Cinema writing, travel writing and fiction are what I usually spend my time on, but every now and then, I try my hand at writing about food. Not just restaurant reviews (of which I do a good deal, some occasionally posted on this blog), but other writing as well. My food writing is much less frequent than my other stories, essays and reviews, but now and then, it’s fun to write about something that’s so close to my heart.
AntiSerious, the online literary magazine, some months back invited submissions for their spring issue, which was to be a food special. Personal accounts, memoirs, and similar writings on food were encouraged. I couldn’t resist the temptation to write about something that’s always amused me and puzzled me: the notion most non-Christians in India have about what Indian Christians eat. Just as Hindi cinema, for decades altogether, has slotted the Indian Christian as a dress-or-suit clad, crucifix-around-the-neck, constantly-crossing-themselves community, it has also led to the notion that everything (including food, so important a part of life) about Indian Christians is Westernized.
Here, then, is my essay for AntiSerious: Bye-bye, Christmas Goose: We Never You. Enjoy!
Really lovely – and thought-provoking – article, Madhu. I wonder whether this misconception is a particularly North-Indian one, though, because of Hindi cinema? Because the other instance I can remember is my husband’s friend, Trevor, who was asked by a colleague whether his mother wore sarees. Trevor was gobsmacked. What else was his mother supposed to be wearing? :)
In the south, I think, we would have found it amusing if one of the Christians we knew suddenly appeared in a suit or a dress. In fact, when I was growing up, we had only one Christian woman who wore only dresses – and she was Anglo-Indian. Otherwise, as you said, they were exactly like us.
Great job – as usual.
p.s Loved the title! :)
“Trevor was gobsmacked. What else was his mother supposed to be wearing? :)”
Hehe! This reminds me of something pretty hilarious. A couple of years back, for my father-in-law’s 75th birthday, my mum-in-law organized a havan at home. Just the immediate family, no-one else, and the pandit who came home to do it. My mum-in-law and sister-in-law wore their usual salwar-kurtas, while I wore a sari (a Tangail, and that too worn the traditional Bengali way) – and the pandit ticked off my in-laws for not having worn saris! “Aapki bahu ko sahi pata hai ke pooja mein kya pehenna chaahiye!” was what he said. I wondered what his reaction would’ve been if he’d known I wasn’t even a Hindu. ;-)
I think Hindi cinema has a lot to do with this warped image of Christians. But also, in the North, the fact that Christians are a small minority. In the south and in the north-east, Christians are a much larger part of the population, so perhaps by sheer dint of numbers, they make their presence – and therefore their way of life – more visible. Here in the north there are relatively so few of us that we tend to melt into the background, becoming invisible for everybody to keep thinking we’re like the filmi Christians they’ve seen.
Glad you liked the essay and its title, Anu! Thank you. :-)
I wondered what his reaction would’ve been if he’d known I wasn’t even a Hindu. ;-)
One of two options: a) Pleased that though you weren’t a Hindu, you respected other traditions. (The sensible kind of priest.)
b) Stormed out in a huff because you had polluted the havan with your impure presence. :)
I have a feeling it would have been (b). ;-)
*head to desk* Not ‘like the us’. Just ‘like us’. Please, please edit that sentence for me?
By the way, thank you for the very encouraging comment on the essay over at AntiSerious itself – the site prompted me to log in and all, so I decided to avoid that and respond here itself.
Yes, the stereotyping of South Indians is another thing that is perpetuated by Hindi cinema (I think I would’ve liked Padosan a good deal if it wasn’t for Mehmood’s character). And that, naturally, carries over into everyday life. I remember a Tam-Brahm classmate once recounting how a total stranger sitting next to her on a DTC bus complimented her on her hair (very long and thick) and then, on discovering my friend was a Tamilian, nodded in understanding. “Oh, acchha. Aap Madrasi idli-dosa khaate hain na, isliye aapke baal itne acchhe hain“.
“Oh, acchha. Aap Madrasi idli-dosa khaate hain na, isliye aapke baal itne acchhe hain“.
*splutter* Thank heavens I wasn’t holding my tea! It’s alright for people to be ignorant – do they have to advertise it?!
A resounding ‘Yes’ to Padosan being more palatable if it hadn’t been for that cringeworthy caricature. As it is, I can’t stand Padosan and have thought that Mehmood, despite being such a fine actor if he chose to be, was almost always over-the-top.
Re: stereotypes in films: A friend wanted to watch Hamare Dil Aapke Paas Hai (AVOID!) so I drove her to the theatre. The ‘comic’ side plot had some extremely caricaturish picturisations of south Indians (complete with the turbans which probably went out in the mid-part of the 20th century), Bengalis, Punjabis and Gujaratis. Very. Broad. Strokes. So. Friend cackled her way through the South Indian caricture – she was almost rolling on the floor, laughing. Bwhen the Punjabi caricature came around, and there were others like her, I suppose, who found that funny, she retreated into offended silence.
That would have been funny, if it weren’t also sad. Told me a lot about her.
p.s. Yes, I was forced to log in, but figured that a comment on the article really helps a lot. :)
Oh, yes. I have seen Hamara Dil Aapke Paas Hai. On DD, thank heavens – so one wasted merely time, not money. Those regional stereotypes were played (among others) by Jaspal Bhatti and Anupam Kher if I remember correctly, no? I remember wincing as I watched – it was so painful.
