Rajyashri Goody, a Pune-based artist, has compiled 80-odd recipes from 10 Dalit literary works, mainly autobiographies. For the past few years, her practice has centered on narratives of food and caste. In a conversation with Lachmi Deb Roy, she talks about Dalit food and literature. Excerpts:
What does Dalit literature say about food?
Dalit literature encompasses a rich variety of writing by Dalit communities across the country. I am just scratching the surface with my reading. Besides, new Dalit writing is coming out all the time. In many, if not all the books, food and hunger have been important themes, perhaps because one of the most significant ways that oppression is felt is through one’s stomach, whether one has enough to eat or not. Caste operates cunningly through restrictions, including on access to food.
What is Dalit food?
The food of Dalits is the same as that of other communities in the region they are from, but what makes it different is the memories attached to food and the rules and regulations forced on Dalit people, such as not being able to share food with
a caste Hindu, having to beg for meals or depending on the village’s donations. Perhaps these rules don’t come into play today and perhaps they do—in a morphed and much more insidious way. But our history is steeped in memories of resistance, even with something as everyday as food. It is important to remember how deep the roots of caste go, so as to affect every aspect of a person’s life.
Is there shame attached to selling Dalit food products?
Selling Dalit food is, I assume, incredibly difficult because of caste Hindu notions of purity and pollution. While I know of some Dalit restaurants and dhabas, there are not many in number. It is also common to hear of incidents of discrimination where Dalit people are made to sit separately or use separate glasses or cutlery even today. This should be a matter of great shame for caste Hindus and yet, it is Dalit communities who are forced to feel guilty because of such discrimination.
Has your work helped you in strengthening the Dalit voice?
I would put it the other way. The strengthening voice of the Dalit community is what has guided me into learning so much about our deeply complex food culture, particularly through the highly evocative Dalit literature movement.