Orijit Sen Posts

Interview with Debasmita Dasgupta on her debut graphic novel, “Nadya”

Nadya is a stunningly powerful graphic novel about thirteen-year-old Nadya who witnesses her parent’s marriage deteriorate. The story and the art work are devastating. The artist-cum-author Debasmita Dasgupta has created a very moving portrait of a family falling apart at the seams but also how the little girl, at the cusp of adulthood, is witness to a catastrophic set of circumstances. Her secure world crumbles and she feels helpless. Yet the staid portrait of the professional at her desk on the dust jacket belies the confused and anxious teenager portrayed on the hard cover — a fact that is revealed once the dust jacked is slipped off. It is an incredible play of images, a sleight of the hand creates a “flashback”, a movement, as well as a progress, that seemingly comes together in the calm and composed portrait of Nadya at her desk, tapping away at the computer, with her back to a wall on which are hung framed pictures. Many of these images are images of her past — pictures of her with her parents in happier times as well as when the family broke apart. A sobering reminder and yet a reason to move on as exemplified in the narrative itself too with the peace that Nadya discovers, a renewal, a faith within herself to soar. Scroll sums it up well “Teenagers may read this story of a nuclear family living in the hills for relatability, but for everyone there is the poetry of the form that this graphic novel poignantly evokes.” Nadya is an impressive debut by Debasmita Dasgupta as a graphic novelist. Nadya, is releasing on 30 September 2019 by Scholastic India. 

Debasmita Dasgupta is a Singapore-based, internationally published Kirkus-Prize-nominated picture book illustrator and graphic novel artist. She enjoys drawing both fiction and non-fiction for children and young adults. Working closely with publishers across the world, she has illustrated over 10 picture books, comics and poems. Widely known as an art-for-change advocate, Debasmita tells stories of changemakers from around the world partnering with global non-profits. Her art is exhibited in Italy, Singapore, Thailand, Denmark and more than 40 international media outlets have featured it.

Here are excerpts of an interview conducted via email:

  1. How did the story of Nadya and its publication come about? Was it the story that came first or the illustrations? What is the backstory?

I am a visual thinker. Words don’t come to me naturally. The story of Nadya was with me in bits and pieces for a very long time. I needed some time and space to weave it all together. It happened exactly a year ago when I went for an illustrators residency near Burgos (in Spain). That’s when I completed the story and illustrated a few key frames, which finally expanded to become this 64-page graphic novel.

When I was in primary school, I had a very close friend (can’t disclose her name). I have faint memories of us spending time together and quite a vivid memory of her fading away from my life after her parents went through a divorce. I was too young to understand the significance of the word “divorce”. All I could understand, deeply, was that it changed the course of my friend’s life. She became more and more quiet and then one day never came back to school. There were rumours that perhaps she went to a different school or a different city. Years later, another very close friend of mine went through a divorce. She has a daughter and at that time she was eight. This time I realised the thing that bothered me the most in my childhood was that I couldn’t make an attempt to complement the loss in my friend’s life with my friendship. Simply because I didn’t know how to deal with it. Finally, I found an answer in my art and the story of Nadya began. 

2. While the story is about Nadya witnessing her parents marriage fall apart, it is interesting how you also focus on the relationships of the individuals with each other. Is that intentional? 

Absolutely! I don’t see Nadya as a story of separation. On the surface it is a story of a fractured family but underneath it is about our fractured emotions. In fact to me it is the story of finding your inner strength at the time of crisis. You just have to face your fear. Nothing and no one except you can do that for you. 

3. Nadya seems to collapse the boundaries between traditional artwork for comic frames and literary devices. For instance, while every picture frame is complete in itself as it should be in a comic book, there is also a reliance on imagery and metaphors such as Nadya being lost in the forest and finding the fawn at the bottom of a pit is akin to her being lost in reality too. Surprisingly these ellisions create a magical dimension to the story. Was the plot planned or did it happen spontaneously? [ There is just something else in this Debasmita that I find hard to believe is a pure methodical creation. It seems to well up from you from elsewhere.] 

Thank you Jaya!

