Why Write About Food?

“Vamika, you’re such a good writer — what are you doing writing about sandwiches and quiches?”

This is a valid question. Why am I not using my slightly-above-average literary prowess to discuss heftier dilemmas, like campus issues or feminism or, even … politics? Why waste time ruminating on the price of a pasta dish? It all seems so frivolous, impractical, useless.

The prolific food writer M. F. K. Fisher is often asked similar questions: Why do you write about food, and eating and drinking? Why don’t you write about the struggle for power and security, and about love, the way others do? She says that these questioners ask accusingly, but she has a ready answer: “It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it … and then the warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied … and it is all one.”

In freshman year, I somewhat dubiously enrolled in the First Year Writing Seminar class called Street Food with Professor Deepak Unnikrishnan. Most people think this class just entails weekly jaunts around Abu Dhabi, scarfing down shawarmas and karak and Chips Oman sandwiches and then writing cute little reviews about them.

This is true — partially. My class journal is filled with snapshots of tea ceremony workshops, food truck burgers and bowls of Emirati luqaimat, complete with tweet-size captions describing the various tastes I’ve encountered during these past few weeks. Our assignments are like bold, commanding treasure hunts — Find the best and cheapest cup of coffee in the city. Where does one go for good Uzbek food? Or Armenian cuisine? Dig out an Emirati folktale about food.

To be perfectly honest, during the first couple of weeks of the semester, I had no idea what I was doing — or learning. Look! I found the best karak in the city! Now what? Isn’t this supposed to be an intensive writing class? Aren’t we supposed to emerge, like butterflies fresh out of the cocoon, as great architects of arguments, armed with intense theses and an even more intense knowledge of grammar? I was having trouble fathoming how visiting food trucks, for example, would transform me into a refined academic writer.

I kept my concerns largely to myself because our professor always seemed to have this mysterious little smile on his face implying that he knew way more than he — and the syllabus — let on. A common refrain within our class was that it’s not really about the food. We somehow needed to think beyond the plate.

But as we discussed essays about lobsters and experienced such adventures as getting completely lost trying to find an Egyptian restaurant in the city — the free knafeh ultimately made it worth it — my classmates and I still looked uneasily at each other as we walked in at 9 a.m. for class, unsure of what exactly we had gotten ourselves into.

I waited for a eureka moment, and thankfully, yes, the epiphany actually came. It was 3:30 a.m. — a common time for epiphanies, I think — and I was watching my Korean friend cook ramen for me in a student lounge. He started explaining to me the different ways in which ramen can be cooked, what this means in Korean society and why they use certain ingredients for their dishes. Apparently, almost any meal you can think of can be sold in an instant format because many Koreans live such a hectic and busy lifestyle that ease and convenience of food is not just a cheap bonus but a requirement. As I listened to him speak, slurping up spicy soup and sticky rice in front of the Al Reem skyline, I got it. The weeks of wacky adventures that had been my Street Food class suddenly made sense, as if an unfocused picture had finally cleared.

Almost every week, I used to write an AD Secrets article for The Gazelle, our university publication, covering a relatively unknown café or restaurant in Abu Dhabi. The task was interesting, undoubtedly. But as the weeks passed, I found myself approaching these reviews in rather an insipid, formulaic manner. I caught myself asking and answering the same kinds of questions, lackluster things like: is there WiFi? How cheap is the tea? Should this décor be described as minimalist or urban chic? But in the end, how does that all matter? I am writing it all down but ultimately saying nothing. About the food or the city. And that’s not why I started this weekly column at all. I wanted to get more NYU Abu Dhabi students into the city, to experience walking on the streets and lingering over late-night conversations in dingy diners with completely non-dingy food, to study in quirky café spots and listen to the symphony of languages surrounding them and yes, to even get lost trying to find Egyptian eateries only to discover that you can actually get free knafeh in this city. And also, with a little bit of smartness, sassiness and healthy panic, you learn that you can navigate Abu Dhabi much better than you ever thought, could or did.

While doing research for an assignment for my Street Food class, I stumbled upon an old Gazelle article titled The Magic of the Chips Oman Sandwich. Reading it, I was filled with a mixture of delight and envy. Delight, because it was stupendously well-written; creative, candid and spilling knowledge like the ideal Chips Oman oozes cheese. Envy because I realized that as a piece of food writing, it achieved things that weeks of my AD Secrets articles failed to. Things like evoking emotion, colours, smell, sights, sounds and taste — a complete sensory experience just through a description of what is essentially just a greasy sandwich. And of course, it was saying something vivid and lucid, even if small, about this weird, beautiful city we live in.

