For theatre artist Sri Vamsi Matta, cooking as an act of remembering, as performance, and as a communal experience, are ways of asserting his identity and defying everyday injustices.
‘Come Eat with Me’, uttered by a Dalit person, compels me to think immediately of a history of refusal.
I think of all the times I opened my tiffin box, eager to impress my Upper Caste schoolmates, only to meet avoidance, awkward glances, and flimsy excuses. I think of the feast after my grandfather’s funeral rites. How ‘the village people’ would not show up, and my parents and aunties would wait and wait. I think of Bhanwar Meghwanshi, whose fellow kar sevaks threw away the food he had prepared for them with love; and how the discovery of this wasted food was the foundational moment in his decision to leave the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh).
‘Come Eat with Me’ sounds like something Sahodaran Ayyappan could have shouted on the eve of Misra Bhojanam, the inter-caste dining event that he organised on 27th May, 1917, which drew the ire of multiple conservative factions who proceeded to ‘boycott’ him. When I began writing this piece, I wanted to place Sri Vamsi Matta’s performance piece Come Eat with Me in a direct lineage with S. Ayyappan’s historic public event. I expected an emphatic confirmation of this, that yes, it is indeed so, when I spoke to him, but Vamsi agreed only partly.
“Of course there are these historical continuities.” Vamsi said. “But in many ways, my play, and the experience I want to facilitate through it is much more urgent, more personal. It is about reacting to the here and the now, responding, at this exact moment through cooking as an act of remembering.”
He highlights how there is as much discontinuity and forgetting that informs our food practices, if not more, as there are straightforward historical linkages. So much lost and irretrievable, so much that the archive refuses to register. “How could I not invest as much of that into my performance and my cooking? How could I not attempt to transform a history that reduces me to my immediate being?”
Whenever people from oppressed identities get together, the conversation invariably, naturally, flows toward a discussion of all the asymmetries that govern our respective existence. Of what we are ‘allowed’ to do or say before society deems us a problem. Of all the big and little freedoms, that are societally proffered only upon those considered ‘normal’, ‘dominant’, ‘mainstream’.
For Dalit people, this conversation has always featured food. An enduring asymmetry that weighs heavily on each of our spirits is regarding how we nostalgiate about foods of our childhood. Every Dalit person, no matter how ‘extraordinary’, how ‘illustrious’, how ‘successful’ they may be, has tales of culinary secrets, of fraught lineages of foods, and of (forcefully) displaced and discarded eating habits and practices.
Nostalgia for food, the kind that may be freely propagated everywhere and anywhere as one pleases, has almost exclusively been the domain of Upper Caste, upper class elites. For people like me and Vamsi, this nostalgia remains systemically forbidden. There is no proud declaration of “in my village this is how it was done.” There is no “my grandmother prepared it this way.” Culinary homelessness. Nostalgia refugees waiting for a visa.
Vamsi’s play addresses these plethora of feelings, while conserving all this knottiness, this heaviness. “There is only one logical solution,” he says. “In order to present our food with all of these complexities intact, to actualise all of the intangibles of the many facets, we must insist that our food is literally art, and that every act of cooking that we undertake is a meticulously curated performance.”
If we consider the broad socio-political reality today, the situation seems rather grim. Ayyappan’s ‘mixed feast’ was one of the slew of well documented inter-caste dining events that were undertaken by anti-caste revolutionaries across South Asia in the twentieth century, with the hope that it would erode the practice of segregation of food habits based around caste. And yet, it is impossible to miss the fact that we have made little progress.
It is not uncommon to find news articles today that highlight a patent refusal from Upper Caste school children to consume mid-day meals made by a Dalit cook. Blanket bans on non-vegetarian food are ubiquitous in public institutions and private companies’ cafeterias, despite overwhelming data suggesting that the majority of Indians—the Bahujans—are, and have always been, practising non-vegetarians. It is nigh impossible to find tenancy in gated neighbourhoods which do not impose some form of culinary censure, owing to the overwhelming consolidation of landowning at the hands of a few historically privileged castes.