You are right that it is not a pure methodical creation. In fact, what fascinates me is that you could feel that the borders are blurred. When I was creating the story of Nadya, I felt that there were many crossovers between borders. Like emotional borders (grief and renewal) and timeline borders (past and present, with a hint of future). And I think these crossovers resulted in the form of an amalgamation of narrative forms, textures and colour palettes. In fact, that’s one of the reasons why I felt the story is set in the mountains where you cannot define the lines between two mountains or the distinctions between the trees in the forest when there is a mist. They all overlap each other like human emotions. It’s never all black and white. 

4. How important do you think is the role of a father in a daughter’s life?

Let me tell you the story behind “My Father illustrations” – It was on a Sunday afternoon when the idea came to me after I heard a TED talk by Shabana Basij from Afghanistan. It was a moving experience. I felt something had permanently changed inside me. Over the next few days, I watched that talk over and over. Her honesty, her simplicity and power of narration moved me. Shabana grew up in Afghanistan during the Taliban regime. Despite all odds, her father never lost the courage to fight for her education. He used to say, “People can take away everything from you except your knowledge”. Shabana’s story gave me a strong impulse to do something but I didn’t know ‘what’ and ‘how’. That’s when my red sketchbook and pencil caught my eye. Before I’d even realized it, I had taken my first step. I illustrated Shabana’s story and posted it on Facebook. It was an impulsive reaction. I found Shabana’s contact and shared the illustration with her. Shabana was so touched that she forwarded it to her students, and then I started getting emails from a lot of other Afghan men! The emails were a note of thanks as they felt someone was trying to showcase Afghan men in a positive light. I realized that if there are so many positive father–daughter stories in Afghanistan, just imagine the positive stories across the world! My journey had started. I started looking for moving father-daughter stories from across the globe. Some I found, some found me. With every discovery, my desire to create art for people kept growing.

5. With Nadya you challenge many gender stereotypes such as the daughter’s relationship with her parents. It is not the standard portrayal seen in “traditional” literature. Here Nadya seems happier with her father rather than mother. The breaking down of Nadya’s relationship with her mother has been illustrated beautifully with the picture frames “echoing” Nadya’s loneliness and sadness. Even the colours used are mostly brown tints. This is an uneasy balance to achieve between text and illustration to create an evocative scene. How many iterations did it take before you hit a satisfactory note in your artwork? And were all these iterations in terms of art work or did it involve a lot of research to understand the nuances of a crumbling relationship?

I often say “Preparation is Power”. And I have always learnt from great creators in the world that there are no shortcuts to create any good art. However, the process of preparation varies from artist to artist. To me, this is not a process, it’s a journey. It starts with a seed of an idea and then it stays with me for a long, long time before I could finally express it my way. There is a lot of seeing, listening and spending time with my thoughts. Breaking of the stereotypes, whether they are gender stereotypes or stereotypical formats, were not intentional but I guess embedded in my thinking. It’s not that someone from outside is telling me to break those norms but it’s a voice, deep inside, constantly questioning. Not to find the right answers but to ask the right questions.

There were many versions of character sketches and colour palettes before the finals were decided for Nadya. Even though the initial characters and colours were similar to the finals, the textures and tones are distinctively different. Since the story runs in different timelines with varied emotional arcs, I wanted to integrate separate tonalities in the frames. In the end, a graphic novel is not just about telling a story with words. If my images can’t speak, if their colours don’t evoke any emotion then my storytelling is incomplete. 

6. Did you find it challenging to convey divorce, loneliness, relationships etc through a graphic novel? Why not create a heavily illustrated picture book, albeit for older readers?   

I am a bit of an unconventional thinker in this regard. I can’t follow the rules of length and structure when it comes to visual storytelling. That’s why many of my illustrated books are crossovers between picture books and graphic novels. To me, when I know the story I want to tell, it finds its form, naturally. 

7. As an established artist, what is your opinion of the popular phrase “art for art’s sake”? 

I am an advocate of “art for change”, more precisely a positive change. I strongly believe (which is also the genesis of ArtsPositive) that art (of any form) has the ability to create a climate in which change is possible to happen. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow. But eventually it will.

