By Chandrima Pal Dec. 20, 2018
In Bengal, food is the only religion that matters. And in the current scheme of things, Mamata Banerjee is the head priestess at the altar of this all-powerful reigning deity. If the BJP wants to make inroads in the state, it needs to understand that trying to tell a Bengali what he should eat for lunch is a terrible idea.
Food is inextricably linked with politics and power. If you’ve read Asterix, you’ll recall how giddy-headed Roman noblemen and women jumped into giant cauldrons of cheese fondue and hastened the downfall of the mighty empire.
Closer home, onions have played a pungent role in bringing down governments since the 1980s. Last week, it forced a teary-eyed ouster for the incumbent in Rajasthan. Lalu Prasad Yadav had once famously compared his political longevity to the presence of aloo in samosas – you were supposed to take it for granted. Until of course he became fodder for the CBI and the cows he fed. The chants of “Har Ghar Modi” turned to “Arhar Modi” when the price of the staple turned unpalatable. And the late J Jayalalithaa – whose dole model is being replicated in West Bengal – set the template for subsidised food for her electorate with Amma Canteen. While meat has often been a bone of contention, beef has lately become a ballot issue.
The stage is set for 2019. Contestants for the grand finale are sharpening their knives and their strategies. And no one understands the power of food in shaping political destinies and igniting passions better than the indomitable Didi of Bengal. Religion, for the rest of the country, is often marked by the food that people eat. In Bengal, food is the only religion that matters. And in the current scheme of things, Mamata Banerjee is the head priestess at the altar of this all-powerful reigning deity.
Exhibit A: Rosogolla Day on Diabetes Day. Last month, on the occasion of Children’s Day, when one half of the world was celebrating World Diabetes Day and walking the extra mile to stay fit, Kolkata was busy stuffing its face. The day was being celebrated as Rosogolla Day here, to commemorate the day Bengal won the GI tag for this iconic sweet, after a bitter tussle with neighbouring Odisha last year.
In Bengal, food is the only religion that matters.
At Mishti Hub, replica of a splendorous zamindar villa of yore in the sprawling Eco Park complex in suburban New Town, heritage sweet makers, comedians, folk musicians, NRI doctors and friends of the Trinamool Congress gathered to pay obeisance to the rosogolla. A rosogolla cake was cut, giant bowls with colourful avatars of the sweet were decked up with turbans and glitter, and Bauls folk artists sang about its sweet temptation.
Speech after rousing speech reminded people about Bengal’s “ongoing renaissance”, the chief minister’s relentless efforts to bring glory to Bengal and Bengalis by GI tagging traditional sweets, and how the rosogolla war waged and won against Odisha was symbolic of Bengali pride restored, at last. A few hours later, at another swank venue, a film trailer was launched – the fictionalised biopic of the “creator” of the rosogolla, Nabin Chandra Das. The film is titled, what else, but Rosogolla. Imagine a film titled Dhokla or Kaju Katli or Boondi Laddoo. Hardly hits the sweet spot.
It is not just the rosogolla, or the langcha, ledikeni, and other Bengali sweets that Banerjee has GI tagged and identified as markers of Bengali pride. In this land of gluttony, everything from ilish maachh to beef, Hungarian pork sausages to nolen gur, egg rolls to Darjeeling tea is a potential player in the politics of identity. Besides generating employment for her teeming masses, the stoked passion for food in all its glorious Bengali form comes in handy to keep political “outsiders” and adversaries at bay.
As the BJP is learning the hard way (the wheels of its political chariot have not been able to roll since the government took the legal route to slam the brakes on Amit Shah’s ambitious rath yatra in the state), trying to tell a Bengali what he should eat for lunch is a bad idea. You might as well step into a bullfight arena with a crimson screen and hope the animal does not notice you. You may get the occasional Bengali vote on the issue of unemployment or lawlessness. But utter a word about any food ban and you are likely to be reminded of how Subhas Bose raised an army to fight off the British.
But utter a word about any food ban and you are likely to be reminded of how Subhas Bose raised an army to fight off the British.
Brand Bengal, or Biswa Bangla, as the Trinamool Congress has packaged it, has been as much about turning the spotlight on the state’s agrarian riches and cultural icons as it has been about its famous inclusivity. And the canny of the party has been in underscoring the role played by food in fostering this spirit.
One of the city’s loved restaurateurs is the feisty Doma Wang who runs Shim Shim, which specialises in beef. This cosy 20-seater stands out for its pluck in the time of lynching, relying on the government’s moral support and her loyal patrons. Simply tucking into a sumptuous Mongolian beef bowl at Doma-di’s (as she is called by city foodies) is an act of defiance at a time when the Meat Police are on a rampage. “This happens only in Calcutta,” said Wang to a city newspaper, admitting that she would not have the courage to open a restaurant specialising in beef anywhere else in the country. “Calcutta is still a place where what you eat is your choice and nobody’s business,” she said.
Mamata Banerjee, known for her fiercely austere lifestyle and frugal diet – her preferred snack is plain muri (puffed rice) with aloor chop (bhajia) – has been encouraging her electorate to eat more and eat all kinds of food. “Don’t blame the rosogolla for your diabetes,” declared a doctor at a Rosogolla Day event. “Blame your lifestyle. Eat a few. Get off your car. Walk the last few minutes to your home. Ask your driver to follow.”
Moral of the story: If you want Bengal, you have to feed its passion.
Chandrima Pal is a journalist, columnist, career insomniac and caffeine snob. Loves food. Does travel. Author of A Song for I (Amaryllis) and At Home in Mumbai (Harper Collins).