And yes, sad and funny about someone who thinks it’s hilarious if others are shown as stereotypical buffoons, but who can’t see their own community/region being lampooned. It does say a lot about the person in question.
Blame it on Hindi movies.
Growing up, I had Christian friends who brought the same food to lunches as us Hindus. Once in 12th grade I attended church with couple of girls and was pleasantly surprised by the low key affair of the church ceremonies.
Your write up brought me back to my days at my Nani’s. Like you, we also had families coming from all over and had meals together. I remember days when Ma used to use stone grinders.
Thank you so much! I remember, too, going to school and my lunchbox resembling pretty much that of all my Hindu friends: the same parathas and vegetables and pickle and things… in fact, there were some friends who more regularly brought ‘Western’ food than I did.
I am a Hindu married to a catholic for 40 years and can identify with the article totally. We had Turkey once about 15 years back and never really enjoyed it. We have never had it since.
That made me laugh! I remember, when we’d been married a year or two, my husband tried to persuade me a couple of times that we really should get turkey and try it out. I refused, because I didn’t have an oven large enough to roast one. Now I’m glad I didn’t even bother. The pulao-curry staple sounds much nicer.
Gunjiyaan and Shami kebab for Christmas?! Yummy…
Although back in my childhood, gunjiyaan was only made for Holi – so gunjiyaan in December would have struck my as very exotic. Now of course, you even get it at all the mithai stores, and there seem to be no seasonal restrictions on it anymore.
Lovely article, Madhu. Hindi cinema started quite a few stereotypes – but I didn’t realise that people took them so seriously.
“Hindi cinema started quite a few stereotypes – but I didn’t realise that people took them so seriously.”
It appears they do, and did! One especially hilarious thing I remember somebody mentioning – perhaps on Greta’s blog, I don’t recall now – was how one of their uncles married an American, back in the 60s. She had already seen a lot of Hindi films by the time she first came to India, and when she was invited to a party, was very surprised to find that nobody sat at a piano and/or sang a song! :-D
Gujiyas are pretty much available around the year now, but somehow we still end up only eating them only around Holi. (I don’t make them for Christmas – I only make cake). But the shaami kababs get made often enough. They’re much loved by everybody at home.
It is a very interesting article. I have not eaten many, if any of the foods described, but all sound really good. Just the other day I was watching the infamous “Fanny Cradock Cooks for Christmas” series on youtube in which that eccentric chef makes that ‘cannon ball”, of a pudding, christmas cakes, and pierces a goose all over ( to release fat). Those all seem more western-British traditions than elsewhere. Here in the US many years ago an elderly couple I was working for offered me some plum-pudding, and were astonished that I had never eaten it before, only read of it in books.
Thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed the article.
As for plum pudding, that does happen to be one thing I’ve eaten! Years ago, my father used to be on the board of directors of the New Delhi YMCA, and they used to have an annual Christmas dinner for the directors and their families. The main courses (or well, not courses, really – since it followed the usual North Indian practice of everything being placed on the table all at one go) used to be the usual curries and other popular Indian dishes, but the dessert always used to be plum pudding. And very good, too!
While Hindi movies certainly feed the stereotypes, the lack of interaction to Christians in the north makes those even harder for people to get educated on reality. Besides, the only other exposure is through English movies which are obviously a completely different culture setting…
I wonder how you feel when you watch movies like “Baaton Baaton Main”.
I enjoyed the details you provided about the mixture of east and west culinary and the evolving tradition. Turkey somehow I can only relate to Thanksgiving and I never developed taste for it, No matter what you do to it, it feels so bland!
Really nicely written article, great job Madhu!
Yes, the lack of interaction is a big factor. Also, unlike in some cities (Mumbai, for example) where most Christians are in a sizeable number and – perhaps because of Anglo-Indian origins or other factors, are actually distinctly different from Hindus… that’s not the case in the North. Most North Indian Christians blend in so completely that unless you knew them closely, you probably wouldn’t realize they weren’t Hindu. Their names, their clothing, the language they speak.Speaking of which, in the church my parents attend, the English congregation is outnumbered by the Hindi congregation by about three times or so. :-D
Turkey is something I also always tend to associate with Thanksgiving rather than Christmas. I don’t recall ever having eaten turkey, except possibly as turkey ham – which is so highly processed that it barely tastes of anything.
Glad you liked the article, Ashish! Thank you.
Just watched a bunch of international Easter foods on food network today and as you said the traditions are deeply carved into their origin.
Thank you, Ashish! And best wishes to you and your family. :-)
@ Ashish, but Baaton Baaton Mein was about a specific community of Christians in Bombay. In fact, friends of mine from that community always talked about that film with affection because they felt they had been represented authentically at last. Even today, if you go to certain neighbourhoods in Bandra, you will come across families like the Braganzas and the Pereiras.
But that community is so different from the Christians we knew in the South, of course, and definitely nothing like the Christians in the North.
Agreed Anu. That community in the movie is perhaps very specific to Bombay but those are the ones people watched in movies and may have created certain image which is very different from the other parts of the country..
True. Incidentally, I do recall a film – now I’ve forgotten which one it was, but it featured Johnny Walker (as the hero’s friend) – in which JW was a Christian. And so was his girlfriend, but both of them spoke absolutely normal Hindustani and had none of those stereotypical traits so common in Hindi films. If I remember correctly, even the woman was often shown in Indian clothing. I remember being pleasantly surprised at that – it was the sort of Indian Christian I could identify with!