Respectable Lives and Transgressive Tastes
Reclaiming the streets of Kolkata, one serving of chaat at a time
A note from the editors: our CITY issue is here! In this issue, we’ll be bringing you stories about restaurants, homes, migration and belonging, public space, and more. These stories — told by skilful voices and grounded in cities including Kolkata, Hong Kong, London, New York, Barcelona, and Berlin — will take us through the longest days of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, a time when many of us are on the move, seeing new cities or fleeing sizzling ones for cooler pastures or familiar faces. Wherever they accompany you, we hope they’ll make you look at your surroundings (urban or otherwise) and the politics that shape them differently. Our first piece, Respectable Lives and Transgressive Tastes by the brilliant Sohel Sarkar, did for us just that: it made us consider how street food, often demonized for being unclean and unsafe, can be a vessel for existential anxieties over the mingling of genders and identities in the streets. It also made us extremely hungry. - IV & ZJ
In India, prohibitive injunctions against street food are a way of controlling women’s access to public space. But can the transgressive joy of street food also be a conduit for reclaiming women’s rights to the city?
By Sohel Sarkar
Growing up in 1990s Calcutta, the sound of the final school bell would signal an onslaught of temptation. As we filed out the doors with hungry bellies and pockets prickling with a bit of change, we’d be greeted by the familiar sight of vendors lined up outside with their four-by-three feet carts selling phuchka (puffed puris with spicy potato stuffing and mint and tamarind chutney, also known as pani puri or golgappa), jhalmuri (rice crisps mixed with condiments and garnishes), and ghugni (a spiced lentil dish). But we needed to try our hardest to resist. Indulging in even the smallest of snacks, and getting caught in the process, would mean facing a parental tirade on the dire consequences of ingesting these tongue-tingling delicacies.
“The plates won’t be washed! The vegetables will be rotting! The water will be contaminated and the oil adulterated! How can they stop the grime and dust from getting into the food?” I could usually use my grandmother’s lenience to get away with the things my mother would disapprove of, but on this subject, the two formidable women stood united. And while their reactions were exaggerated, they certainly weren’t alone in their beliefs about street food. Many adults of these generations were convinced that these foods could be harbingers of cholera, jaundice, or worse. Every once in a while, the street vendors gathered outside the school would be forced to disappear for several days after parents raised a hue and cry with the principal about their kids gorging on forbidden snacks.
To be sure, our parents’ anxieties were not completely unfounded. Barely a decade prior, a health crisis related to adulterated cooking oil had left residents of Calcutta — a city in the eastern Indian state of West Bengal that would later be renamed Kolkata — on edge. Even after the problem was brought under control, though, the fear around street food never quite went away. This was perhaps because, as I would come to later realize, our parents’ fears had little to do with the adulterated oil crisis. They related more closely to a long history of social and cultural anxieties related to caste, class, and gender, which predate street food itself.
Contested spaces and their dangerous potential
Before we had the street food cart, we had public eateries. In nineteenth-century colonial India, as more and more men migrated from the rural countryside to urban centers like Delhi, Calcutta, Bombay, and Madras to study or find jobs, a plethora of boarding houses, lodges, hotels, restaurants, coffee houses, and roadside tea stalls cropped up to offer inexpensive stay and cheap meals. These institutions were among the first to bring food and dining out of the private kitchen into the public sphere. As such, they were not without controversy.
For starters, the public eateries served unfamiliar foods that had been newly introduced by the British colonizer. These included baked items such as breads, cakes, and biscuits, and deep-fried foods such as chops and cutlets, many of which would become part of contemporary street food. Hindu caste purists associated the consumption of these “new” foods with the loss of (upper) caste. Their disdain may arguably have had anticolonial elements, but it was just as deeply rooted in casteism.
Public eateries earned upper caste ire for other reasons as well. As Utsa Ray writes in Culinary Culture in Colonial India: A Cosmopolitan Platter and the Middle Class, dominant norms of the time dictated that men eat communally only within their caste groups, with women being left out of the purview of public eating entirely. But in the new eateries, people were forced to dine alongside those from different castes. This was less a sign of changing social norms than an unavoidable reality of life in India’s densifying cities. Eating communally became a source of considerable anxiety for upper castes, as did the idea of being served food by men from oppressed (or lowered) castes.