8. Graphic novels have become popular worldwide. Mostly the trend seems to be tell personal stories or memoirs or a lot of fantasy. To create a novel for social activism is still unusual though it is happening more and more. What do you hope to achieve with Nadya

I admire those books (graphic novels) that I can read several times, because it’s not about the length of the book, instead it is the depth that intrigues me to re-visit it more and more. Books that help start a conversation. A conversation with yourself or with someone else. I want Nadya to be that conversation starter.

9. Although it is early days as yet, what has been the reception to Nadya, especially from adolescent readers?  

The book is releasing in India on 30th September and I can’t wait to see what young adults have to say. Before that we had a soft launch in Singapore during the 10th Asian Festival of Children’s Content, where Nadya received a very warm welcome. All festival copies were sold out but my biggest reward was when I met this young artist from Indonesia, who told me that he could see himself in little Nadya. His parents separated when he was very young. I also met a teacher, who said that he is going through a divorce and would appreciate if I could speak to his children with this book. His eyes moistened when he was speaking to me.

10. Who are the artists and graphic novelists you admire? 

That’s a long list! But surely the work of Marjane Satrapi, Paco Roca, Riad Sattouf, and Shaun Tan inspire me a lot. The way they present complex subjects with simplicity, is genius!

11. What motivated you to establish your NGO, ArtsPositive? What are the kind of projects you undertake and the impact you wish to make?

About a decade ago, when I started my journey as an artist / art-for-change advocate, there was not much awareness about this concept. It was a very lonely journey for me, helping people understand what I do and what I aspire to do. So when I had the opportunity to start an initiative, I decided to develop ArtsPositive to contribute to the art-for-change ecosystem by supporting artists who create art-for-change stories. 

At ArtsPositive, we create in-house art-for-change campaigns such as #MoreThanSkinDeep* (the most recent campaign). We have also launched a quarterly ArtsPositive digital magazine to showcase art-for-change projects and enablers from around the world, collaborate with artists, and share artistic opportunities.

* More Than Skin Deep is an illustrated poetry campaign by poet, Claire Rosslyn Wilson and artist, Debasmita Dasgupta, through which we are amplifying the voice of fifteen fearless acid attack survivors (from 13 countries), who are much more than their scars.

“Nadya” by Debasmita Dasgupta

http://bit.ly/30ijzI1 Scholastic India’s forthcoming release in September 2019 includes Nadya by Debasmita Dasgupta. It is an absolute must read. It is stupendously breathtaking.

As Orijit Sen affirms ‘Nadya takes us deep into the heart and mind of an adolescent girl as she negotiates her way through love, heartbreak and pain before finding renewal. The stunning artwork—with its rich landscapes, quiet but glowing colours and sensitively portrayed characters—makes the turning of each page an act of revelation. The beauty and power of graphic storytelling at its best!’

26 August 2019

An interview with Vidyun Sabhaney and Arpita Das about “First Hand graphic narratives” Vols 1&2

First Hand Vols 1 & 2 are a collection of reportage told in graphic format or comic style. There are a variety of stories, styles of illustration and to some extent representation of regional diversity. Turning the page to a new story brings with it an unexpected pleasure — for a brand new style of presenting a visual story. A new kind of drawing and unexpected stories. For a reader this is tremendous as at one level it is challenging to read such a lot of variety and yet it is engaging. But for the publishers of this book it must have been quite a project to put it together.
In First Hand 2 the stories are arranged thematically as per the Exclusion report. Nevertheless it is a powerful treasure trove of searing stories. “Shadow Lines” has to be the most powerful of stories in this volume for it focuses on the communal violence in Muzaffarnagar  based on a report by journalist Neha Dixit and illustrated by Priya Kuriyan. The others focus on ethnic conflict  in Bodoland in the north east of India (“There’s no place like home”), on the Devadasis or on the Jarawas of Andaman ( “Without permit, entry prohibited”). It is imperative these stories are kept alive. These are extremely tough stories and need to be heard by a wider audience.
The “byproducts” of the second volume, if ever created, will travel far. For instance these can be turned into storyboards / story cards of one panel each to be used in workshops or educational programmes. These can be used as a springboard for short animation films, again with a wide variety of applications.
Here is an interview with Vidyun Sabhaney, along with writers and illustrators to the book, Neha Dixit, Bhagwati Prasad, Vipin Yadav and Anupam Arunachalam. They speak to Souradeep Roy of the Indian Cultural Forum on the process behind the making of the book.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=110&v=DlS98i7nbnw
Following are excerpts of an interview with the editor Vidyun Sabhaney and Yoda Press publisher Arpita Das.
1. Why and how were the First Hand series conceptualized? How long did the process take from conception to publication of each book?

