, they may come across as purely comic if they, like Don Quixote, refuse to learn anything at all. But equally, should they learn to adapt themselves completely to their circumstances, we sense something tragic about their pragmatism, like that of a parrot that has made peace with living in a cage. And so their education has not been in vain, for even as these characters become more worldly-wise, we feel the need to defend or rescue exactly what they are abandoning. It is a good template for a story...I feel it myself as I write this schema out.

Something like this narrative arc – one says “something” because this 500-page novel is nevertheless only a fragment of a massive, seven-volume story, and much remains to be realized in the “future” of the story – appears in Girti Deevarein (Falling Walls) by Upendranath Ashk. Ashk was one of the leading lights of Hindi literature in the twentieth century, and remains, alongside Premchand and Yashpal, one of the realist Hindi novel’s holy trinity. The Girti Deevarein series was his great novelistic project: the story of five years in the life of a highly sensitive young man that he hoped would also become a portrait of the age.

Here is a writer, therefore, who is no hurry at all. (How was he to know that his first readers in English would be reading him decades later in a time when there is time for nothing, and especially not novels?) For three or four hundred pages, all we are given are the torments of the provincial young protagonist, Chetan, in the town of Jalandhar as he flaps, stumbles, falls, and gets up again, buffeted by the storms of family, education, livelihood, poverty, marriage – and his own questing self, which will not allow him to accept easy answers to his questions, even as it cannot reject the dictates of convention.

Brutalized by a belligerent, hard-drinking father who is nevertheless perfectly secure about his place in the world, Chetan knows he can never become the same kind of man. But has no sense of what kind of man to become instead. He needs time to grow into a place of independence, but meanwhile time is a rope steadily twisting tighter knots around him: a wife who does not represent what he wants in a woman, a job in a newspaper that bears no resemblance to what he seeks from work. He is tormented both by his feelings of towards women who cross his path – most notably his own sister-in-law, Neela – and by his inability to do anything about them. Not having a strong sense of self, he repeatedly places his trust in older men who seem to represent some kind of power or virtue. But each one of these engagements leads him only to a further revelation of “the duplicity of the age.”

Above him, another figure seems to proceed much more serenely: the narrator, building up in painstaking (and occasionally pointless) detail the surfaces and structures of lower middle-class life in undivided Punjab in the nineteen-thirties. We are in a universe of galis and mohallas, charpoys and turbans, thundering patriarchs, downcast mothers, the frames of karma and dharma, the Arya Samaj and the Congress party, a glass of milk before bed and one set of new clothes every year. Men prefer the company of men, women only open up to other women, and both sexes sublimate their unactable yearnings in story or song or silence. Late in the book, at a restaurant in Shimla, we learn that Chetan “tasted salad for the first time in his life” – a novel taste in a world where milk reigns over not just meals but metaphors, and the prevalent theory of parenting holds “that the curses of a mother and father are like drops of milk and ghee.”

Daisy Rockwell, Ashk’s greatly involved and touchingly partisan translator (she has also written a critical biography of the writer, and published a collection of his stories called Hats and Doctors), has elsewhere compared Ashk to Proust. The resemblance is certainly worth contemplating. Both writers wrote a seven-volume novel sequence that remained unfinished; the theme of In Search of Lost Time is also the development of a nervous and questing young man into an artist; and both protagonists return obsessively to the fevered climate of their childhoods.

But the fundamental difference between the two writers is that Proust’s story is told in the first person by the protagonist, who by the force and beauty and peculiarity of his obsessions succeeds in converting us to his poetic vision of reality, while Ashk’s narrator shows us Chetan from the outside as the prisoner of his circumstances, and reality in Ashk’s world remains stubbornly prosaic and mean. The workings of memory are central to the narrative method of both writers. But the dozens of flashbacks into Chetan’s childhood in Girti Deevarein reveal not just of a character who seeks refuge from his own present, but also a writer wrestling with his own rather rudimentary technique and generating more mass than meaning.

About a hundred pages from the end, though, the writing suddenly takes wing, and Chetan’s difficulties with the world suddenly begin to be marked by insight rather than incoherence. Glimmering observations begin to appear about the relationship between art and life, self and society, religion and morality. Trying, for instance, to compare the boy Chetan’s genuine love of nature with the adult Chetan’s equally genuine love of art, the narrator observes that “with art, he found what he couldn’t attain in nature: self-expression” and that “Art is really the daughter of nature.”

The story builds up to a devastating denouement. After having meditated for long upon his discontents, Chetan decides that he is at fault for the emotional distance between him and his wife. He resolves to make a genuine effort to scale the wall of gender difference so deeply built into marriage by tradition, and make his wife not his slave but his friend.

Just then, though, comes the news that Neela, his sister-in-law, is about to be married off at a very young age. And Chetan remembers that it was he himself who, having nearly committed a misdemeanour with Neela, had advised her father to have her married off and in so doing, congratulated himself on his own powers of restraint.

Now, attending the wedding, he sees that the girl is being married off to a well-off, well-over-the -hill widower. Yearning for a genuine soulmate himself, he has just ensured that another human being will forever be denied one. Yet again Chetan feels hapless, but there is a difference: he feels hapless for the sake of someone else. And in the same breath he ceases to lie to himself.
The naked truth appeared before him. He was in love with Neela. Despite a year and a half of married life, he loved her….Intelligence, religion, morality, society, marriage – all those walls which in reality had kept his desire hidden from him had fallen in his imagination.
Watching these walls fall so dramatically, one moves from asking more of Ashk to asking for more Ashk.