Big cities afforded migrant men anonymity that did not exist in the close-knit communities of their villages and small towns where everyone knew everyone. This was as true of those who stayed and ate in these institutions as those who cooked in the public kitchens. As the number of inexpensive urban eateries expanded, the demand for Brahmin (upper caste) cooks increased to such an extent that many migrants hid their caste identity to find employment. But in Hindu society, where upper castes had violently upheld caste hierarchies and codes of purity and pollution connected with eating and touch for centuries, the idea of eating food cooked by men of oppressed castes was a source of moral panic.
Together, these anxieties prompted an urgent need, especially among upper castes and middle/upper classes in India, to reconfigure and redefine what constituted a modern refined cuisine. Ray explains that starting in the mid-to-late nineteenth century, a series of cookbooks and domestic manuals began to create an image of the model housewife whose culinary skills could elevate and modernize regional Indian cuisines while retaining their “authenticity”. Women were positioned as passionate cooks and their cooking was glorified in affective terms. In the narrative spun by these cookbooks, the finest nuances of cuisine could only flourish in domestic kitchens where women infused their cooking with love and affection — not in public eateries powered by the transactional labour of male cooks.
The social construction of taste
These interventions put women, especially upper-caste and upper/middle-class women, at odds with the concept of public cooking and eating. Part of this opposition was couched in moral contempt for the purportedly extreme tastes of so-called “bazaar food”, a term used in the late nineteenth-early twentieth century to refer to any food produced outside the home.
Historically, many regional cuisines in India denigrated sour and hot/spicy tastes “as the markers of the subaltern, the sensual, the unrefined and the uncivilized”. Cultural theorist Bhaskar Mukhopadhyay notes that in the reconfigured Bengali cuisine of the time, sour tamarind and hot chillies “were considered taboo, as unfit for polite cuisine” and relegated to the bottom of the taste hierarchy. Bengali cookbooks of that period excised the excessive use of these ingredients, reserving them only for chutneys and pickles. Bengali nationalist leaders like Vivekananda and Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay condemned the consumption of tamarind and chillies, and viciously attacked “uneducated rural women and the uncouth bazaar” for patronizing these titillating tastes. As sociologist Krishnendu Ray writes in The Ethnic Restaurateur, it is perhaps due to such prejudices that, only a few generations ago, young women expressing an appetite for spicy and tangy foods were reprimanded for their dushtu khide, a Bengali phrase that translates to naughty or unruly appetite.
Paradoxically, the more these “taboo” tastes were repressed in “refined” cuisine, the more alluring they became in “bazaar food”, which already lay outside the dominant hierarchies of taste, Krishnendu Ray explains. Because of their association with historically taboo tastes, street foods — and especially the sub-category of chaat which is dominated by tamarind and chillies — remained firmly entrenched outside the realm of the respectable. Given that women were historically constructed as the upholders of refined domestic cuisine, and defined in opposition to all forms of public eating/cuisine, their appetite for these foods was deemed particularly unbecoming and disreputable. For women, then, the instruction to stay away from street food was really an instruction to stay away from such unruly appetites.
This was evident in my own family’s disdain for street food, which took on a strikingly different tone in my mid-to-late teens. Suddenly, the bogeyman morphed from contaminated water and adulterated oil to the rather cryptically worded “dangers of the streets”. This was news to no one: as a teenage girl, I had already learnt that stepping into the streets meant holding my body in a permanent state of hyper-vigilance, ignoring or warding away the unwanted gaze, unsolicited comments, and wandering hands with steely resolve. But it told me that the warnings around street food, as they applied to me, had become gendered. And I wasn’t alone in this.
Almost everywhere in India, the sight of teenage girls and young women indulging in roadside food invites, at a minimum, strong disapproval, if not outright censure. While this may not stop them from gathering around the chaatwallah’s (chaat seller) cart, asking for “zyada teekha” (extra hot) bhel puri (a puffed rice and chutney snack), or extra helpings of mint chutney in their dahi puri (puffed puris loaded with veggies, yogurt and chutneys), they know that their presence is seen as contentious.
Ray describes chaat as “the touchstones of boyishness or untamed femininity, offering the possibilities of lives lived differently — on one hand, nostalgic and conservative, on the other, virile with heterotopic possibilities”. The street food vendor’s cart, Ray writes, is one of the few sites where unrelated middle-class young boys and girls can engage in social interactions and exchange outside the boundaries of caste, class, and ethnicity. “Breaking some barriers and taboos animates these moments with unknown possibilities, for instance, of romance across class and caste lines,” he adds.