Vidyun: The First Hand books were initially conceptualised as non-fiction comics anthologies, as at the time there was not too much non-fiction work being made in a dedicated way. Speaking personally, I was interested in what could be produced if we encouraged artists and writers to engage with their social, political, and economic context through a platform like an anthology. That’s the sprit with which First Hand 1 was begun with myself, Orijit Sen and Arpita Das. First Hand 2 took on a slightly different approach. The first book took about three years from conceptualisation to finish, and the second book took roughly two years.

Arpita: Vidyun came to me with the idea for First Hand, to make comics out of real on-the-ground reportage in India, in early 2014. We had published our first graphic anthology on the Indian Partition, This Side That Side very successfully in the Fall of 2013, and I was immediately excited by the potential of what Vidyun was sketching out for me. Conception to publication took 2-2.5 years each time.

2. How did the name “First Hand” come about as a title for these books? What is the principle of selection for the stories to be included in the volumes?

Vidyun: The name “First Hand” reflects the spirit of the books – that they are or are based on seen and heard stories, or that someone has witnessed them. It also alludes to the process of drawing.

The first book was much more about generating a kind of content we (my co-editor Orijit Sen and I) thought was missing in the Indian comics’ scene and trying understand the many facets of non-fiction. So it was an exploration of genre and what is possible in it. For this reason, we did an open call for stories, from which we received 50-odd applications. From this we selected work using the writer’s process as a filter for this book, as well as the ‘contemporariness’ of the narratives. ‘Process’ refers to how the material that forms the base of the narrative was gathered—for example, if it was through research, interview, or personal experience. The second lens was the relationship of the work with contemporary public life, i.e., the social and political milieu of the country. A deeply personal story, while being non-fiction, would have to have some relationship with recent events or phenomena.

On the other hand, this book was a deep-dive into the theme of exclusion – so it was a challenge in a different way. To understand the length and breadth of the issue, what the data in the report was saying, and develop works accordingly was an intensive process. Many of the stories in the book are not strictly non-fiction – rather it is work that is true-to-life. In order to put forward the data holistically, we had to fictionalise and merge experiences of different people and place them in a narrative frame. In some cases, anonymity was also a concern. In addition, there were some non-fiction narratives that were selected for the book – like Water and Shadow Lines. I tried my best to develop and select work that their either reflected the report or then complemented what it was saying in a different way – for example through visual poetry (Water) or then a wordless comic (Without Permit Entry Prohibited).

Arpita: This was Vidyun again. She had a few options in mind but was always leaning in favour of First Hand, and I loved it too. The title communicated so effectively what the most vital core of the series would be. For Volume 1, there was a Call for Entries while for Volume 2, Vidyun commissioned the artists to collaborate with the writers. But for both models, what remains most important is that there is tremendous integrity in telling the story as the writer envisaged it, and excellence in terms of form.

3. Making  graphic novels is an expensive proposition in terms of all  resources, not just financial. Why choose this format to tell these stories?

Vidyun: The only aspect of comics making that is inherently more expensive than other books is the production – but even that depends on the kind of book. This has to be viewed relatively – those who work in film marvel at how much more resource efficient the medium of comics is, even as it tells a visual story. Although, comics and graphic novels come in the form of a book – they offer something very different from the written word, and need to be viewed in those terms.

There are so many reasons to work with this medium. For example, through drawing, one can evoke a detail or a feeling or a texture or a history as experience for the reader. It is also a way of seeing the world, of picking up information and metaphors that arise from a visual understanding of society. In that way, practising this medium offers a different perspective. These observations can be put forward as visual metaphor or cinematically, while using the physical space of the page to emphasise different parts of the story. The list goes on and on!

