Tag Archives: casteism

Book Review: Love, Loss, And What We Ate by Padma Lakshmi

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The muse writes back, and is far more generous about the marriage than the artist was. Maligned in ex-husband Salman Rushdie’s memoir Joseph Anton, model and culinary savant Padma Lakshmi tells her side of the story, along with a handful of comfort food recipes. Love, Loss, And What We Ate opens on a promising, often evocative, footing.

She’s gracious through the recounting of her high profile marriage and divorce, compelling when talking about her early childhood and fiercely independent mother, and canny in her self-deprecations (“silly little cookbook”). Her descriptions of life within her grandmother’s kitchen are charming and familiar. Even a chutney of discarded citric rinds as a metaphor for how her grandmother dealt with the bitterness of marriage doesn’t ring twee.

So when a shockingly problematic streak shows up about a third of the way through the book, the reader who has rooted for her all along stumbles. The first trace of trouble is when Lakshmi extends her experience of racial discrimination as an immigrant schoolchild to her country of origin. For her to say that she is considered dark-skinned in Tamil society is disingenuous, to say the least. And she backs this with this bombshell: “my extended family urged me to avoid the sun… out of fear that my skin would darken to the shade of an Untouchable..”

While we’re still reeling at her word choice, we’re introduced to her second stepdad Peter, whom she hates. He is a “lower-caste” Fijian Indian, with a “crude, beast-like ignorance”. What follows includes references to his “stench”, his “ugly” Hindi accent, and “some inferior poni grain” he eats instead of basmati. She wants her mother to be with someone more “cultured”.

This vitriol is reserved for only for Peter, who is still her mother’s partner, as well as her own daughter Krishna’s favourite grandparent. By contrast, her mother’s second husband, whom she divorces when he doesn’t believe that a relative of his has molested the young Padma, is merely “pretty darn handsome”. The casteism, classism and colourism on display are guilelessly entitled, with neither self-reflectivity nor shame.

The author – well-travelled, well-heeled, well-connected, speaker of half a dozen languages and self-proclaimed bookworm – has no excuse for her lack of sociopolitical intelligence or conscience. At the very least, somewhere between her late partner Teddy Forstmann’s philanthropy and the Rousseau she thanks Rushdie for handing her in the acknowledgements, a little tact would have served her well.

Perhaps unable to recoup after this ethical failure, or perhaps because Lakshmi’s early style gradually gives way to a tabloid-friendly one, the narrative simply begins to bore.

And then she chucks another jawdropper. The first non-breast milk meal Lakshmi gives her daughter are a few sips beef broth at a hawker stall in Singapore. The result? Brahmin guilt. “I prided myself on how well one could eat following a Hindu Brahmin lacto-vegetarian diet. I had extolled its virtues on many occasions and truly believed in its merits. I know what had happened, while an accident, was also karmic retribution for all the bodies of animals I had consumed in my life and career in food”. Yes, really.

Who would have known that the saffron brigade had an ally in the glamourous Lakshmi, who without irony refers to her ex-husband as a “fundamentalist atheist” and to herself, repeatedly, as a “secular Hindu”? After watching the author eat everything from live snails to her own placenta, it’s the reader who’s left with a bad taste in the mouth.

Love, Loss, And What We Ate is really a book about men – a series of partners whose influence and guidance shaped Lakshmi’s life. She plays the ingénue often, and credits everything from her sartorial sense to her gastronomical savvy, and even this — her writing — to a lover. She does not memorably detail even a single non-related female friendship or mentorship. Most disappointingly of all, as co-founder of the Endometriosis Foundation of America, Lakshmi speaks only about her experience of the disease, not the work of the foundation, or its impact. With the exception of her mother, she does not weave in other female narratives of struggle and success – be they on the catwalk, in the culinary world, or in any of the many spheres of her experience. Her feminism begins and ends with the desire to date more than one man at once – a desire she quickly regrets once she realises she doesn’t know who has fathered her child.

But there is a singular feminist saving grace in this memoir, and that is the other Ms. Lakshmi – her mother. Vijaya Lakshmi’s journey is a tale of its own, beginning with an arranged marriage in which the groom cheats on her on their wedding day, and a divorce after which she endures a two year separation from her child. Upon her arrival in the US, she takes her mother’s name as a surname, abandons her limited diet, dates and falls in love, has the courage to leave marriages, explores what the world has to offer, and even takes her daughter to a nudist beach. None of this is typical for her generation, and in the Chennai they still call home, it isn’t even typical for her daughter’s. It is the story of this dedicated nurse – who keeps fruits in the fridge for her terminal patients, and manages somehow to save enough money to give her daughter Indian vacations, skating rinks, and myriad pleasures – that is ultimately the maverick one.

An edited version appeared in The Hindu Business Line’s BLink.

The Venus Flytrap: The Casual Casteism Of The Term ‘TamBrahm’

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It was a night like so many others in my mid-twenties. My friends were already at the dimly-lit club, along with a very young couple, new to the clique. I was the last to arrive, and much inebriation had already taken place. “You must be a Tam-Brahm too, right?” asked the cheerful girl, shortly after we’d been introduced. Before I could launch into the response that my friends could expect of me, her boyfriend piped up: “No, she’s not. Brahmins don’t keep names like Manivannan.”