With some exceptions, street food vendors in India, and many of their customers, are predominantly poor working-class men. As an informal sector of the economy, street food vending is also a source of livelihood and sustenance for migrant men who have little access to formal jobs and face discrimination based on their ethnicity and caste. Mumbai’s iconic vada pav, the unique kati roll of Kolkata, Delhi’s robust chole bhature, and the kachori sabzi that is common to many Indian cities and small towns, serve as quick, filling meals for many working-class men who may be able to afford little else.
The seemingly amorphous “dangers of the streets” about which young women are warned include the socially-unacceptable possibility of such interactions that threaten the breakdown of rigidly held boundaries of caste, class, and ethnicity. To foreclose such a possibility, it is women who are instructed to stay away from public spaces, including street food carts. Sometimes, these warnings fail to keep women away, but at other times, they work. In his study on street food and the urban politics in Mumbai, anthropologist Harris Solomon notes that the city’s vada pav stands are highly masculinized spaces, with “the gendered politics of respectability governing access to public spaces” making women a rare sight in the city’s street-side vending stalls.
The gendered politics of respectability and control
Street food is a decidedly public cuisine; Solomon writes that the streets act as “both the substance and site of food processing” and “a location for food’s consumption”. Unlike the public eateries of the past, women today have unhindered access to public spaces, at least in theory. In reality, though, their right to exist in and move through such spaces remains contingent on their ability to “demonstrate respectable purpose” in being there, write feminist scholars Shilpa Phadke, Sameera Khan, and Shilpa Ranade in their book Why Loiter?: Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets. Women could be on the streets to get to work, they could be returning from the university, they could be dropping kids off at school, they could be out in the market or for exercise, or they could be on their way to visit a relative or a friend. In each of these cases, the streets are a means to get somewhere, to do something, or simply move from one private space into another.
The problem arises when women linger without purpose or when their reasons for lingering are not deemed respectable. One such instance is when women are out on the streets for “unconditional fun”, the authors of Why Loiter write. The pursuit of fun, women are told, is not enough reason to expose themselves to unnecessary risk. The implicit suggestion is that while women deserve protection from sexual harassment and abuse if they are out on the streets for a respectable purpose, the same cannot be guaranteed when they are out for pleasure.
Safety is, therefore, the apparent reason women are denied unhindered access to public space. But as Phadke, Khan, and Ranade assert in their book, there are other less apparent and far more insidious reasons for such diktats. “The unarticulated reason why women are barred from public space is not just the fear that they will be violated, but also that they will form consenting relationships with ‘undesirable’ men,” they write.
In other words, the so-called dangers of the streets lie not only in the potential threat of sexual harassment or assault but also in anxieties of social miscegenation. These anxieties are “rooted in conservative class and community structures, particularly those of ‘sexual endogamy’, which means that sexual relationships are sought to be kept within specific, defined groups,” the authors of Why Loiter argue. In other words, the push to keep women off the streets without a clear purpose is to prevent them from forming unsuitable alliances with men of different castes, classes, or ethnicities, even if consensual.
Paradoxically, the same prohibitions that deny women legitimate access to public spaces as potential victims of abuse also serve to exclude marginalized men, as potential perpetrators, from those spaces. That is, both women and marginalized men — a category that most street vendors fall into — are intruders in public space. As part of the informal economy, vendors’ claims to the streets where they set up their carts are temporary and contingent. Many operate without licenses because legal recognition is expensive to secure and out of reach for those who lack the necessary documentation. This leaves them vulnerable to the whims of local politicians and extraction by the police and municipal officials. They are often forced to pay bribes to occupy a small corner of a street or pavement.
The vendors outside my school were not the only ones forced to disappear or relocate under pressure from disapproving parents and municipal regulations. For almost a decade starting in 1996, street food vendors were one of the primary targets of an anti-street hawking gentrification drive in Calcutta euphemistically named Operation Sunshine. Such eviction drives remain commonplace, especially in India’s metropolitan cities. During the Commonwealth Games held in New Delhi in 2010, street food vendors were not allowed to set up their carts in certain locations for fear that they would defile the world-class image of the city that the government sought to project.
Loitering and pleasure as resistance
The prohibitions surrounding street food are thus wielded as a form of control, both of male vendors and women. They are a means of controlling women’s bodies and movements under the guise of safety and protection. But precisely because such prohibitions thwart women’s unconditional access to public space and their right to unconditional fun, the antidote may lie in reclaiming the right to loiter and the right to fun, as the authors of Why Loiter suggest.