Arpita: Yes, it is a time-consuming format, and there are financial challenges as well, but for me, it is a genre that is unbelievably exciting in its potential. I also have to say that the way our two earlier graphic books, A Little Book on Men and This Side That Side continue to sell, and sort of put us on the map in terms of spelling out to our audience the kind of bold and stereotype-smashing publishing we wanted to do, almost nothing else has done it with such effectiveness. Frankly, I am waiting for a time when we start having multiple awards for graphic books to reward some of this stupendous work, and the risks we have taken to put it out there.

4. The publication of the second volume has coincided with the first ever graphic novel being nominated on the Man Booker longlist. Do you think the reception to graphic novels will change after this announcement? What has been the reception to your two books?

Vidyun: Personally I think that these are two very different spaces. Perhaps it will make non-readers of the medium more aware of it but little changes otherwise. Comics have been winning ‘mainstream’ accolades for several years now, I don’t think there’s much left for us to prove. After all, it’s a medium that can be used to tell stories well or poorly – that depends on the creator. Things only change for the field when genuine interest is taken in the distribution of comics, which currently remains very niche the world over.

Arpita: As I said, the reception has been incredibly heartening. We keep printing these books, and we are always behind on demand, which as a publisher I can tell you, is a good thing.

5. Why did you choose to base First Hand 2 on the 2015 edition of the India Exclusion Report instead of circulating an open call for submissions of original stories as you seem to have done for First Hand 1?

Arpita: CES have been our publishing partners for more than three years now, and Yoda Press publishes the India Exclusion Report annually with them. When Harsh Mander got in touch with me asking if there were other genres in which they could adapt some of the narratives emerging out of the extremely important documentation that IXR is doing, I immediately thought of the graphic genre. Because that was exactly what we had hoped to achieve with First Hand 1: bringing the Indian reality on the ground to another audience, and we succeeded. Vidyun and I had also thought from the beginning that from the second volume onwards, we should think thematically—that this the only way to build up a series. So when CES showed interest in trying something radical and new, we immediately got to work on it. The stories were all already there, incredible, chilling, uplifting, eye-opening stories. They just had to be gleaned from the documentation and told in this fabulously bold format that graphic books always make available.

Vidyun: Centre for Equity Studies (CES) approached us with the idea of converting their 2015 edition into graphic format – we accepted because of the possibilities of the stories that we could create. These are very important narratives about marginalisation that need to be told, so that we can work towards a more inclusive society. India is a shockingly unequal nation, and there are urgent issues like casteism, gender-based discrimination, communalism, economic disparity – to name a few. We felt these comics could offer an introduction to them, and also give them a visual register. Exclusion can at times hide in plain sight, and we hoped that this book could make it easier to identify and fight.

Open calls are a great way to push the field further, to encourage new voices through a platform. Since there was little non-fiction work being produced when we did First Hand 1, an open-call worked very well.

With First Hand 2 the approach was different – working in a dedicated way on a specific theme is an opportunity to engage with subject and storytelling a more detailed way. It was important that exclusion be explained in the terms of the original report, and for that reason it made sense to have a small, dedicated team that could also familiarise themselves with the report and produce accordingly.

6. Do publications like this lend themselves to travel well in other English language book markets or even other languages? Or do you see them only as India-specific books?

Arpita: Many German, French and Australian publishers have shown interest in buying rights. There is a French publisher who recently asked if they could put together the comics on women from the two volumes. I have discussed this with Vidyun and we are open to it. I had meetings at Frankfurt Book Fair 2018 with French and Australian publishers to discuss the project. Next year the Salon the Livre is doing a Guest of Honour India year, and they are showcasing some books from India for their publishers recommending them for rights purchase, and they picked First Hand 2 as one of the books. So yes, I think we are getting there.

7. Why Is there inconsistency in providing translation for text spoken or written in Hindi/Devnagari? The first story is narrated in Hindi with no translation whereas “Shadow Lines” has translations for the few lines spoken in Hindi but written in Roman script.

Vidyun: It was important to have some works in Hindi in the book as I have always felt that graphic narratives and comics should be published in a variety of languages, in their original script.

