Now You Can Have Your Poem and Eat it Too
A review of Quesadilla and Other Adventures: Food Poems Edited by Somrita Urni Ganguly
Hawakal Publishers, Calcutta, August 2019. Pages 150
INR 400 / USD 12.99
Reviewed by Amit Shankar Saha
Quesadilla and Other Adventures is a collection of food poems, compiled and edited by Somrita Urni Ganguly, from India, Ghana, Iceland, Nigeria, Spain, UAE, UK and USA. In her introduction to this collection she writes about the centrality of food in “our literature” and that “our language”” is too full of metaphors for eating. Somrita writes that the poems in this anthology “talk appetizingly about food as an allegory, food as a reality, and food as everything in-between”. Theorists, researchers and writers on food like Claude Fischler, D. Lupton, D. R. Gabaccia, Peter Atkins, Ian Bowler, Ludmila Volna, Timothy Morton, Anita Mannur, Bhawana Jain, Felipe Fernandez-Arnesto and others have said basically the same thing in their works. Food stimulates in our imagination images of want, desire, hunger, taste, cultivating, cooking, trading, storing, transporting, preserving, distributing and so on. Food is both holistic to humanity and specific to culture and individual. It can be staple and exotic simultaneously depending on the consumer. Food has defined human beings through their occupations – from hunter, gatherer, and farmer to butcher, baker, and the restaurateur. It was perhaps the pursuit of food, both literally and figuratively, that led the first Neanderthals to migrate out of the heart of Africa. It is a pursuit that is arguably more fundamental than even the pursuit of god because it cannot be divorced from existence itself. It is something that still keeps the mendicant and the millionaire alike at some level in its preoccupation.
Food, whether cooked or pickled or fermented or just raw, has become a topic for study and this volume adds one more angle of interdisciplinary approach in its epistemology. In their works Claude Levi-Strauss has analyzed his “culinary triangle” of raw, cooked, and rotten food in terms of universal oppositionality and Roland Barthes has seen food as a system of signs because of its rules of exclusion and association. So, it is neither frivolous nor surprising that poetry, arguably the highest form of literary art, will indulge in the depiction of food in its various aspects in verse. Somrita translates the fifteenth-century Indian poet Kabir Das’s couplets in this volume:
I am a bowl, and the plate.
I am Man, and Woman.
I am a wood apple, I am a sweet lime.
I am a Muslim, I am a Hindu.
I am fish, and my own fishing-net,
I am the fisherman, and I am Time.
The mysticism of Kabir Das’s couplets is the mysticism of food itself. The metaphor of food suffuses the universe of the mystic who becomes Time itself. For Kabir food becomes the panacea for the body and the soul and is shorn of its associations with matters of religion, rituals, hierarchy and worship which have become stereotyped in Indian culture. When food is made intrinsic to society and culture and when that same food on consumption becomes assimilated into the human body, it secures an innate sense of belonging. Christina Peri Rossi writes in “Rabelesiana,” as translated from Spanish by Elizabeth Rose:
If someone reproached her,
having devoured what she loved,
eyes resplendent with pleasure, she would say,
“You are what you eat.””
It is this devouring aspect of what one loves that makes food consumption a process of giving one a sense of identity. And equally so it brings in identity politics of food. Chandramohan S writes in his poem titled “Beef Poem”:
When I manoeuvre sharp curves of history
In my rear-view mirror,
I see some trucks overfull with cattle
Waiting at the check points,
Strands of fables
Edited out of history textbooks.
The religious sanctions on the sanctity of certain types of food and the profaneness of certain other types of food are not only important in their identitarian perspective but also in their historical, social, and cultural contexts. Words with food-associations like “kosher”, “lent”, “iftar”, “roza”, have become almost synecdochical to various communities in their significance.
Jagari Mukherjee in her poem “Tah-dig” writes about the Persian delicacy of the same name. She laments that her parents have paid seven hundred rupees for a dish at a Parsee restaurant in Mumbai which their daughter “could cook way better at home”. And ends the poem with a two-line stanza: “Except, it is not the same home / that I shared with you”. Immediately through associations of memory and personal anecdote she brings into reckoning multiple meanings of the concept of home. When Kiriti Sengupta, through an intertext of memory and locality, evokes home in his poems “Masala Muri” and “Clarity” by depicting the traditional Bengali snack of puffed rice and the preparation of clarified butter or Ghee (the cover image of the book) respectively, it is not just home that he evokes but he trespasses into the personal and the cultural consciousness of a society, community, family and personality. Poems like Moinak Dutta’s “Memories of a gourmet”, Linda Ashok’s “Woman on a Quest for a Perfectly Round Roti Smeared with Oil & Chopped Onions”, and Nabanita Sengupta’s “Nurtured Cravings” do very much the same thing. Sharmila Ray in her poem “Mangoes and Jackfruits” conjures imagery of “a world of mango and jackfruit trees” and ends the poem with the surreal line: “and we would merge with the carpet of time”. In another of her poems titled “Apple” she almost makes the fruit speak: “The apple shriveled, like eyes squinting to see the distant past”. But almost like an anti-climax she concludes: “But believe me anything can speak like a tear housing nostalgia,/ grandmother’s chair or the birth of earth in half-bloomed buds.” It is this perceptiveness of not getting carried over that makes a poet realize the true merit of things and the enigma of memory and longing.
The anthology has a few amusing and interesting poems that add thrill to the reading of the volume, which in its concept itself is thrilling. Poems like Somrita Urni Ganguly’s “chow mein”, Srividya Sivakumar’s “Dishinary”, Shruti Sareen’s “Learning Balance Through Food,” Tapaswinee Mitra’s “Chai-Sutta,” Giti Chandra’s “How Cooking Almost Killed the Cat,” and Smeetha Bhoumik’s “Magic of Flour” go way beyond theorization in concept or form and connects in ways unanticipated. But so does poems of Shanta Acharya or GJV Prasad or Anish Vyawahare or Sudeep Sen in their own ways. Themes of memory, longing, nostalgia, love, home, identity, culture, language, politics, gender, exoticism, migration, exile, all intertwine with the theme of food in this volume. In fact the volume has so many poems worth mentioning, quoting or discussing that it makes it an essential buy for any discerning reader.
Dr. Amit Shankar Saha is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at Seacom Skills University. He is also a widely published award-winning short story writer and poet. He has won the Poiesis Award for Excellence in Literature, Wordweavers Prize, Nissim International Runner-up Prize for Poetry, Kavi Salam Award amongst other awards. He has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and the Griffin Poetry Prize. He is the Co-founder of Rhythm Divine Poets and the Assistant Secretary of Intercultural Poetry and Performance Library. He is also on the Editorial Boards of many publications like Ethos Literary Journal, the Journal of Bengali Studies and Virasat Art Publication. He has been a delegate poet at Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival, Ethos Literary Festival and Sahitya Akademi. He has co-edited a collection of short stories titled "Dynami Zois". His debut collection of poems is titled "Balconies of Time" and his second volume of poetry is titled "Fugitive Words".