In its description, the Street Food class markets itself as a course that explores the city of Abu Dhabi and the larger realms of history, immigration, race and politics, through the lens of the food you find in its restaurants, shops and cafeterias. In other words, food is just the seed; our experience of what’s cooked and eaten in this city eventually flowers into greater observations and conclusions on what it means to be and reside within Abu Dhabi, to interact with its various diasporas and their diverse narratives and histories. I now find myself pondering over what lies behind my plate of biryani or shawarma or porottas or hotpot. What are the languages I am hearing in a typical cafeteria? Or an upmarket café? What does it mean to go to an Indian restaurant and be served by Filipinos? Is Chinese or Pakistani cuisine actually cooked by natives of these countries? If not, what does this say or raise questions about in terms of ethnic authenticity and identity? I am suddenly thinking of ideas and asking questions that had never crossed my mind before; the experience feels akin to colouring outside the lines or doing something as radical as eating chips with ice-cream. Such thoughts and enquiries illuminate far more than the taste of a certain dish; they shed light on the socio-political tapestry of those spaces of Abu Dhabi in which that dish is served.

Okay, so maybe that all sounds a bit like a platitude or a paraphrased version of the course description. If it helps, I like to think this quote by the American author Sarah Vowell sums up what I’m trying to say:

“Just the other day, I was in my neighborhood Starbucks, waiting for the post office to open. I was enjoying a chocolatey cafe mocha when it occurred to me that to drink a mocha is to gulp down the entire history of the New World. From the Spanish exportation of Aztec cacao, and the Dutch invention of the chemical process for making cocoa, on down to the capitalist empire of Hershey, PA, and the lifestyle marketing of Seattle’s Starbucks, the modern mocha is a bittersweet concoction of imperialism, genocide, invention and consumerism served with whipped cream on top.”

In other words, it’s not really about the food, friends.

 

Published in The Gazelle in 2017

Image by Rosy Tahan

Bhupi’s Dream: What is World Literature?

It was the German writer Goethe who coined the term Weltliteratur, but it is the Nepali poet Bhupi Sherchan who compelled me to consider, seriously, the idea of world literature. Sherchan was born in 1937 in a Nepal ruled by the autocratic Rana regime. By 1960, he had taken on the name Sarvahara — meaning Proletariat — and was actively involved in political uprisings against then-king Mahendra who, following the fall of the Rana dynasty, initiated a coup against his own government and declared an autocratic Panchayat rule over Nepal. Sherchan was later jailed for his involvement in political uprisings against the Panchayat.

Apart from the political ghosts that haunted him, Sherchan was heavily tormented throughout his life by the class struggle in Nepali society: Sherchan was born into a wealthy family in Tukuche, but Sherchan’s move to Kathmandu, the capital, forced him to contemplate the contradiction between his family’s wealth and his socialist beliefs. In his poem A Blind Man on a Revolving Chair, translated by Michael Hutt, Sherchan writes:

I am the only one who cannot see / the changes all around me, / the only one who is unaware/ of all this world’s beauty and pleasure, / like a blind man at an exhibition, / forced to sit on a revolving chair.

Sherchan is the perfect example of what I would call the Troubled Cosmopolitan: a person who attempts to break social boundaries and, in the process, is severely confounded by the many relationships and dynamics he has to re-navigate and reinvent. Within his poetry, Sherchan rejected meter, even though one of his earlier works had been a folk song collection written in the typical Nepali jhyaure meter, perhaps echoing the poet Laxmi Prasad Devkota, who, long before Sherchan, had rejected Sanskrit meters to compose his short epic, Muna Madan, in jhyaure meter. He also wrote poetry for the Nepali people in a style that Hutt notes as “almost totally devoid of the Sanskrit-derived vocabulary… so that his poems could be readily understood,” in his book Himalayan Voices: An Introduction to Modern Nepali Literature. In another poem called Bhairahawa, Sherchan, in two quick, imagistic lines, reverses the nature poetry of his predecessors to criticize the city of Bhairahawa, now called Siddharthanagar: “Dry, disgusting Bhairahava, / Bellowing like a buffalo emerging from its wallow.”

