The introduction to Alimentary Tracts begins with a Salman Rushdie quote about peppercorns and includes the phrase “symbolic anthropophagy.” Similarly to the first two sentences, the remainder of the book would continue to intrigue and baffle me.
Alimentary Tracts consists of four long chapters entitled “Disgust: Food, Filth, and Anglo-Indian Flesh in 1857”; “Abstinence: Manifestos on Meat and Masculinity”; “Dearth: Figures of Famine”; and “Appetite: Spices Redux,” and one short final chapter, “Remains: A Coda.” The style of writing is admittedly dense, like an over-rich chocolate cake. And at times the meaning seems to be lost in the thickness of the form.
More simply, overall, Roy questions what is eaten, and what or who is involved in the process of cooking, sharing, and ingesting. She provides an analytical investigation of the “gastropolitics and gastropoetics.” Alimentary Tracts essentially asks how aspects of food politics (such as famine) impact identity and history in the colonial and postcolonial periods. Roy argues that “who eats and with whom, who starves, and what is rejected as food are fundamental to colonial and postcolonial making – and unmaking.”
In discussing famine, Roy brings attention to questions of equity and access. In the first chapter Roy provides greater context to Gandhi’s famous protest of the salt tax in India. She also looks at the issue of pollution for high-class Hindu males in food as interlinked to concepts of sex. And, in subsequent chapters, she discusses Mahasweta Devi’s coverage of famine in her short stories and novels.
In chapter two, she discusses Gandhi’s experiments with truth, eating, and abstinence. Humans today have certainly come a long way in acceptance of organic, local, vegan cuisines when compared to when Gandhi first went to England. At that time, open defiance of Hindu traditions were seen as civilized; eating meat and drinking alcohol was just one aspect of the norm.
I found the chapter focusing on appetite to smoothly flow the best. Roy traces the evolution of the term curry, an invention of Anglo-Indians in India, rather than an appropriate description of the various styles of cooking and spices that go into Indian food. Incorporating analysis of cookbooks and Indian writers, she weaves together what seems initially to be a strange combination of concepts.
Its easy to imagine excerpts of this text in a reader on South Asian studies, food politics, literary criticism or cultural criticism; it is nothing close to a cookbook and isn’t meant for light reading. In her introduction, Roy states that the alimentary tracts of colonial and postcolonial India contain lessons for students of literary, feminist, cultural, and area studies. Though the text can be painfully difficult to wade through, that is because it contains much substance.