The Debt of Salt

Table Talk interviews Bhaskar as he reveals his personal story of grappling with caste on a plate. 

Table Talk (TT): Hi Bhaskar, I’m so glad we’re chatting today. Thank you for your openness and time.

Bhaskar (BS): I'm so glad we’re having this conversation! I love that we’re using our time and space to talk about our culture, rituals and trying to open up our minds to different lived realities. I’m happy to see we want to have more conversations and break these invisible walls. This year has been interesting; for some miserable, but for me personally, it’s allowed me to meet different people and have open conversations. I'm eager to share my journey from being angry about all things caste to now trying to look at it with more compassion. And I’m eager to share that journey through the lens of food with you.

TT: Thanks so much. I’ve been meaning to speak to you for so long now! So, where should we begin?

BS: Maybe at the start? I was born in Nelamangala, a town 25 km away from Bangalore. The town was popular for “underworld“ activities so we grew up around those influences. My area was a slum area; not an urban slum but a small-town slum. Open sewer, people living in close quarters. Our home was in a low-lying area next to a huge, open sewer. It was once, a river.

I went to a Kannada medium government school, which was in an “upper lying” area. I was a good student and did very well in school. Growing up, caste was in the background. I would notice a few things that I found weird initially - like how we were served water at a friend’s home. They would ask us to stand outside and then pour the water from afar. I would think that's weird since we didn’t serve each other water like that at home. I would also not be allowed inside all homes. Before I would enter, I was always asked where I came from since I suppose my name didn’t give my caste away (I have a story to my name which I’ll share later). I did have a black thread around my wrist, so I would be asked my village, my exact address – almost like a screening question in a survey.

In 2006 I got selected to attend the Navodaya schools. These are residential schools across the country for talented students from rural/semi-urban areas. When I look back now, I see a lot of signs where caste and class showed up in our daily existence. Especially with food.

Every two weeks, the school would give us a “chicken meal”. It was such an event! I was 11 or 12 years old, just enrolled in school and I remember my first chicken meal. We were so excited, pushing each other in line, and we could see the vessel passing us, ready to serve us. But behind me there was a boy who on seeing this vessel, covered his mouth and nose with his hands. We were confused. We asked him and he told us he was a Lingayat, a member of a dominant caste in South India, and therefore didn’t eat meat and hated the look and smell of it. Funnily, I remember feeling guilty for causing him that reaction that day. I thought I was responsible somehow. As I think back, that hierarchy of vegetarians being superior, kinder, gentler and non-vegetarians being rogues, was set very early on. Maybe even amplified in a school system when you’re so impressionable. Teachers would encourage this, validating these “higher” eating habits. Sometimes I would also choose to stand in the vegetarian line to show my teachers I wanted to be like them.

I have another memory that’s deeply imprinted. On alternate Sundays, parents would come visit us. There would be a park-like area where we would meet them and usually, the excitement was because they carried food from home. I was always excited for these visits because I knew my parents would bring my favourite food. This one time, I invited a friend to come along. He was also from my town, so we had become close. He came with me and met my parents and I invited him to come share our food. He saw what was laid out and declined the invitation. I thought he was shy. How could he say no to my favourite meal of chicken sambar, ragi mudde and white rice? There were also some Horlicks biscuits and Kurkure! I didn’t think much and continued to urge him to come eat. He suddenly got angry, hit me on the shoulder and said, “we don’t eat meat.” I was so confused. My parents, who were watching this were shocked but realised what had happened. They asked me to let him go and that day my mother taught me my first caste lesson.

TT: You mentioned something about caste lessons there. Can you tell me more about that? 

BS: These were just things that we were told  or picked up that reminded us to stay within the “lines”.

It was summer, maybe I was 14. For the holidays, I was visiting my aunt in her village, where she was then contesting local gram panchayat elections. She was part of a syndicate where a few people came together to stand for gram panchayat elections. So like the rest of the family, I was given tasks to help out with campaigning etc. Once our work was done, we all went to a big house where we were to eat lunch, clearly a Brahmin house. We kids were so excited because it was a huge house. We ran in and were promptly asked to step out and stay outdoors. We didn’t think much of it;  just thought they were scared we would break stuff. When lunchtime came, we were served food in plastic plates and glasses, different from the others. I remember my uncle being furious that day. I remember him saying that if they can’t even eat with us, how will they govern with us. Perhaps because of an Ambedkarite influence on our family, we all sat down to talk about these issues. That incident left a huge impact on me because of how I saw them treat us. How people treat each other matters. Maybe, that’s all that matters.

TT: ...You mentioned earlier about a story attached to your name.

