One of the chief manifestations of the Hindu preoccupation with purity and pollution is in rela- tion to food and its preparation. This is particularly the case with the orthodox among the higher castes. R.S. Khare in his detailed study of the eating habits of nine selected caste groups in the Lucknow-Baiswara area of Uttar Pradesh confirms that despite urbanization and the breakdown of the traditional joint family, a substantial percentage of his respondents were indeed deeply concerned with the ritualization of the eating process.
The author’s methodology and conclusions are a forceful confirmation of Dumont’s contention that hierarchy is the basis of the caste system, and purity and pollution its distinguishing features. With the aid of diagrams, Khare gives a detailed picture of the ritual ranking of the hearth and its appurtenant areas. This involves elaborate role differentiations, where cooking, feeding and washing up are not only institutionalized, but also the legitimate realm of the women of the family, and perhaps the Kahar, or potters.
Cooking and the handling of food are ‘moral constructs’, and the serving of food is ‘ranked two-way interaction.’ Even left-over food—some of it jutha—is distributed in strict observance of a ranked order.
Khare follows up the detailed analysis of the hierarchy of food with a series of ethnographic pictures based on field work observations, of feasts associated with life crisis situations. These are not only somewhat tedious to follow, but also his universe appears to be dominated by the Kanya Kubja brahmin group. This is somewhat disappointing, particularly as the author had claimed to have studied a fairly wide cross-section of castes. Further such descriptions with specific emphasis on a single caste do not allow much scope for the study of change in eating pattern nor of the reactions of lower caste groups to high caste habits. This is particularly relevant in view of the interest in Sanskritization and emulation. Nor do the ethnographic sketches mesh well with the general structural analysis.
Perhaps the most instructive part of the book are the chapters dealing with hypergamy and marriage relations, and the ranking of food among affines and consanguines. From the sociological point of the view, Khare has interesting observations to make not only on the continued acceptance of hypergamy in arranging marriages, but also of how food and its consumption become of paramount importance in such nuptial ceremonies.
The author’s elaborate study is a contribution to the body of literature which deals with the ramifications and intricacies of purity-impurity syndrome. But it tells us little about change; its focus is on the analysis of an existing static situation. Consequently, it is not of much relevance to those interested chiefly in the process of modernization. At the same time, Khare’s work describes adequately an integral facet of the caste system. Further, by implication, it also draws attention to one of the casual factors in the nature of prejudice and casteism: the role of food in determining inter- and intra-caste relations.
Malavika Karlekar is Sociologist, Senior Fellow at the Indian Council of Social Science Research, New Delhi.