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Forbidden Food: A Widow’s Blues

November 2003
Forbidden Food: A Widow’s Blues

By Ramana Dhara

Little Rukmini was all of five years when her widowed grandmother came to live with the family. The arrival of ?Savithri Mamma', as her grandmother was affectionately called, proved to be a windfall for Rukmini.

With no siblings to relate to, Rukmini found in Savithri Mamma a companion, caretaker, and confidante. She learnt from her how to play cards with the air of a seasoned gambler, sing songs, and listened raptly to heroic stories from the Indian epics. Savithri Mamma could be counted on to lend a friendly shoulder and some homely advice when Rukmini was upset from any one of a myriad number of reasons.

There were a few aspects of Savithri Mamma that were initially puzzling to Rukmini. One of these was her appearance and dress. Her grandmother had a clean-shaven head, and always dressed only in white cotton cloth which was wrapped loosely around her body. Also conspicuous by its absence was the ?bottu' or dot on the forehead common to all Indian women. No form of adornment was to be found on her. Ironically, Savithri Mamma's store of knowledge about jewellery was vast and came in handy on the occasional shopping trips. She was quite capable of driving a hard bargain with the local marwadi jewelers.���

All adults in and around the family took this mode of dress for granted. In the early part of the twentieth century certain orthodox communities in India expected this of a widow, particularly one who had lost her husband at a relatively young age. Savithri Mamma had been married at the age of ten, and became widowed at nineteen. In the years after her husband's death, all vestiges of marriage were gradually removed from her person. Savithri's mother, however, retained all the privileges of a married woman, as her own husband was alive. Rukmini's relationship with her grandmother was not hampered by any of these social mores. Aided by her youthful exuberance, she made it one of her daily challenges to somehow ?beautify' her grandmother. Rukmini's repeated entreaties to ?please try my ear-rings on just once, Mamma' were met with amusement. Such attempts were gently brushed aside and ignored up to a point by the other adults as the playfulness of the young.

The other puzzling aspect was the matter of Savithri Mamma's food preferences. She would eat after the family ate, and her meal consisted of rather unique items. For instance, her staple lunch meal was uncooked wheat flour which was mixed with milk and sugar and rolled into little balls of dough. Though Rukmini liked to occasionally pop one of these into her mouth, she could not imagine eating this kind of bland food on a daily basis.���Ironically again, Savithri Mamma was a master chef, and was much in demand to organize grand meals for major events like marriages, births, and deaths.

One of Rukmini's favorite dishes was onion soup, or ullipayala pulusu. When mixed with rice and a spoonful of neyyi, or clarified butter, this combination was irresistible.���When her mother cooked this dish, Rukmini would help with cutting the onions, soaking tamarind, and learning the proportion of various spices that went into this simple but time-honored creation. As the soup cooked, the aroma would fill the kitchen and make her hungry. She could hardly wait to mix the soup with rice and a spot of the clarified butter, and let nature take its course. She loved to crunch into the succulent pad of soft onions, chew on the greens, and bite into the mustard seeds. She marveled at the interplay of the hot peppery spices as they rolled around on her tongue, imagining them to be racehorses running against a dampening headwind of butter.

Rukmini had never seen Savithri Mamma eat onion soup. During one ?vital statistic' ceremony, after the all the guests had eaten, she observed her grandmother sit down to her usual simple meal of wheat dough. Feeling somewhat guilty at having eaten yet another delicious meal, Rukmini decided to share some of the onion soup with her. She poured the soup into a steel bowl, took it to her grandmother, and said, ?Mamma, please try this soup with your meal. Please!'

Instead of the usual rejection, Savithri Mamma eyed the bowl longingly, looked around a little guiltily, and proceeded to drink the soup, onions and all. Rukmini squealed with pleasure and asked if she liked it. At this unfortunate moment, a gaggle of relatives from her husband's family chose to walk into the room, perhaps to discuss the latest fashion in gold or clothes with the ever-knowledgeable Savithri. They were variously aroused, angry or aghast to see this widow heartily drinking onion soup. Accusing eyes bored into her and a cacophony of voices erupted. Sensing that this was a forbidden act, Rukmini fled the room in tears.