BS: Ah yes. I was born on a special day - during Mahashivratri. Our “caste priest” suggested I be named Shivnarayan Kumar Govinda, after Lord Shiva. The name was special but ‘appropriate’ given our caste. My mother refused because she felt my name would give my caste away, given my skin colour was dark already.  She decided to name me Bhaskar. A name that would not be a disadvantage. A name that was neither here nor there.

TT: How did this deep bond with food develop for you?

BS: Growing up I would often compare my daily food habits to people around me, especially my upper caste friends. They would always talk of a variety of dishes when they missed home. I hadn’t even heard of these dishes. I thought all homes would eat only sambar rice. I remember I would get mad at my mother and sister for cooking the same things again and again. It pains me to think of what I must’ve caused my mother because she has always been a free-spirited woman who never liked to be told what to do. I only later realised that it wasn’t because they were not good cooks, but because we were in a system that allowed us to only eat certain things. Those rules, over generations, had become habits and even today, in spite of access and means, those invisible lines or boundaries keep us in our place.

Having said that, I have fond memories of really tasty, happy meals at home. Really, mealtimes were the only happy times at home because food really brought us together. There was a saying that when chicken meat was cooked, the men couldn’t eat certain pieces like the throat or the scrawny part of the legs. It was believed that if men ate those parts, and god forbid if we found ourselves in court, our legs would shake. It was only later that I learned that meat was always limited. The women of the house would always eat after the men and this was their way of saving at least those scrawny parts for themselves. Of course, now I look back and feel terrible for taking away the pieces from my mother and sister, but those meals were happy meals and that’s how I’ve stored that simple memory.

When I stepped into National Law School, Bangalore it was a huge thing for me. It was a huge milestone not only because I was at a prestigious school but because that’s where I had my first pizza (laughs)! I was surrounded by a diverse group of students who remain, close friends, even today. 

I remember this one incident. It was dinner time and together with a few friends, I went into the dining hall to get something to eat. While we were thinking of what to get, one of my friends, with disappointment shared how he didn’t understand why the dining hall didn’t serve curd-rice in the evenings. He felt, given this was South India, curd-rice was almost a necessity for dinners. I remember thinking, “what a fine example of caste on a plate!” I took that moment that day to share with him how I, someone who was a “South Indian”, had never eaten curd rice, ever. Not many people know, but it’s a very upper caste thing to eat curd-rice at night. Especially in South India. I was so very angry about it, given those were my “activist” days (laughs). In fact, for the longest time, I did not touch curd, because I saw it as their food. And that expanded to even items like ghee, lemon rice, varieties of chutney etc. which I hated because I thought it represented everything that I wasn’t allowed to eat. I would even eat meat on Hindu holidays. It was during those days that my plate of food became a way to register my anger, to register my protest. But I see things differently now.

TT: How so?

BS: See. Growing up there was never enough. Be it food, clothes or other necessities. At home, we would always eat to our fullest in every meal because we didn’t know if we’d have enough in our next meal. Even today, I tend to eat larger amounts as if my body is now used to eating for today and tomorrow, in one meal. I remember my mother would always press my stomach with her hand to check if I was full (laughs). It’s silly but it’s something she still does today after we eat a meal together. Today there is almost a tenderness I feel for food and the anger has dissolved. I still acknowledge and respect the history of our plate, our people, but now it’s somewhat different.

I see eating food together as a means to establish a deep bond. If I’ve shared a meal in someone’s home, I feel a deep sense of loyalty towards them. Sharing food is not something I take lightly. In Kannada, there’s a phrase, “Uppina Runa”, which literally translates to salt debt. I see each meal that you have offered me as a “salt debt” because you’ve shared something incredibly valuable with me. I take it fiercely personally.

TT: I know the clock’s ticking and our time is limited today. But I do hope to share a meal with you soon, once we’re out and about to talk more, learn more, listen more.

BS: (laughs) I have to tell you this. A few months ago, I visited my girlfriend. It was a Sunday afternoon and she had just come back from church. She asked me to freshen up as she got lunch ready. She had made a lunch of chicken masala, ghee rice and served it with a glass of juice and some fruits. I felt such a deep sense of calm and happiness that day – I don’t think my words are doing justice right now. That day, through that plate of food, in unsaid words, both of us had communicated the life we wanted to build together and for our future families.

Our plates today continue to change as we live in a big city. There are good days and bad days but I see my plate of food as a portal to happiness, hunger-free days.  It’s a promise that while there are many things that we need to resist and rebel against if we can sit together and share a meal, treat each other with kindness, we can talk about a different future. I’m looking forward to sharing a meal with you soon!

See you soon.