Parama Roy. Alimentary Tracts: Appetites, Aversions, and the Postcolonial. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010. x + 277 pp. $84.95 (c), $23.95 (p).
Rev. by Sumangala Bhattacharya
As the punning title of Parama Roy’s book suggests, food represents both corporeality and textuality, both body and culture. Alimentary Tracts interrogates the critical role that food, eating, aversions, hungers, and excesses have played in reconfigurations of South Asian identities from the mid-nineteenth century to the subcontinent’s emergence into global modernity. Roy argues that alimentation is not only biological but constitutes a “gastropolitics” that illuminates fundamental aspects of the imperial, postcolonial, and global diasporic identities of South Asia. Serving as a contact zone for the colonial encounter, the alimentary tract not only enabled the development of “new forms of appetite” and “new technologies of the embodied self,” but also became a boundary that was both policed and regularly breached.
The book is organized around four tropes of alimentation, each of which is associated with a historical moment in the development of South Asian modernity: disgust and the Mutiny of 1857; abstention and Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s strategies of nonviolent protest expressed through vegetarianism and fasting; dearth and the continuum linking the Bengal famine of 1943-44 with the failures and violence of the postcolonial state, especially with regard to the access of the tribal poor to food and water; and appetite and the late twentieth-century flourishing of Indian gastronomy in a globalized culture of abundance.
The first chapter is of particular interest to scholars of Victorian studies. Roy argues that the Mutiny of 1857 makes apparent an anxiety about sexual and dietary contamination that is recuperated by the development of “an aesthetics of distance and disgust,” based on hygiene on the part of Anglo-Indians and on religious pollution on the part of Indians. She analyzes the semiotics of the various foods associated with the Mutiny as revelatory of the “psychopolitical arrangements of the colonial order” in which Anglo-Indian fears about disease spread by native filth were balanced by Indian fears of religious violation from foods purposely contaminated by the colonial state. Roy reads the Mutiny as a narrative of alimentary boundaries imposed and breached. The circulating chapattis, the contaminated salt and flour, and the infamous cartridge grease that was supposed to have sparked the rebellion structure a “digestive troping” (akin to the more widely discussed sexual trope of the rape of English women by native men).
While the Mutiny is well-traversed terrain within Victorian studies of the empire, Roy draws attention to elements obscured by the emphasis on the trope of sexual and gendered violence. For instance, one learns that the role of salt was crucial in the Mutiny, since salt was both an essential condiment in the Indian diet and a foodstuff charged with implications of hospitality and reciprocity. One of the socio-economic triggers of the event lay in the early nineteenth-century imposition of a colonial government monopoly on salt production, accompanied by severe penalties for violators and high taxes. Bazaar rumors of government-manufactured salt deliberately contaminated with the blood of cows and pigs (thus odious to both Hindus and Muslims) in an attempt to convert Indians to Christianity further exacerbated anti-government sentiments. However, all such details come to us from Anglo-Indian accounts of the Mutiny. Roy’s caution that the Indian experience of the event for the most part “belongs to the obscurity of an irretrievably subaltern past” is a point well taken.
Also welcome is Roy’s attention to the nuances of caste-based behaviors in accounts of bodily traumas experienced by both Anglo-Indians and Indians in the Mutiny and counter-insurgency. For Anglo-Indians, the shocking effect of the Mutiny lay in the breakdown of the hierarchical barriers that protected European bodies from dirt, labor, and violence. Mutiny narratives repeatedly describe the somatic experiences of Anglo-Indians forced to cope with the horrors of siege and imprisonment, conditions in which Anglo-Indians who had hitherto been sheltered by racial privilege were forced to live adjacent to dirt, bodily smells, excrement and waste, garbage, and human remains. Roy astutely observes that in descriptions of such traumas, Anglo-Indians seem to have internalized a caste-based sensibility such that the loss of privileges of race and class is conveyed as caste-based degradations. For instance, an account of the Mutiny cited in the chapter laments that the women imprisoned in Cawnpore by Nana Saheb were served their poor rations by low-caste menials generally assigned to sweeping the latrines. In the ferocious counter-insurgency launched by British troops, reprisals often took on a caste-based character in what Roy argues is “the appropriation of caste against the caste-bound.” Imaginative tortures and executions strove to ensure that the victim would undergo ritual desecration before death and that their living kin would thereby suffer as well. Roy’s contention is that the Mutiny forced a rearrangement of embodied practices of eating and elimination in ways that enacted the structure of caste prohibitions and violations.
The intersections of food, caste, and politics return in the discussion of vegetarianism and fasting deployed in Gandhi’s politics as resistance to the consumption-oriented materialism of colonial modernity. Roy aptly points out that Gandhi’s dietary experiments should be understood as a corporeal practice of abstinence and renunciation. Vegetarianism meant the willed refusal of the “erotics of meat eating,” a philosophy adopted during and as a response to his student days in London in the 1890s. As Roy points out, Gandhi was influenced as much by the familial and regional prohibitions against meat eating as he was by exposure to the small but flourishing vegetarian culture in late nineteenth-century London. Roy productively draws attention to how Gandhi’s philosophy and practice developed through encounters with the radical and utopian movements in Britain in the late Victorian and Edwardian periods.
The shaping influence of the colonial context is apparent in Roy’s last two chapters on twentieth-century developments. The Naxalite uprising of the 1960s and 1970s in support of peasants and tribal peoples and the brutal counter-insurgency measures of the postcolonial state echo the Mutiny narratives. In analyzing Bengali writer Mahasweta Devi’s fictions of hunger and dispossession, Roy finds that Victorian questions of “moral economy and moral calculation” encoded in the postcolonial state’s humanitarian responses are countered by a logic of gift-giving that eludes the circuits of economic exchange. In her final chapter, Roy considers the colonial resonances in the culinary writings of Madhur Jaffrey, and the “staying power” of the colonial invention of curry powder in defining and opposing the narratives of Indian culinary authenticity.
In each chapter, Roy’s book offers a rich assortment of readings and theoretical insights on the vexed politics of food in the development of colonial and postcolonial identities of South Asia. It also brings together a truly impressive bibliography of scholarship on issues of food, eating, embodied practices, power, and colonialism. However, the book covers a lot of ground very fast, and the connections between disparate elements seem at times to be a tantalizing assemblage of insights rather than a coherent argument about South Asian identity formation through embodied practices of alimentation. Nevertheless, for scholars of the nineteenth century, the analyses provide a compelling reminder that the present is always haunted by the past.
Sumangala Bhattacharya is an Assistant Professor of British Literature at Pitzer College in Claremont, California. She is the author of several articles on Victorian literature and culture. Her research and teaching interests center on issues of gender and colonialism, and she has a special interest in the Gothic. She is currently working on a book project on the representations of hunger and famine in the nineteenth century.