Conversely, there is the ubiquity of restaurants, eateries, and food products that boast of their upper caste identities in the poshest parts of each major city. These are only a few of the many, many residues that caste leaves, and which in turn are perpetual points of contention for a Dalit person as they try to ‘remember’ their own culinary lifeworld.
In such a situation, it is quite sensible for a Dalit person invested in food to feel despair. In my reflections elsewhere, I try to circumvent this despair into an ironic posture—that look, despite all your caste arrogance and ritual forbidding of what to eat, the most exquisite articles of fine dining are actually food items that we, the Dalits, have consumed forever. But hidden beneath the thin layer of irony, the despair is clear to see. Which is why I am taken aback when Vamsi insists on the feeling of joy, in regards to how he performs Come Eat with Me.
A fundamental characteristic of Vamsi’s play is its interactive structure. Audience members bring their own dishes, dishes that hold deep value for them, and the final act of the play resembles something akin to a potluck. Once the stage is set with the dishes that everyone has brought, as well as a set of anti-caste paraphernalia Vamsi has curated, he begins his performance.
He starts to unpack tales from his childhood and community that illuminate the complex ways in which food has been circumscribed and limited in our everyday lives due to the inescapable throes of caste. He narrates the pain, the profound sense of loss, but also the remarkable ingenuity that these adversities fostered. The centerpiece of Vamsi’s play is a chicken curry that he cooks, basing it on his mother’s recipe. Her ingenuity lay in substituting the rich cashew paste—synonymous with lavish cooking in coastal Andhra Pradesh where he’s from—with a paste of poppy seeds, far cheaper, and readily available.
Vamsi then elaborates on how this act of in situ innovation becomes a symptom for the many ways in which Dalit households make use of whatever is readily available to reinvent and enrich their own culinary lifeworlds, unencumbered by the pathos of tradition, and the rigid conservatism of how a dish ‘ought to be made’.
The audience, which for the first few shows was primarily comprised of others from marginalised backgrounds, was encouraged to interact, and respond with their own tales of how food and, in some cases, the lack thereof, has shaped them. They described their own respective struggles, and innovative departures from the dominant idea of what a particular dish ought to be.
Several audience members from oppressed caste backgrounds concurred that they felt a little less culinarily impoverished at the end of the play, having undergone a shift in how they remember and reconstitute their own act of eating food through the lens of the larger systems that bind us. The ‘end of the play’, which entails eating together the food that had been laid out, becomes a collective cathartic moment. The overwhelming emotion that runs through the audience is not of melancholy or grief—even if they were constitutive elements throughout the performance’s duration—but of joy.
“Vamsi puts it thus, “In my act, through my recipes and stories, I am laying down my truth. The audience has so far responded to this affirmatively, and they bring in as much of themselves as I do of me. Through the act of community forged in interacting with my audience, through the act of cooking and relishing these dishes together, we are proclaiming our individual culinary legacies to be as historical as any other dominant idea of a national dish.”
How can this fact be anything but joyous?” His insistence forces me to try and think of joy differently.
The philologist in me tries to look at the word’s history. Turns out, a lesser known etymology of the word joy refers to a Middle English origin—the phrase joyen—which, in turn, is a now-obsolete phrase that signifies ‘joining’. An act of joy as an act of joining. The conjoining of more than one to form a triumphant, devouring body. One’s pronunciation of rejoice intractably joined with a sense of community. Being together as a preposition to the possibility of happiness.
I start to understand Vamsi’s postulate a little better. Come Eat with Me, and only then, together, shall we experience joy.
Rahee Punyashloka is a Dalit writer, researcher, artist, and filmmaker. He creates anti-caste art and discourse under the moniker ‘artedkar’.
THE LOCAVORE CHAMPIONS
To learn to do good through food, we also turn to others for inspiration. The Locavore Champions is our way of gathering stories of people who create meaningful change in the Indian food system.