A Blind Man on a Revolving Chair is among the most influential poems ever written in Nepali. Part of an anthology of the same name, the poem is perhaps best described as a eulogy for the Nepali soul of Sherchan’s time. Although I cite Hutt’s translation of the poem in this essay, I cannot overstate the destructively beautiful experience of being able to understand the poem in Nepali. But it is also a poem that has distinctively stood the test of time. When Sherchan writes, “In the evening, / when Nepal shrinks down to Kathmandu, / and Kathmandu shrinks to New Road, / which breaks up, trampled by countless feet,” I am returned to the rather fresh memory of the 2015 earthquake; in the place called ‘New Road’ that Sherchan writes of the quake toppled a nine-storey tower, killing over 300 people. Later, Sherchan writes: “I rise like a soul on Judgment Day, / but I do not find the Lethe, river of oblivion, / so I slide down into some wine to forget / the past, my previous lives and deaths.” And no other line of poetry sums up that split second of remembering but wanting to forget — the earthquake, the Panchayat, the People’s Movements, the 2015 blockade, the countless strikes: all the things this country suffered. Hutt’s translation does not manage to capture the pain of that experience as Sherchan’s Nepali does: having failed to find Lethe, “river of oblivion”, Sherchan dives into a glass of rakshi — a word that means alcohol but, here, connotes a much more powerful experience, resulting in a state closer to death than to intoxication.

As a literature student, I have found it rather difficult to reconcile my Nepali identity with my literary ambitions. Very few people know about Bhupi Sherchan and yet he is, most certainly, a poet — an important one. But Sherchan’s works will perhaps never be considered part of the world literature canon, which David Damrosch in his book What is World Literature? describes as “all literary works that circulate beyond their culture of origin, either in translation or in their original language.” Hutt’s own book features short chapters on 37 modern Nepali poets and writers in a mere 309 pages. Each chapter contains a short introduction to the writer and a portfolio of their works, translated by Hutt himself.

Hutt’s extraordinary scholarship has done a great deal to introduce Nepali literature to the rigors of literary analysis — but what I fail to comprehend is why the scope of the project is so limited. The book that I cite here is a condensation of the entire history of modern Nepali literature, its binding posing as the boundaries of structured literary scholarship of Nepali literature. What is even more strange is that Hutt’s analyses are not literary in nature: they are historical.

Of course, I believe that there is much to be said about Sherchan’s works: in A Blind Man on a Revolving Chair, one can make something of the rather interesting use of intertextuality in which the Greek mythological river Lethe makes its way into a poem that is so distinctly Nepali. Damrosch writes, “a work enters into world literature by a double process: first, by being read as literature; second, by circulating out into a broader world beyond its linguistic and cultural point of origin.” No one will doubt the first criterion and in the case at hand, certainly Sherchan’s is a work of literature. And if the second is a valid criterion then the real question, for me, is how do we get these works to circulate out into “a broader world beyond its linguistic and cultural point of origin”?

In What is World Literature?, Damrosch writes about the discovery of the cuneiform tablets of the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh in 1839 by Edward Mitford and Austen Henry Layard. While the two men, and later Hormuzd Rassam, discovered the tablets, it was only in 1872 when George Smith, “a young banknote engraver,” discovered that a fragmentary tablet “seemed to tell the story of a worldwide flood, with details closely resembling the Noah story.” Damrosch writes of Smith’s translations as a telling example of a profoundly assimilative reception. “In his drive to associate the epic to historical events,” Damrosch continues, “Smith takes [the epic] almost entirely out of the realm of literature as such.”

Damrosch identifies that one of the greatest dangers of world literature is its potential to be misread: “The variability of a work of world literature is one of its constitutive features — one of its greatest strengths when the work is well presented and read well, and its greatest vulnerability when it is mishandled or misappropriated by its newfound foreign friends.” In his own example, however, the only reason the story of Gilgamesh gains so much traction, and hence circulation, is because it is misread, so to speak, in the search for a Biblical narrative in England. The underlying narrative of this event is profound; it informs us of the struggles of the cosmopolitan project of world literature.

As an institution, then, it seems that Damrosch’s idea of world literature must take into account the means of circulation as much as the act. The means of that circulation encompasses those things in society that affect change: culture, the relationship between a work and its audience, the place of origin of the work and its identity in relation to the globe, the mediatization and the lack thereof — all this points to how the context of a work and its relationship to world literature, greatly affects its potential as a canonical work of world literature.