“Shadow Lines” has translations as it is reportage work, and some translation was required to explain context  – especially as the rest of the comic is in English and roman script.

Arpita: Well, because both the stories by Bhagwati Prasad were written originally by him in Hindi using the IXR data and information. Whereas, Neha’s story was written in English, and the Hindi text occurred in between. I think the two narratives were treated faithfully as they should have been, within the language of origin parameters.

8. Will “First Hand” become a platform and a launch pad for testing new voices alongside experienced storytellers?

Arpita: I think it already is. So many narratives have been drawn or told in both the existing volumes by first-time artists and storytellers. And they appear at the end alongside well-known voices. And if and when we manage to publish more volumes, its perception as a series which empowers new voices as much as it showcases established ones should only grow.

Vidyun: I think to a degree it is already that, and I am very happy that it has been able to provide this platform to both.  If we can continue this series, then it will hopefully continue in this vein.

9. Yoda Press is known for publishing unusual literature and always crackling good subjects but are not necessarily known as publishers of graphic novels (except for This Side, That Side). So why venture into the graphic novel genre? Will this become an annual feature for Yoda Press or remain as a series whose frequency is undetermined?

Arpita: Well, since 2013 we have indeed become known for our graphic anthologies as well, since we have published three in just five years since then, and these are big books, over 300 pages, each one, involving much skill and many voices. It cannot be an annual feature because each of these anthologies takes 2 years to come together at a minimum. So that is what we are looking at as a time frame.

10. What were the highs and lows of publishing Vol 1 vs Vol 2?

Arpita: The high for me as a publisher is always when the book is in my hand. The lows usually occur when there are delays in the scheduling and one hits the panic button, and then you have to calm down. I think in some ways Vol. 1 with its Call for Entries starting point was a more dynamic journey, whereas here it felt more like the work was at hand to begin with and had to be delivered. The book at the end in both cases was just splendid, so finally it was a high that outlasted the lows.

21 November 2018 

 

Nandita Haksar’s “The Flavours of Nationalism: Recipes for Love, Hate and Friendship”

The Flavours of Nationalism: Recipes for Love, Hate and Friendship  by lawyer Nandita Haksar is a unique memoir that intersperses two passions — human rights and food.

She belongs to a community of meat-eating Brahmins — the Kashmiri Pandits. Her ancestors came from Kashmir in the beginning of the twentieth century and settled in the plains of Hindustan. Very soon they forgot the culture, the rites and rituals and even the language of the Valley. The men learnt Urdu and Persian, while the women were taught Hindi and, on occasion, Sanskrit. The men greeted each other with an adaab-urz-hai but women were always greeted with a respectful namaskar. Once the Kashmiri families migrated they integrated many aspects of the cuisines of the plains, such as those of Lucknow, Allahabad and Delhi.

Nandita Haksar employs her sharp skills as a human rights lawyer to dissect cultures and bigotry. She rightly observes that ” In India, upper-caste Hindus do not inter-dine with Dalits, Muslims and tribal people, because of what they eat. Perhaps this is the distinguishing feature of Indian society and culture.” It still happens.

Later she adds ” The recent attempts to impose a ban on eating and trading beef, and the promotion of vegetarianism, have brought into focus the fact that the caste system and the ideology which sustain it is still alive. The question is how do we, who believe in democratic values and espouse liberalism, resist the imposition of this vision in our country?

The liberals, including a section of the media, have opposed the beef ban largely on the ground that it violates the human rights of an individual to choose what he or she wants to eat. However, the ban on beef is not merely a question of the violation of an individual’s right to liberty, dignity  and equality. But when millions of people are collectively denied those human rights, then we need a stronger political discourse to challenge their exclusion. ”

Some years ago in an article on “Dalit Literature in English” I had written “The recent banning of beef in India also deprives Dalits of their primary source of protein. Beef is cheap and easily available. The Dalits belong to a section of society that cuts across religions. What is astounding is that the quantum ( and relentlessness) of violence against this community is impossible for any sane individual to comprehend and yet it is practised daily.” One of the fiercest responses to the article said my assessment was wrong. Banning beef would not deprive Dalits of food.  I stood my ground and said it was an unnecessary hostile act not recognising a critical source of protein was being taken away from a community and probably plunging the already very poor people further into poverty and despair, but I was only scoffed at. The late Sharmila Rege’s Writing Caste, Writing Gender: Narrating Dalit Woman’s Testimonios discusses this at great length in her book. So when Nandita Haksar makes these associations and link human rights with the basic act of accessing food I agree with her 100% and only wish more people saw it in a similar fashion.

