You know by now that I have a love of all things subcontinental so it’s no surprise that I read and enjoyed Feeding the Gods – Memories of Food and Culture in Bengal. Chitrita Banerji has written a charming and very personal reflection on her life and the spiritual part that food has played in it.
It is fair to say that this book is a woman’s book but it is as far removed from “chick lit” as you can get. It deals with serious issues of religious conflict and prejudice in a non-judgemental fashion and allows us to understand a little of the complexities of Bengali society. There was so much that I didn’t know and so many surprises.
Chitrita marvellously contrasts festivals in her homeland with her first Christmas in the US… “As with eating, celebration too is marked [in Bengal] not by restraint, but by boundless enthusiasm. The autumn festivities are about inclusion and community participation.” But in the US “I anticipated the same kind of energy, laughter, and fragrance that festivals had always meant to me. Instead I found myself inhabiting a ghost town …Christmas was a very private event behind closed doors …merrymaking and eating were off-limits to all but the inner circle.”
The saddest but, in some ways, the most fascinating part of the book is the chapter called What Bengali Widows Cannot Eat. These ladies suffer not only bereavement but also a change of wardrobe and diet. They can no longer eat meat and fish, and may only wear white. We can find similar traditions (with regard to attire) with the black-clad elderly ladies of southern Spain, Greece and Italy. Same sentiment, different colour.
Chitrita has obviously had a warm and loving family who have taught her how to pay respects to her Gods in the time-honoured way. Her writing is poetic and her words evoke rituals, colour and tastes of Bengal. Feeding the Gods gives a unique insight into the part played by food in spirituality. Our different ethnic origins don’t preclude us from understanding her sense of tradition and heritage. We might think that Chitrita Banerji is writing about food, but she is writing about continuity, ties and humanity. And that’s all of us!
Feeding the Gods – Memories of food and culture in Bengal
Author: Chitrita Banerji
Published by: Berg
Culture and history book review by Chrissie Walker © 2018