Bread and Resistance in Colonial Bengal

By Mohd. Ahmar Alvi

Among the many foods accompanying British colonizers to India, leavened bread was received differently by different communities and religious groups. Many upper-caste Hindus had revulsion not only for the bread but also for the other items coming out of bakeries introduced to the Indian culinary scene by the British. Meanwhile, Dalits –who had been marginalized by the Brahmins first by not being given jobs and second by being denied food eaten by the higher castes— accrued these bakeries as an opportunity to liberate themselves from unpaid, indentured, menial jobs, but also to ensure economic security and dignity. Muslims, a religious minority, also perceived these bakeries as a prospective source of earnings owing to their longstanding and auspicious connections to baking skills, inherited from the Mughals during their rule in past centuries.  

The aversion exhibited by upper-caste Hindus was predicated on a set of strong Brahmanical religious beliefs. In Hinduism, food can carry a plethora of diktats. It dictates your job, your social status, whether you are ‘pure’ or ‘polluted’, and whether you are entitled to enter a temple or not. The food one eats becomes the defining factor of one’s caste. One such way that upper-caste Hindus distinguish themselves from the lower ones is by denying the food touched or cooked by the lower castes. A high-caste Hindu can only accept food or drink from a person of a similar rank. If the food is prepared or touched by a lower caste person, it must be rejected.[i] Therefore, to accept bread coming from Dalits’ hands would be polluting and profaning to savarnas (caste Hindus). 

However, bhadralok (the educated ‘enlightened’ Bengali middle-class), under the strong influence of Brahmo Samaj [ii], used the consumption of bread as a means to record their resistance against casteism and to defy the taboo about crossing the seas to the West. A sizeable amount of literature—both fictional and autobiographical—written in Bengal in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries documents this resistance.

Rajnarayan Basu, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

For example, in his 1909 autobiography, Atmacharit (Autobiography), Rajnarayan Basu (1826-1899), a famous Brahmo[iii] leader, narrates how during his college days he often consumed bread and biscuits coming from the hands of Dalits as an emblem of progress and to mobilize resistance against casteism. When he accepted Brahmosim, he consumed bread to record his protest against casteism, because, at that time, Bengal bakeries were operated by Dalits or Muslims. He remembers his Brahmo oath-taking ceremony as:

On the day when I signed the oath (at the beginning of 1846) and received Brahmoism, I was accompanied by a couple of other adults from my village. That day, we celebrated our new religion with bread and sherry. This was to show that we did not believe in distinctions of caste or creed.[iv]

 

Bipin Chandra Pal, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Likewise, Bipin Chandra Pal (1858-1932), in his autobiography, Sattar Bastar (Seventy Years), tells us how by consuming bread, albeit secretly, he along with his peers broke away from the shackles of casteism:

Though we would come out of the shop after buying flour of one paisa and holding it in our hands to show to the people. We would bring hot bread and biscuits inside our shirt pockets or inside our dhotis, and at the night, after our guardians slept, we would bring these out and have those. In this way, even while staying at Sylhet, my binding considerations of religion and caste were internally totally broken.[v]

 

Madhusudan Dutt, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In his satirical play, Ekei Ki Bale Sabhyata (That’s What Civilization is all About), Madhusudhan Dutt (1824-1873) dramatizes the response of the middle-class Bengali youth toward the consumption of bread baked by Dalits. In the play, a Vaishnava[vi] man observes some youths to learn their activities. Kali, one of the youths, suggests feeding Vaishnava fowl cutlet with bread so that his life becomes meaningful.[vii] In the nineteenth century, Vaishnavas did not consume any meat or an item prepared by a lower-caste Hindu, so this represented a particularly powerful moment of resistance.

Swami Vivekananda, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Among critics, the diminishing potential of scriptural reasoning and advancing modernity in colonial Bengal meant that some detractors couched their criticism against the consumption of bread in the language of science. In 1899, Swami Vivekananda, in his essay, The East and the West, strongly opposed the consumption of bread. According to him, flour mixed with yeast became injurious to health, and he approved of the consumption of only toasted bread under special circumstances:

And as for fermented bread, it is also poison, don’t touch it at all. Flour mixed with yeast becomes injurious. Never take any fermented thing; in this respect, the prohibition in our shastras of partaking of any such article of food is a fact of great importance.[viii]

In this way, the consumption of bread was not only about sustenance, but reflected broader debates and relationships between communities and religious groups. People’s varied responses to bread thus suggest the power of food in resisting casteism in Colonial Bengal.

 

[i] For a detailed study on food and Hinduism see Pamela G. Kittler and Kathryn P. Sucher, Food and Culture. 5th ([Sydney]: Thomson Wadsworth, 2004).

[ii] This community played an important role in the genesis and development of every major religious, social, and political movement in India between 1820 and 1930. It brought about a social reformation by extending full equality to Dalits, women, and laborers, among other marginalized groups. Its members are regarded as the pioneers of liberal political consciousness and Indian nationalism. 

[iii] A believer and practitioner of the principles of Brahmo Samaj.

[iv] Rajnarayan Basu,  Atmacharit (Calcutta: Chiraya Prakasan, 1909): 44.

[v] Bipin Chandra Pal, Sattar Bastar (Calcutta: Patralakha, 1954): 92-93.

[vi] Follower of the Hindu god Vishnu and his incarnations.

[vii] Madhusudhan Dutt, Ekei Ki Bale Sabhyata (Calcutta: Tuli Kalam, 1860): 247.

[viii] Swami Vivekananda, “The East and the West”, The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda (Almora: Advaita Ashram, 1954): 390-91.


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