While I was writing this article, journalist M K Venu wrote on Twitter in reference to the Alwar lynchings and Muslims being repeatedly attacked by gau rakshaks that:

The successful right to food campaign in India led to establishment of systems to ensure food security. For instance passing of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act ( NREGA) in August 2005, the introduction of cooked mid-day meals in all primary schools following a Supreme Court order in April 2004, and finally the passing of the National Food Security Act, 2013. “But even these achievements have been undermined by the controversies over beef and vegetarianism and have served to divert public attention from the most fundamental issue: food security for the poor who cannot afford even one meal a day and the wretched condition of farmers and their families, so many of whom have been driven to committing suicide.” This crisis is related to the globalization of the food industry and the so-called safety laws that in effect criminalize the small dhabas and the street vendors who provide affordable food to millions of people. This is food fascism.

The Flavours of Nationalism: Recipes for Love, Hate and Friendship  is absolutely fantastic for food is not only a repository of cultural norms, local wisdom ( in terms of what is the best dish / spice to have that would be most suitable for the person) but of course it is a rights issue too. To deny someone the right to their cuisine is a violently hostile act. At the same time to accept the local cuisine offered while travelling whether you like it or not is the height of graciousness and civil behaviour. This is exactly why  the anecdote Nandita Haksar shares about her friend who is a vegetarian and yet quietly eats the meat so lovingly served to her by the host at the Hashimpura wedding celebrations was an incredibly graceful gesture upon her part.

A few days ago designer Orijit Sen posted on Facebook about eating Kozhukatta on a Kochi street. Steamed rice dumplings with a sweet core of coconut and jaggery. Immediately he had a flood of responses on his timeline talking about variations of exactly same dish. There were folks writing in from Himachal Pradesh, Assam, Bengal, and even Parsis. It was fascinating to observe how food united everyone. Orijit Sen was prompted to respond “Amidst all our diversity and contradictions, I seem to have chanced upon one of those simple beautiful things that connects us all on this subcontinent!” Something that comes across so well in Nandita Haksar’s book too — the animated conversations that involve food whether designing a wedding menu to organising a meal at home or even visiting the local gurdwara for a langar!”

The July 2018 issue of the National Geographic’s cover story is on “Building a Better Athlete“. It is basically about how sports scientists are working closely with the finest sportsmen to help them excel known barriers of performance. In it is quoted Alan Ashley, the U.S. Olympic Committee’s chief of sport performance, who says the key to breaking performance barriers is to “keep athletes healthy. If they stay healthy, everything else falls into place.” This had me wondering why is that we only look at these frames of reference in absolutely exceptional specimens of human race and apply these rules of living for them alone? Why can we not shift these very same frames of reference and apply them to ordinary families? Won’t it be very liberating for many, especially women who are foisted with the responsibility of feeding their families, to feel that investment in their health, with local produce and that which is familiar to their cultures is perfectly acceptable and in fact a great way of living?

If this argument is extended to the micro-level of seeing how a family unit works. Apply it to women and see if they are taught to eat and look after themselves perhaps there won’t be so many instances of illness in many families. Off late it is not unusual to hear of instances where urban poor women are being encouraged to attend nutrition camps where they can learn how to manage household budgets by buying less and less milk as the prices skyrocket. So the women are taught how half a litre of milk can be stretched in providing nourishment value by setting curd, preserving the cream (if any) of the boiled milk etc. Or even using cheaper substitutes like soya milk. [ With today’s inflation rates I do not know if this holds true any longer!] Or adapting their old family recipes so that they do not require milk, dahi or cream as ingredients, instead they could substitute it with cheaper ( not necessarily healthier) ingredients. This is a horrific act of violence being perpetrated under the garb of nutrition camps for in the process of managing household budgets women are being forced to forget skills they have acquired / inherited and instead adapt to the local requirements. This is undoubtedly an inherent act violence as the woman is inadvertently put under familial/ economic pressure to provide regular sumptuous meals despite spiraling costs of ingredients and since she is mostly voiceless these acts go unnoticed. It is a very complicated and insidious act of violence that gets slowly embedded and perpetuated in the long run.

