The Aurangabad-based author on his groundbreaking book that focuses on the food cultures of the oppressed Mang and erstwhile Mahar communities, analysing the caste hierarchy accorded to food

Aurangabad-based Shahu Patole is an unlikely champion of Dalit identity. He did not set out to be a political activist fighting for the rights of his community that has been oppressed by upper castes for centuries. Yet, with the publication of his Marathi book, Anna He Apoorna Brahma (Food Is the Incomplete Truth) in 2016, he was inadvertently set on the path of becoming a crusader. With the recent publication of the book’s English translation by Bhushan Korgaonkar, Dalit Kitchens of Marathwada: Anna He Apoorna Brahma (HarperCollins), Patole finds himself in the role of a pathfinder, not only helping a new set of readers discover the hitherto hidden marvels of Dalit cuisine, but also throwing fresh light on the oppression that the Dalits have faced over centuries.

Unwittingly, the book thrusts him at the forefront of the narrative because it breaches a new horizon in the ever-expanding world of Dalit literature. Anna He Apoorna Brahma — which breaks from traditional Dalit literature that has largely dealt with social conflict and disquietude, and its ramifications — is one of the first books to focus on the food of the oppressed castes, analysing in great detail the reasons why the food consumed by upper castes is different from those at the opposite end of the society. An anthropological study in the garb of a food book, it features recipes analysing comprehensively how socio-religious rules accord a caste hierarchy to food as well, resulting in a complete dissimilarity in the food of different strata of society occupying the same politico-geographical region.

Dalit Cuisine: Hiding in Plain Sight

It all began in the early 1990s when Patole noticed a growing incidence of food writing in newspapers. He observed that none of those write-ups ever touched upon the food of his community. “Even Marathi newspapers were beginning to carry a lot about food, but none on the cuisine of my people. So, I sent a few write-ups on the food of my community — the Mangs of Marathwada — to the newspapers. They returned my write-ups; those were the days when rejected material was sent back to the author,” recalls Patole over phone from Aurangabad. He now lives between the city and his village, Khangaon in Osmanabad district, ever since his retirement from the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, in May 2021; his last posting was at Doordarshan Mumbai.

In the opening decade of the new millennium, he sensed another surge in the coverage of food and different cuisines in newspapers. “My friends suggested that I write, but I decided not to reach out to newspapers as the material I had was fit enough for a book,” shares Patole. The book, he writes, “focuses on the food culture of the Mang and erstwhile Mahar castes, which is fundamentally different from that of the other two (upper) Dalit castes. The purpose of this book is to chronicle the food culture of only these two (lower) castes.”

Vegetarianism vs. Non-vegetarianism

As anybody aware of the caste dynamics of India would know, the biggest difference between the food of the upper and lower castes lies in the consumption of meat. While many upper castes are vegetarians, consumption of meat, including beef, is common among lower caste Hindus in almost all parts of India. A distorted version of this reality has given rise to myths about vegetarianism in India, with consequences that do not often augur well for the health of this nation, as was seen most recently in the campaigns of Lok Sabha Elections 2024.

Almost a third of Patole’s book is devoted to a meticulous examination of questions that need to be answered to understand why a community eats the food it does. Patole lucidly explains the genesis of vegetarianism and non-vegetarianism in a given community. His detailed descriptions of various caste divisions and the hierarchy within the Dalit castes is an eye-opener. “In Hinduism, the class system, caste system and food culture are the ‘three sides’ of the same coin,” he writes, pithily.

Shahu Patole with his mother, Gunabai Manik. Photo courtesy of Patole

In a vital section, Patole tries to address the question: “Why did beef and pork become part of the diet of only these communities?” He writes: “In Hinduism, the formerly permitted practice of eating the meat of cows and bullocks gradually turned around to become an extremely anti-religious and socially unacceptable act over time. However, it continued to be a sizable part of the diet of the Mahar and Mang castes for centuries…why should this be the fate of these two castes? They were the cleaning servants of the village. Were they trapped in this cultural and religious net so that they would continue with their tasks without raising their voice?”

It’s not difficult to fathom the reason behind the angst-ridden tone of the first half of the book, where the author raises pertinent sociological questions and seeks to provide an answer from the perspective of one whose community has been at the receiving end of discrimination since time immemorial. The anger is also against an inadvertent cultural misinformation. He writes: “The food culture of the upper castes and classes has been labelled and accepted as the food culture of the entire society, region and state…This means superiority assigned to a class is extended to its food and language as well.”

His tone turns merrier as the book progresses from a sociological discourse to chronicles of festivals and other events, detailing the rituals accompanied by recipes of food for special occasions followed by an exhaustive listing of recipes of various types of meat, as also a chapter devoted to vegetarian food. If there is one reason a food connoisseur would pick this book, it would be for the encyclopaedic listing of recipes hardly known outside the community.

An interesting highlight of the recipes is the fact that Patole has not given any measurements. “A few people did point out that to me but in traditional kitchens, our mothers never cooked by measuring in a spoon or a cup. No matter how big a family they have to feed, they know exactly how much would be required without any measurement,” explains Patole. It is not a surprise that he has dedicated the book to his mother, Gunabai Manik, with a citation that quotes her: “Cooking is a game of estimates, jugglery and hypnotism.”

Owning Dalit Identity

Even Patole is hard-pressed to explain why no comprehensive writing on Dalit cuisine has taken place until the arrival of his book, considering that Dalit literature emerged as a class of its own way back in the 1970s. It was a direct consequence of the emergence of the Dalit Panther movement, begun by the educated young people from the slums of then Bombay, in June 1972 and was inspired by Bhimrao Ambedkar and the US Black Panthers. Adds Patole, “Prior to the emergence of Dalit literature, Marathi literature was divided into two strands — the largely urban Marathi Saraswat literature and the Gramin (rural) literature. It was the latter that often carried references to Dalits, who were an integral, even though an outcast part of villages. Once in a while some reference would appear on Dalit food, but those references continued to be sporadic.” He shares that names and references of the food mentioned in his book have been selected from representative Dalit autobiographies such as Daya Pawar’s Baluta, Shankarrao Kharat’s Taral-Antaral, P. I. Sonkamble’s Athavaninche Pakshi, Uttam Bandu Tupe’s Katyavarchi Pota, and Sharankumar Limbale’s Akkarmashi.

Yet, owning the Dalit identity continues to be a work in progress. One reason, as Patole writes, is: “Dalits, who occupy a vital and robust position in all spheres of society in today’s Maharashtra, get uncomfortable about the topics of food habits and culture.” Another is a generational shift caused by mass migration of the Mahars and Mangs from Marathwada to Bombay and Pune in search of livelihood after the 1972 drought in the region. Says Patole, “After living in Mumbai, where nobody bothers about your caste but only the work you can do, change comes in the attitude. Younger generations that have grown up in Mumbai, etc., are not aware of what even their parents faced.” In both the scenarios, food habits have also been affected with the adoption of city culture. “Rice, wheat, vada pav, etc. now figure in our diet which are not part of our traditional diet,” shares Patole by way of an example. That makes this chronicling all the more imperative.

Patole, who lived in Kohima for three years while posted as AIR News Head at the radio station there, says that he found great acceptability among the Nagas because of shared food culture. “It was a revelation to them that Hindus too eat a variety of meats,” he shares. While a casteless India remains out of the realm, the time is perhaps ripe for more literature on different Dalit castes, and for restaurants dedicated to cuisine of these castes.
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