Blood, Sweat and Joothan – The Gastronomical Dive into Dalit Identity

Joothan – a concept that roughly translates to leftovers, is the title adopted to one of the most honest, brutal accounts of the Dalit experience in India. This is how deep the actions have embedded themselves into entire bodies of identities. Even after 70 years of India’s independence, innumerable laws and constitutional remedies for wronged identities, caste continues to permeate the lifeblood of the country through tendril of foods – which replenishes vitality and vigour is categorically denied to our fellow human beings.

The Dalit delicacy is the delicacy of the discarded, the unacceptable of the “deserving” classes above in the cruel hierarchy of human life. Their palate is of the discarded remnants deemed unworthy of use in a proper civilised home cooked meal. As BR Ambedkar deftly summarizes the food hierarchy as “Those who do not eat flesh (at the top), those who eat non-vegetarian food other than beef (in the middle) and those who eat beef (at the bottom).” some of the popular items of the Dalit cuisine are coagulated blood or rakti, a common dish widely enjoyed by non Indian populations quite indiscriminately and not as marginalised foods. The blood is brought to a boil with oil and not a lot of spices was available for their perusal- spices were a luxury they could not afford. Wajadi is another such idiosyncratic delicacy, made by scrubbing the skin of the animal’s intestines ( vestiges the castes hierarchically superior do not deem fit for human consumption), cleaning the offal and adding salt and a little chilli powder to the mix for consumption.

“Be it land, water or food, Dalits never had any rights to anything. Food practices were never made out of choice (but were the fallout) of a lack of options. Pork and beef became part of the Dalit cuisine because it was easily available, because the upper castes didn’t want it,” says Deepa Balkisan Tak, assistant professor, Krantijyoti Savitribai Phule Women’s Studies Centre, University of Pune, while studying the seemingly irrelevant relation between the caste politics and the semantics of food. Dalits continue to be victimised over their predicament- as the cow belt of the country turns increasingly violent towards Dalit practises of consuming beef and pork. The latest NSSO figures reveal that more than 70% of the beef eating population is from the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes and only 1% is from the upper castes. As vigilante groups continue to unleash extrajudicial twisted vengeance on those who very literally are deprived of sections of easily, readily available alternate foodstuff through institutional machinations, Dalits face severe prosecution (an Amnesty International report calculates 70% victims of most hate crimes since the 2015 Dadri lynching case have been Dalits). In precarious situations such as these the Dalit identity and its intetwined politics of food assumes even more centrality in the broad spectrum of Dalit endurance and experience.

This Dalit-specific narrative is tied not simply to meats and spices but also to a curiously endemic rather ubiquitous item on most Indian kitchen – the onion. Onion has a history of being non Savarna food owing to its association with non Brahmanical identities such as Muslims and lower castes who spring generous helpings of onion and garlic to season a delightfully garish palate. Even Buddhist travellers such as Hiuen Tsang have chronicled ‘chandals’ ( lower castes exclusively selling meat and fish) living on the fringes of civilisations, sanctioned to enter only under a demarcation of discriminatory symbols. With the advent of the Sultanate, and consequently the Mughals, the rich cuisine with onion was popularised to some extent among the affluent class but there was hardly any dissipation of tension with context to the upper castes. Ritual purity of food continues to prevail and does to this day and age. A Hindu ‘virtuosity’ began to be cultivated in dismissal of very sparse usage of onion in mainstream culinary pursuits. Regualative Hindu manuscripts such as the Manusmriti recommended punitive prescriptions in case of failure in complying with food regulations – consuming onion and certain sorts of meat being one of them. The travails faced by Dalits in the past is adequately annotated in Dalit writer and filmmaker Rahee Punyashloka’s caption to a Dalit cuisine: “Culinary histories suggest onions to be the quintessential Dalit ‘vegetable’, with diverse Dalit cuisines and food traditions placing this humble vegetable as their basis.”

The Mahad Satyagraha remains one of those historic events that the mainstream narrative has glossed over. Another heartbreaking tale of discrimination and propagating existent power structures through systemic violence and control is what urged the peaceful retaliation that reverberates across space and time. While untouchability had been declared impermissible and illegal in all forms by our very constitution in Article 17 as a fundamental right, the Dalit populace was still deprived of the usage of common properties. Ambedkar chose Mahad as the centre of his peaceful revolt since the location continued to enjoy popular support of the Hindu nexus that was firmly against the democratisation and free availability of resources to the Dalits. The decision to drink water from the Chowder water tank which hundreds of his fellow protesters followed suit had a keen objective with a striking symbolic agenda- something as basic to survival and to the experience of being alive, the unconditionally binding water was denied to the Dalits among other ritualistic activities and lack of access to other public resources such as common transportation and entry into public common activity centres such as ostracizing in local markets and common haunts for interaction such as temples and other institutions of religious worship, parks and similarly designated areas. The protest was a quiet resolution to gnaw at accepted traditions of violence- with fruitful consequences. The Bombay high Court ruled that all sections of society were to use the tank freely without any fear or scrutiny.

The Dalit delicacy is paradoxically a separate as well as a similar venture to upper caste meals. Omprakash Valmiki in his landmark autobiography Joothan painfully reminisces : “After working hard day and night, the price of our sweat was just Joothan. And yet no one had any grudges. Or shame. Or repentance.” The Dalit identity and its inexplicable shaming at the “deserving” upper caste tables continues to produce strangely in-empathetic encounters. Language and class presumptions are worked against the Dalit favours- what is labelled the upper caste’s pork in a supposedly refined setting becomes the Dalit individual’s pig meat- braniding him an uncouth being to be shunned. Dalits continue to face the dilemma of preserving their gastronomical cultures, an attempt voiced in Chandra Bhan Prasad to launch an e-commerce website called Dalit Foods to gauge how the largely Savarna consumer would react to such an enterprise. They can choose to forget and to not follow the path of the sun-dried beef and pork intestines, to settle amid new memories rid of the trauma of birth and living itself. No matter what the poll on it states, it is high time society feels a modicum of empathy and fellow feeling at what humans continue to inflict on other humans.

– Bipasha Bhowmick

Picture Source: YouTube Clip

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