The scrubbing away of collective memories of local cuisines that define a community and are more importantly repositories of information about ideal foods to be consumed in different seasons using local ingredients, ensuring the people remain healthy and it is also cost effective in the long run. This is echoed in film director Jean Renoir sharing in his memoir ( Renoir, My Father ) about his father, the Impressionist painter Renoir, describing the varied smells coming from different houses in their neighbourhood. Every fragrance was that of a distinct region of France and easily identifiable but now both father and son were ruing the fact that dishes and flavours had more or less become homogenised. They were referring to the homogenity of smells but the passage in the book also is a wistful reminiscing of how much has been lost in the name of progress — the standardisation if you will of French cuisine. It is much like the different knowledge systems and the value accorded to them as Nandita Haksar mentions in reference to the two young boys of her acquaintance — Ashwin Mushran and Adani. Her nephew 18-year-old Ashwin is unable to make her a cup of hot coffee but is able to write a remarkable 10,000-word essay on Tolkien! Whereas 10-year-old Adani, her host’s son on a field trip to the north east of India, had not only killed a bird with his sling, but plucked and cooked it as well as made rice to accompany it — all in the short duration she took to get refreshed after a long journey!

The Flavours of Nationalism: Recipes for Love, Hate and Friendship is meant for those who love social and family histories; love cooking; love reading recipes and collecting them too. It is also meant for those who cherish an India which celebrates its diversity and the richness of its varied local cultures that are embraced willingly by its citizens, irrespective of which region or community they hail from. This is the idea of India most citizens believe in!

Read this book. It is unforgettable!

Buy the paperback edition and Kindle edition

24 July 2018 

 

Orijit Sen’s mural on Punjab

Orijit Sen’s mural on Punjab

Orijit Sen's mural

Well known artist Orijit Sen’s mural of life in Punjab is awe-inspiring. The digital mural, arranged almost like a street-view map, spans across two walls. Every inch of it is covered with people, buildings, fields of rice and wheat, roads, shops, houses, trees, water bodies, even temples as he tries to capture the social fabric of the state.

The mural was originally made for the Virasat-e-Khalsa, a multi-media museum and cultural centre in Anandpur Sahib and took a few years to complete.

Through the mural, the artist wishes to capture the indomitable spirit of the Punjabis as they face and live through the changes that their lives have gone through over the years as dams were built over rivers, fields replaced forests and globalisation began to creep in.”

An article in the Hindu about it ( 19 April 2012):

And writer, Amandeep Sandhu’s reply to this post, when I put it up on my facebook page ( 29 May 2013)

“Thanks Jaya. I was at Anandpur Sahib last summer and had the opportunity to see Orijit and team’s work. The mural is excellent, its attention to detail is superb. It is an brilliant socio-anthropological work of art. Respect! My problem with the museum is a) the maintenance of Orijit’s work, b) that the sections of the museum which talk about the Sikh Gurus (after Orijit’s sections) posit that the real history of Punjab starts with the birth of Guru Nanak and pay only a brief lip service to the period of the Harrapan-Mohenjodaro Indus valley civilization, the Vedas, the 5000 year rich cultural history of the land. One can understand that the museum is Virasat-e-Khalsa, the culture of the Khalsa, but given how hundreds of visitors come to the museum each day it is an opportunity missed in providing a composite, holistic view of society.”

Orijit Sen replied to Amandeep Sandhu on 29 May 2013

“Amandeep, your comments are very perceptive. Its true that a splendid opportunity to celebrate the amazingly rich history of the region has been compromised for short sighted political reasons. I wish it could have been done differently.”

Uploaded on 29 May 2013, Orijit Sen’s comments added on 30 May 2013.