Social scientist Asef Bayat says that “fun is seen as threatening because it fundamentally questions the idea that women’s presence in public space is only acceptable when they have a purpose.” Therefore, to move without purpose in a public space is to reclaim the right to loiter. According to the Oxford Dictionary, to loiter is “to stand or wait somewhere, especially with no obvious reason”. Loitering, then, can both redefine and expand the terms of women’s access to public space, opening up the possibility for fun. In a country where women are only allowed access to public spaces if they can demonstrate a specific purpose, the act of aimless loitering and the pursuit of fun is how women can assert their right to the city. And street food, by its very nature, can be a blueprint for both.
Let’s catch up over a plate of chaat on such and such date at such and such time, said no one ever. Street food is all about that sudden intense craving that demands we abandon all productive pursuits to indulge in a few moments of unproductive aimless pleasure. The sights, sounds, and smells emanating from the street food vendor’s cart — the sizzle of hot oil in which samosas and jalebis are being fried; the flourish of puffed rice being jostled with spice powders, chopped onions, and chillies before being poured into newspaper cones; the twang of a steel ladle tossing noodles around in a wok; the aroma of an egg landing on a hot pan — lure unsuspecting passersby away from their purposeful strides into entirely unplanned bouts of indulgence. Often, the mere sight of a random stranger meditatively channelling the canape-like sev puris loaded with veggies, herbs, spices, and condiments into their mouth is enough to stop mid-stride and head towards the chaatwallah’s cart.
Then there is the delicious pleasure of consumption. The perfectly crispy, airy puris stuffed with potatoes laced with just the right amount of chilli heat, and topped with cool mint water and a sweet-sour tamarind chutney have little aim apart from the bursts of “extreme” flavour they produce in the mouth. The spiciest street food can leave you teary and out of breath but eternally eager to devour some more. In between are those little moments of camaraderie when you catch the eye of the person standing next to you and break into a guilty smile as a nod to the moment of transgression in which you are both happy and willing participants.
Finally, the streets are at the heart of street food, which demands that the desiring consumer veer off course to nooks and corners, lanes and bylanes to find a particularly famed dahi vada seller or run into an anonymous bhel puri wallah. As real connoisseurs of street food well know, it is often through aimless loitering that you discover your new favourite pani puri wallah. If for women, the act of loitering is a way to reclaim public space, street food is the perfect conduit. And while the joyful encounters around street food can never truly dissolve the boundaries of caste, class, and ethnicity, they offer moments of reprieve. For those waiting expectantly around the street food vendor’s cart for their next pani puri or a plate of chaat, these lines are inadvertently bent and twisted, as eaters and sellers are joined together in mutual affinities, even if temporary.
This is not to say that the streets are (or will magically become) a welcoming, hospitable space for women, just waiting for us to jostle elbows at the vendor’s cart. Indeed, I was barely in my teens when I was molested by two men on a passing motorbike while waiting my turn at Manik kaku’s (kaku in Bengali translates to uncle) phuchka cart. Without thinking, I dropped the sal-leaf cone into which Manik kaku would plop the loaded phuchkas almost as fast as I could eat them, paid and left. For a long time, I couldn’t venture anywhere near that street corner, taking a longer detour to go back home. Over time, Manilk kaku’s cart moved elsewhere. The next time I hesitantly approached another phuchka stall was when I was an undergrad, having heard about a nearby vendor’s reputation for making a strikingly tangy mint chutney. The phuchka lived up to its reputation and my love affair with this quintessential Kolkata street snack was restored.
The interim, when I stayed away, had been my reckoning with the limits that the city would always impose on me and my movements as a woman. But, just like in my school years, I found myself attempting to renegotiate those limits through the transgressive joys of street food.
Sohel Sarkar is an independent writer and editor with bylines in Whetstone Magazine, Sourced Journeys, Eaten Magazine, Goya Journal and Smart Mouth, among others. Find her on Twitter @SohelS28 and on Instagram @sarkar.sohel10.
Bayat, Asef (2007). Islamism and the Politics of Fun. Public Culture, 19(3), 433-459. https://doi.org/10.1215/08992363-2007-004
Mukhopadhyay, Bhaskar. (2004). Between Elite Hysteria and Subaltern Carnivalesque: The Politics of Street-Food in the City of Calcutta. South Asia Research. 24. 10.1177/0262728004042762.
Ranade, Shilpa, Sameera Khan, and Shilpa Phadke (2011) Why Loiter?: Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets. Penguin Books.
Ray, Krishnendu (2016). The Ethnic Restaurateur. Bloomsbury.
Ray, Utsa. (2015). Culinary Culture in Colonial India: A Cosmopolitan Platter and the Middle-Class. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9781107337503