Food is synonymous with hunger. Therefore, it is with uneasiness and anxiety that I greet World Food Day and other similar observances every year. My attempts to visualise elaborate culinary delights, aromas, and textures and revel in the glory of the rich food cultures of the world on these celebrated days, have yielded poor results. Efforts to commemorate them by loading the dining table with lavish preparations have ended in fiascos.
While I rejoice in feasts, desolation knocks at the kitchen door and whispers horrific tales of starvation into ears that are trying to tune in to Google Home and savour soft music. To me, food symbolises “lack,” that which is missing in countless kitchens and whose possession is the only lure that keeps hollow bones and shallow eyes alive in major portions of the world.
So, what am I supposed to celebrate - Hunger Day? Food is important only as long as there is hunger. For then, it is cherished on palms and licked from fingers. Once the urge subsides, the morsels are dumped into dustbins, from where they make inroads into the barely breathing skeletal humans and animals. Yet, the sight of a man sharing food with a dog and savouring it has assailed my sensibilities, more than once. It has made me realise that hunger, not food, is the factor that unites man and beast, bringing out the best survival strategies in animals and human civilisations. The only difference being that in the wild, there is fair trade and more egalitarianism when it comes to dousing hunger and quenching thirst than among our 'civilised', flamboyant humanity.
My kitchen wall is adorned with a gifted picture frame, depicting a mother and her kitchen tools with the heading, 'Mummy’s Dhaba - Always Open'. I always look at it with fondness and love, for it denotes a child’s confidence that his mother’s heart and kitchen are always open for him. But is this same assurance reverberated in all children of the planet? Can all the mothers of the world afford a humble yet flourishing dhaba for their little ones? The moms I have seen with sucklings on footpaths do not have a home, forget a kitchen. The only takeaway for the poor of the world is that the picture is meant for a privileged few!
While browsing through some case studies as a part of an online course on environment and gender, I happened to hear about a woman working at a flower farm. Her job entailed harvesting flowers sprayed with insecticides and other chemicals. She did her chores without a dust coat for protection and gradually developed skin rashes, eyesores, and breathing issues. A single mother of three kids, she earned less than Rs 3,000 a month. When she requested protective gear, she was told that there were others waiting to take up her job, so she could quit. The woman is now jobless. Her greatest dream, narrated amidst tears, was that perhaps one day, she would be able to provide full meals to her children. For once, the story stands out for its commonality, rather than singularity.
Wonderful food festivities happen everywhere every day. A friend’s daughter spent Rs 1,500 at an ice-cream parlour, tasting one flavour after another in her search for the one that would tingle her taste buds. All she ended up doing was chilling the dustbin and giving the beggars outside a cold shoulder and by this, I certainly do not mean the sleeve trend in female apparel that is now legion.
Then I have regaled in the pleasures of those fantastic parties where people are splashed with beer flowing from freshly shaken bottles and an astronomically priced cake is massaged on the giggling cheeks of the subject as a birthday ritual. What happens to all the tomatoes in the tomato-crushing festival in Spain, by the way? Where does all the leftover food on the “big fat Indian wedding” dinner plates go?
If the world starts compiling food tales of all the edible wonders available to man, these would vastly outnumber hunger stories. So, I have now made the heart-wrenching decision that when the time arrives, my child's wedding menu will only have a select number of food items rather than being a gastronomical exhibition, fully aware I shall be diving into dangerous waters. Que sera, sera, whatever will be, will be!
Food in absentia
‘Abundance’ has become an antonym of ‘food’ in the modern world. The word ‘food’ resonates with yearning, amplifies to depict unfulfilled dreams. The term is characterised by despair, desolation, and deprivation. No, a new dictionary of meanings is not on the way. Yet, nouveau expressions have been added, keeping in mind the malnourished and famished millions gaping at imaginary crumbs of food to the point where their entire being abundantly resembles food in absentia. Life for them happens in three stages - hunger, disease and death.
I remember to date the two diseases from my school biology chapter on nutrition and deficiencies - Kwashiorkor and Marasmus, not because of their fancy names but because of the lacerated bodies portrayed just below the chapter heading. I am also reminded of anaemia, typhoid, and cholera. The spellings are complicated to pick up but once learned, they refuse to be erased. The words are permanent attachments, and so are these ailments. As long as hunger thrives, students will continue to memorise these scary spellings!
If you believe in ghosts, then hunger is the scariest and the deadliest modern-day spectre. More than 820 million people went hungry globally in 2018 and the numbers are increasing. We continue to have many proclaim themselves as men of education and wisdom convincing the hungry masses of the world that they have the power to free them from the clutches of starvation and hunger. They forget that evil spirits manipulate the entire process from the field to the plate, so the mantras have to be extremely powerful. Hunger is a human-made apparition, getting larger each day. 'Black' magic in the food world is also flourishing, in the guise of ignorance, chemicalisation and greed. The crystal ball shows us the culprits, but who will break the spell?
You decide, while I take a lunch break.
The writer is Assistant Professor, English, Rani Lakshmi Bai Central Agricultural University, Jhansi.