Haksar clarifies dominant Indian social problems inhibiting this dream: the caste system, religious rifts, Hindu extremism, racial and ethnic prejudices, and gendered divisions. In her writing, the author shows how a study of food culture can clarify social relations present in any society. In fact, until I read this book, I did not understand how simply divisions may be traced through food behaviours. For example, even the way tea is prepared and consumed will represent to what class and caste you belong, while eating dal directly from a serving spoon is both horrifying for Indian families yet a sign of bonding in Burmese culture. Haksar’s own choices and navigations - including defining which part of the world she can eat beef - is very telling of the cultures in each location.
We also concurrently follow a variety of transformations, distinctions, and differences organising people in India today, told through the stories of eating and sharing food. Some of these divisions are historical, others introduced through exacerbated extremism as well and global trade. Mass production and tourism has certainly taken an unfortunate toll on eating behaviours and practices. Through a personal narrative of these transformations experienced by Haksar herself, Flavours of Nationalism is a masterful and engaging socio-historical analysis of India as the country stands today.
Haksar, however, makes sure that you understand the differences possible within myriad Indian identities. While people may remain committed to their regional identities, there are in fact wide variations in such identities. The first chapter clarifies the variety of recipes and diets present even within a small area of Kashmir. As such, the concept of regional identity is itself fluid, adaptable, and interchangeable, much like how people may be themselves.
The writing of this book review is coincidental but relevant to the recent reforms on citizenship inclusion in India, an unfortunate and aggressive consequence of both Modi’s BJP parliament and the escalating divisions outlined through Haksar’s book. Haksar’s call to step back and reassess what injustices are indeed present within any society is therefore especially relevant and inspiring today. Indeed, she suggests that if everyone can break prejudices and discriminations to dine together, India can begin to be more democratic, secular and socialist.
Haksar beautifully describes food through a material culture framing. Only after reading this book did I understand how powerful a study of food culture may be. I can believe that simply paying attention to cultures and behaviours formed around the eating and sharing of food reduces any alien sentiment towards peoples. I thought it was particularly poignant, therefore, when Haksar questions: ‘Could culture and cuisines form a bridge between peoples belonging to different religions? Can appreciation and sharing of food become a way of forging friendships amongst diverse cultures and nations?’ Certainly appreciating the basic humanity of all peoples may be a way to bridge these divisions.