This is true – my surname comes from the Tamil bhakti movement; it’s in the verses of the Azhwars, including the foxy and mysterious Andal’s. Do I like my father’s name? Sure, I do. Am I proud of it? No, because pride is about achievement. I did nothing to achieve a poetic surname, just as my companions that evening had done nothing (not even karmically!) to be ranked upper caste. I was struck that a young person in a casual, urban social setting, that too in a state of intoxication, had maintained such a sound grip on how to peg people quickly. And the infuriating, ugly question thus raised: what could my caste background possibly mean to that setting?

Don’t get me wrong, it was a nice evening. But it was also an encounter that in many ways exemplified how caste still holds its gridlock in the minds of otherwise cosmopolitan – and even very lovely – people. I was raised abroad, of mixed heritage and caste-oblivious; I never encountered it as a personal marker until I tried to apply to college in India, at almost 20. This too was a privilege. Once I moved to Chennai, I found that almost all my friends came from atop the caste pyramid. This was not incidental: it spoke to the fact that the artsy, alternative, more affluent circles (what a Venn diagram; why aren’t our associations more diverse?) that I moved in were thus dominated. I was among the very few odd ones out, and was made, suddenly, very aware. Even if I hadn’t chosen to educate myself, there were countless slips, suggestions and jabs that reinforced the need.

I can relate several more of them to prove my point, but instead I’ll make a request: it’s time to retire the term “Tam-Brahm”. Don’t try to make a horrible thing sound hip. That it rhymes doesn’t make the history – or the present – it references any cooler, or more palatable.

When you sit with me – or to put a fine point on it, anyone who is not like you – in a conversation and cavalierly place the words “Tam-Brahm” on the table, it is more than just an uncomfortable allusion. It is a subtle act of aggression. Through this ID, what you make clear to me (perhaps unconsciously) are your rank in a hierarchy versus mine, your defensiveness about the caste system, your negating of centuries of violence, oppression and inhumanity, and most of all, your unapologetic embrace of all the same.

Casteism will not die until caste does. And you are so much more than what your ancestors did to other people – including, perhaps, to mine.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on March 17th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

Book Review: Bhimayana by Durgabai Vyam, Subhash Vyam (illustrations) and Srividya Natarajan, S. Anand (text)

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Midway through Bhimayana, the upper caste man whose complaint about not being able to find a job thanks to the quota system asks the woman who has engaged him in debate, “How come we don’t read about all this in our history books?” The question throws light on this graphic novel on the whole: a deeply polemic text in the guise of a beautiful comic book, its primary impetus is the construction of pedagogy. It’s tempting to forget this, and lose oneself in the many little joys that Gond tribal artists Durgabai and Subhash Vyam have brought to its pages – a water tank that grows eyes and becomes Ganesh-like on the next page, the assortment of animals and trees pretty as fabric prints, and the much-praised dispensing of the conventional panel/box format altogether. It’s tempting, but also difficult, because it’s not so much that Bhimayana tries to rectify history than that it tries to reinvent a decontextualised present. Its overarchingly simplistic, almost absolutely dichotomized narrative of heroes and villains may suit its physical form, but not its purposes.

The trouble begins with the nature of the discussion that leads into the story of Bhimrao Ambedkar. Rather than open with the iconic activist’s life itself, he is introduced to us via a difficult contemporary question: affirmative action policies. The setting is an Indian city of the present day, and the frustrated job-seeker and his bespectacled companion are waiting for a bus. One assumes that the target audience for this book is an Indian one, then, and that the practical complications of imagining an India free of the hideous hegemony of caste will be addressed satisfactorily.

This isn’t the case – by the end of the book, one is left not stirred by hope, but disturbed by the vocabulary of the struggle. This includes everything from the use of a phrase like “India’s hidden apartheid”, which suggests that casteism is an institutionalized, legally sanctified segregation in our country rather than a socially abetted one, to the vilification of Gandhi as someone who “could afford a first class ticket in a foreign country” without a counterpart explanation of how Ambedkar went from not being allowed to drink water at his school to studying at foreign universities.

And the explanation is necessary, as the book is clearly for a foreign audience, and while caste is an indubitably evil system, it plays out in Indian society in ways that are more complex than this book chooses to deal with. But this also makes it quite suitable for children, with its very basic writing, and an odd mix of occasional rhyme and incongruent speech patterns that does strike a charming and whimsical chord. The intriguing artwork, of course, is a major plus point.

But the ultimate lack of political sophistication when dealing with such loaded subject matter remains disturbing. Bhimayana’s end result contains just little too much vitriol, a little too much victim vogue. And just not enough vision to live up to the story of Ambedkar himself – a hero who deserves celebration not as a divisive force, but as an example for everybody. And therein lies its fundamental problem: it’s not enough to say that casteism exists and to recapitulate newspaper reports and statistics about this fact. The fact is not in doubt. The solution is. Bhimayana neither posits nor inspires one. Its methodology of hero-worship as a means of engendering change smacks of party propaganda, while missing in all of this is a sense of the one thing that will truly eradicate the problem in the long run: compassion, love and respect for all humanity.

An edited version appeared in today’s The New Sunday Express.