As she lay sobbing in her mother's arms, snippets of the cacophony reached her ears:

"I always knew she would do something like this!"

"This behavior seems to run on her side of the family!!"

"Who knows what else she may have eaten!!!"

"Today she has eaten onion soup, tomorrow she may do something even more unmentionable!!!!"

Hearing the commotion, relatives from Savithri's side of the family rushed to defend her. They said that her behavior had been exemplary over the years, and that the accusers were no strangers to shortcomings themselves:

"Why, only the other day, Person X was seen smoking in a restaurant which served meat!"

"Did everyone not know that accuser Person Y's son was a frequent visitor to bars in the red light areas of town?"

"Compared to these sins, Savithri's crime is of no consequence!!"

This verbal war would progress to many peaks and troughs before it lapsed into an uneasy silence. Rukmini closed her ears, unable to bear this condemnation of her grandmother and shocked at the level of vitriol produced by the simple act of drinking onion soup.

Many years passed by with the celebration of many more family events. The onion soup incident had been set aside, but not forgotten. Eventually, Savithri Mamma returned to her own village. Her feisty personality had struggled for many years, not always successfully, to come to terms with the repression that society meted out to widows. The widow re-marriage reform movements had come too late for her. She passed away many years later in the village from a recurring illness which no one could accurately diagnose. In site of her grandmother's alleged shortcomings in the eyes of society, she held a very special place in Rukmini's heart.

Rukmini went on to high school and then college where she pursued the study of psychology. Her innate sense of justice got her involved with women's issues such as dowry deaths, rape, bride-burning, and unequal rights for women. After college, she met and married a man who was sympathetic to her ideas, and she continued to be involved with social reform for women. Rukmini often thought about the onion soup incident and argued frequently with her husband about why the same types of restrictions were not placed on men. It would have warmed the cockles of her heart to see a man shave his head, wear white clothes, eat bland food, and be celibate after his wife died!

When she had queried her parents about why the soup was forbidden for widows, her father averted his eyes, and her mother replied that widows were not supposed to eat this food. ?That's a tautological answer, mother' Rukmini snorted, having just learnt the word in school. She resolved to find out someday why widows were could not eat the onion soup. Several years later, she met an aunt who was well known for her plain and honest way of speaking. When Rukmini asked her the question, the aunt gave her a quizzical look and said: Widows were not supposed to eat onion soup because it may provoke desires.

She would elaborate no further. Rukmini was dumbfounded at this answer. She had never viewed onion soup as a vehicle for provoking desires, other than, of course, the desire to eat more of it. Being a relatively common food item, onion soup did not seem to fit the criteria of an aphrodisiac. Yet, for a wild moment, she considered whether the daily consumption of this food may be the cause of India's population explosion. Her scientific training, however, quickly led her to reject that notion. The causes of population growth were complex and multi-factorial and this kind of over-simplification would simply not do.

Would a person who has been deprived of something desirable for a long time begin to associate this with sexual desire? The experimental psychologist in her was aroused. It so happened that her husband had been away for several weeks on a trip and was expected back that evening. It had been a long while since the two of them had onion soup.


The recipe

(to make one gallon of onion soup)

2 large chopped onions

� cup soaked tamarind

1cup pre-cooked lentils

5 red chili peppers

2 tsp cumin seeds

2 tbsp coriander

� tsp black pepper

� tsp turmeric

pinch of asafetida

1. Slow cook 3 quarts of water containing

tamarind and chopped onions.

2. Powder the chili peppers, cumin, coriander,

and black pepper together, and add to the boiling water���

3. Then add the pre-cooked lentils.

4. Add salt to taste.

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