“Boshi bachharer poila tarikhe/
Moner khataye rakhilam likhe/
Sahaj Udore dhoribe jetuku/
Sheyi tuku khabo hobo na petuk.”
“On the first day of the year, I sat/
And noted in my mind’s diary/
Whatever little my stomach can hold/
Will only eat that, won’t be greedy.”
These lines from the poem Nirupaye (Helpless) by the Bengali poet, playwright and illustrator Sukumar Ray remind us of our failures. At the beginning of the year, we resolve to exercise self-control and tame our appetites. But the determination melts faster than kulfi on a hot summer day.
Like us, Ray’s the narrator too is soon rendered helpless by the irresistible lure of good food. He asks earnestly, should the heart cry out for luchi (deep-fried puffed bread), can it simply be consigned to tears? If, at an opulent feast, rich pulaos, kalia and sweet treats like payesh (milk and rice pudding) run wild on the plate, is it possible to not welcome them?
In another Ray poem, titled Chor Dhora (Catching the Thief), the protagonist is flustered when he wakes up from a nap to find his food stolen. Five cutlets, stacks of luchi, tongue-shaped pastries, sugar candy, fried potatoes and curried peas – everything is gone. Livid and shaken, he resolves to catch the gluttonous thief and teach him a lesson.
Such references to food are common in the writings of Sukumar Ray (1887-1923), who enriched and enlivened the world of generations of Bengali children with his wit and wordplay. The son of author-publisher Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury and the father of auteur Satyajit Ray, he too has an assured place in history as the pioneer of literary nonsense in India.
Within his nonsensical and implausible Ray enfolds what seems like reams of social, political and cultural commentary. And a recurrent motif in the work is food. Ray deftly uses food to train a sharp spotlight on the eccentricities of Bengali society, to ridicule the British Raj and the Bengali Babu culture, create an inverted reality, and to build a bridge between the real and fantastical worlds.
Some of his most hilarious stories and poems centre around the disorderly or voracious consumption of food – and how it is punished. In Petuk (Greedy), a young boy named Haripada, who is known for his gluttony, grabs a fistful of what he thinks is yoghurt from a pot stored under his grandmother’s bed, only to realise it is quicklime when he shoves it into his mouth. On another occasion, he eats more than a dozen laddus made of kheer at one go. The child changes his ways only after his uncles find a way to teach him a lesson. A similar tale of gluttony and punishment plays out in Ray’s Bishom Bhoj. In this poem, two young boys, Potla and Tyapa, get their ears wrung mercilessly after they devour a stolen basket of sweetmeats.
This preoccupation with food might seem like a whimsy, a literary conceit, but it was much more.
Ray wrote in the early decades of the 20th century, a time when “food and cuisine represented a vibrant site on which a complex rhetorical struggle between colonialism and nationalism was played out,” says historian Jayanta Saha in the essay Nation on a Platter: The Culture and Politics of Food and Cuisine in Colonial Bengal. During this period, “the gastronomic excesses of gluttonous British officials – so crucial in asserting the physical superiority of a masculine Raj – became an object of ridicule in bhadralok culinary texts, signifying the grossness of a materialistic Occident,” adds Saha. It is possible Ray was channeling this consciousness in his work.
One of Ray’s most iconic and oft-quoted poems is Khai Khai (Eat Eat), in which he promises guests an assortment of dishes from around the world. The French eat frogs, writes Ray, while the Japanese eat ghonto (a quintessentially Bengali dish) made of grasshoppers. From the culinary, the poet takes a hard left turn in the poem. Shud khaye mahajone, ghush khaye daroga, he writes – the moneylender consumes interest, while the daroga consumes bribe.
In Paloan (Bodybuilder), Ray deals with the Bengali obsession with bodybuilding and wrestling at the height of Raj as a response to the colonial projection of native men as weak and effeminate. It is widely believed the character of the colossal paloan, who “could play catch with an elephant”, was inspired by Bhim Bhabani or Bhabendra Mohan Saha. Confirming the wrestler’s Bengaliness is his diet: a breakfast of three dhama (baskets) of dried fruits and nuts, followed by 14 pots of yoghurt mixed with malai and murki (jaggery-coated popped rice), 19 pots of iced sherbet, 10 gandas of monda (sugar-based sweetmeat) and finally several distas of luchi.