Sherchan’s works fail to be read as world literature, as much as I would like them to be, because of their Nepali identity. Nepal’s relationship to the world is mediated by its much larger neighbors, India and China. While the literary works of Indian writers, such as Arundhati Roy, Jhumpa Lahiri and Amitav Ghosh, who write in English, are considered global works of literature, which they surely are, that of the quieter Nepali poets are ignored. Perhaps being distinctively Nepali is something to shy away from, not strive for.

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Manjushree Thapa’s 2016 novel All of Us in Our Own Lives is the perfect example of an identity that is neither entirely Nepali, nor global. It is perhaps best described as confused: the novel draws portraits of its many different characters — each an archetype — and the way in which these lives are intertwined. One is a Nepali laborer who works in Sharjah, one is his sister, one is a woman who works in an international organization, one is a Nepali woman who was adopted by a Canadian couple. Undoubtedly Thapa, who is Nepali but lives in Canada, feels strongly about all these identities.

But like any other literary enterprise, Thapa’s characters prompt me to ask: why are they here? What brings them to this discussion and what makes them so important that they are portraits in a whole novel? At the beginning, Ava Berriden, the Canadian of Nepali origin, returns to Nepal after quitting her job and her marriage. It seems that Berriden’s role is to provide an Orientalist window to Nepal. Her identity intrigues me: she is Nepali-born Canadian, who has never really been Nepali. But it is lines like these that convince me of the superfluous nature of Berriden’s character: “The Canadian turned to Indira with a smile. ‘You won’t have wine?’ / ‘No, I never—at home.’ What would foreigners know of the restrictions on a Nepali daughter-in-law?” As Damrosch writes, “writing for publication abroad can be a heroic act of resistance against censorship and an affirmation of global values against local parochialism; yet it can also be only a further stage in the leveling process of a spreading global consumerism.”

Thapa’s characters are real, and I cannot deny her the validity of her own fictional universe. But I reject the manner in which she exploits national identity to participate in a global brotherhood that appeases the West by reinforcing, omitting and downplaying identities and characteristics: being Nepali is introduced as one thing rather than the other; being Nepalli-Canadian is just another thing. What could have been a brave reversal of the Orientalist portraits of the West turns into an un-ironic pastiche of those very portraits: “Years later, she still kept in touch with Abena Kwasima from Accra, Rudo Gamble from Cape Town, W. Werry from Jakarta… Together they formed a sisterhood of global change-makers.” This illustrates that to consciously choose to be global does not seem to help either.

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One way in which we can address the shortcomings of Damrosch’s model for world literature is by thinking about the ways in which any given text is circulated. As literary scholar Cyrus Patell writes, “mishandling and misappropriation are inevitably parts of the process that accompanies the monumentalization of a text that interests me. What Harold Bloom famously called ‘misprision’ or ‘strong misreading’ and what I would call ‘appropriation’ and ‘adaptation’ are crucial parts of the conceptual framework I am proposing.” Patell’s proposition can be extended to a Marxist framework of thinking about hegemony in a global context: indeed, Patell, in his book Cosmopolitanism and the Literary Imagination, is contemplating the relationship between emergent literatures and the dominant cultures they are arriving into. This relationship can be expanded to encompass a more global platform of world literature.

I believe, however, that a broader revision must take place. Patell ends Cosmopolitanism and the Literary Imagination with a rather hopeful note that I believe we can and must expound upon: “my best advice for those who wish to pursue a cosmopolitan reading practice is this: when you find a text familiar and comforting, look for ways … to make it feel strange, unfamiliar, and different … And when a text makes you uncomfortable … find aspects of sameness and … make yourself comfortable with its difference.” The best cosmopolitan reader hence does not shy away from works that talk about identities different from his own; instead, he tries to find in those identities points of sameness, and in the same identities, points of difference.

Being Nepali matters to me, but so does being cosmopolitan. The one most compelling intersection I have found is the relationship between my national literatures and the cosmopolitan project of thinking about those literatures in a global context. I do not need to be a cosmopolitan to appreciate the beauty of Sherchan’s poetry — nor would you have to be a Nepali to appreciate its beauty — but we both must be cosmopolitans to be able to even consider, briefly but seriously, the potential of Sherchan’s works becoming part of the canon of world literature. The cosmopolitan project is a way to engage ourselves cerebrally in the lives of each other, to immerse ourselves in values that differ from our own, and to find points of intersection between seemingly non-intersecting identities. I believe that there is no better platform for us to begin this project than through our different literatures.

 

Published in The Gazelle in 2017

Header image by Shenuka Corea, The Gazelle