The role of food as a marker of identity is also prominent in the poem Danpite (Foodhardy). In it, Ray describes the strange diets of two toddlers who want to eat a sil nora (a grinding stone and muller) instead of rice and milk, the typical infant food in Bengal. While one brat sucks on candles and matchsticks, the other chomps on flies. In the final stanza, the poem turns to Tom Chacha or Uncle Tom: had he consumed a roti, suspectedly poisoned by the little devils, he would have died. The poem is said to have drawn inspiration from Rudoph Dirk’s American comic strip Katzenszammer Kids but, through the culinary references, Ray makes the characters quintessentially Bengali.
In Ray’s universe, everything has a relation with food, human or not. In one hilarious couplet, he writes the sky has a distasteful sour smell, although it tastes sweet after a spell of rain. In his Chhayabaaji, the shadows of trees have medicinal virtues: the shadow of neem and jhinge trees, when cooked into a bitter concoction, helps induce sleep so deep that one snores with abandon. The papaya tree’s shadow, if sniffed on a moonlit night, cures cough and cold. And the shadow of a hog plum tree, when bitten into, can grow a leg on a disabled person.
To a discerning admirer, none of Ray’s nonsensical works are odd or unrelatable. If anything, these are quintessential examples of Ray using food and the act of eating to root his world in the mundane and the humane, and at times to exaggerate the human experience.
Ray, in fact, employs food prolifically to build and define his characters. In Tyash Goru, a cow that is really a bird only eats soup made of soap and candles. On the occasion that it eats a scrap of cloth toasted like bread it falls violently sick. The poem is a classic instance of Ray’s wicked satire. It uses the words tyash goru – wielded till today to lampoon Bengali anglophiles – and the character’s strange dietary preferences to confirm its otherness.
Food also emerges as a powerful metaphor in Khuror Kal (Uncle’s Contraption). In it, Chandidas’ khuro or uncle invents a device that can increase a person’s walking speed when attached to his neck:
Shamne tahar khaddo jhole, jar je rokom ruchi/
Monda mithai chop cutlet khaja kimba luchi/
mon bole tae ‘khabo khabo’, mukh chole tae khete/
mukher shonge khabar chhote palla diye mete.
Food hangs in front, depending on one’s taste/
Sweets or cutlets, pastry or deep-fried bread/
The mind says let’s devour it, the mouth rushes to eat/
The food runs further still, matching its speed.
Ray’s rendition is an amusing dig at the forms of structural power that dangle incentives, just out of reach, while emphasising the common man’s greed that renders him incapable of escaping such machinations.
Apart from socio-cultural conditions of the early 20th century, Ray’s literary obsession with food stemmed from his own love for food. In a letter to his father from aboard the SS Arabia, while sailing to England, he wrote about the food served on the ship, how he skipped lunch and settled for milk or some broth, and that his dinner order included porridge, stews, bread pudding and only at times a cutlet or a roast.
An oft-recounted story about Ray goes that, during a visit to Shantiniketan to meet Rabindranath Tagore, he insisted on trying the food served at the students’ hall. When asked how he found his meal, he broke into a song, “Eyi to bhalo legechhilo, aloor nachon hataye hataye (Oh! I found it quite cool/the dance of potatoes in every ladleful).” The line was a witty distortion of one of Tagore’s own creations: “Eyi to bhalo legechhilo, alor nachon pataye pataye (Oh, I quite liked the dance of light on green leaves).”
Food was also a crucial part of Monday Club, a platform conceived by Ray where like-minded intellectuals could discuss the affairs of the world. Recognising this importance, Ray renamed his creation Monda Club, monda being a sugar candy lump. Monday Club’s preoccupation with food, some scholars believe, might have been inspired by Tagore’s Khamkheyali Sabha or Assembly of the Whimsical, a similar platform for bringing together the great minds of the time, where the bard insisted on serving his guests novel dishes designed to surprise. Invitations and notices for meetings of Ray’s club, many of them composed by him, often mention food or feasting, albeit in a teasing, ridiculing tone. In one such invite, Ray writes:
“Jotoi boli sobur koro, keyo shone na kala/
jiban bole komor bendhe kothay luchir thhala?”
“I say be patient all, but no one listens really/
Life asks so passionately, where’s the plate of luchi?”
Priyadarshini Chatterjee is a food and culture writer, based in Kolkata. She is a Kalpalata Fellow for Food Writings for 2022.