From the Culture & Agriculture Sensorium series: the photo essay companion to this piece is available here.
A mother tongue is not
not a foreign lan lan lang
—a foreign anguish
I have no mother
no mother to tongue
no tongue to mother
-Nourbese Philip, “Discourse on the logic of language”
When I began my fieldwork on sanitation work in Bangalore, India, the city had already suffered two decades of class polarization and environmental degradation, after being marked as a site for low-cost solutions, back-end support, and offshore expansion. So, I should have suspected that the paradoxes of progress would leave me tongue-tied: lost in my mother tongue (Kannada), along with everyone else’s. But what I could not possibly expect is how matters of the tongue—taste and speech—would become the surest window into how caste structured the daily affair of cleaning India’s Silicon Valley.
My first experience of this phenomenon was around 9:00 a.m. on a brisk January day, three hours into the city municipality’s morning sanitation shift. Rudresha, a contract sweeper, and I sniffed our runny noses as we wolfed down lemon rice (chitranna) for breakfast. “Well, I always thought you were a Lingayat or a Brahmin, judging from the way you speak that is,” he said, mixing coconut chutney into steaming turmeric-yellowed rice, roasted in a tempering (oggarane) of curry leaves, green chilies, and peanuts. “No, I’m not,” I replied and added, “and in any case why does it matter? All of us put rice in our stomachs (hottege annane haakodu).”
“Because there are those that want to put stones in our stomachs too (hottege kallu haakouru idare),” he retorted. It was a scathing critique of my feigned tolerance, my naive caste-blindness.
Not all of us, in fact, put rice in our stomachs. If we limit our survey to the state of Karnataka, of which Bangalore is the capital, we see that the staple in the north is pearl millet (sajje) or sorghum (jola), and in the southeast, finger millet (raagi). Neither is the differentiation simply regional. Eating features prominently in both the old Brahminical as well as Sramanic treatises (Khare 1992) as a practice that can erect or question cosmological hierarchies. On the one hand, the vilest term of abuse that the Laws of Manu (Doniger and Smith 1991) reserves for the outcast is “dog-cooker” (shvapaaka). On the other, the Buddhist bikkhu mixes food from various households into one begging bowl, to eradicate one’s own social origin and contemplate a bare sustenance devoid of local temper (Seneviratne 1992). “Food is believed to cement the relationship between men and gods,” states Arjun Appadurai, “[it] is never medically or morally neutral” (1988, 10).
Food is also a key narrative theme in Dalit literature, especially if the account is meticulously rendered in the author’s mother tongue. In Devanura Mahadeva’s masterwork Odalala, an impoverished family consumes a stolen bag of peanuts, attempting to swallow the shells. As the scene unfolds, the reader is left to wonder if they do so to cover up the theft or to assuage their hunger. Du Saraswati’s poignant short story Bacchisu partly relates a quiet dialogue between a sweeper, Anjinamma and her daughter, Lakshmi. Anjinamma returns home from lifting a rotting canine carcass at work to be greeted by Lakshmi, who has lovingly prepared mutton for her parents. As Anjinamma lifts the tender meat to her lips, she weeps, thinking of the decomposing carcass.
During my fieldwork, I spent a lot of time on Raju’s garbage route. While accompanying him, I came to notice that he faced a peculiar problem after festivals. Residents who were usually stingy with tips grew unusually generous with their food, as they discarded whatever was left of their indulgent feasts as gifts to those who collected their garbage. If distributing leftovers to strangers was taboo—expressed through an allusion to saliva (yengilu)—it did not seem to apply to the overwhelmingly Dalit sanitation workers. The public performance of expressing gratitude in kind, rather than in cash, became a surreptitious way to smuggle caste prejudice.
“Eat it, it’s actually good,” “it’s good,” “it’s still good,” or if all else failed, “take it, it’s holy sacrament (prasaada).” These were the words Raju heard regularly, as residents tossed him bags of leftovers.
One day, a resident tossed him prasaada twelve days after Ugadi. (Ugadi marks the first day of the Chaitra lunisolar month. Hindus in Andhra Pradesh, Telegana, and Karnataka observe this day as their new year.) Raju grew furious and threw it in with the rest of the garbage as the resident watched. He turned to me and said, “Who does that bastard think he is? He tosses the damn thing to me, without touching me.”
Such patronizing caste attitudes have percolated all the way into policy. In 2016, the Karnataka government, attempting to placate protests over unpaid wages, instituted a meals program for its sanitation workers. They named the scheme bisi oota (hot meals), connoting the comfort of piping hot sambhar and rice after a long day. The reality was much different. Soon after it came into effect, workers found dead rats in the catering vats. The mayor, responding to complaints, stated that the rats were not big enough to provoke concern (Alva 2017).
After the incident, a union organizer told me, “A religious organization has the catering contracts. It’s temple food, the crumbs Brahmins feel is appropriate for working people. If they paid us properly, we would eat at home to our hearts’ content: raagi mudde, spicy gongura chutney, and maybe some meat (mamsa). Most of us are Telugu-speaking people, what they serve is too bland for our tastes.”
Whenever I accompanied Narasimha on his route, he stopped for fresh egg dosas (motte dose) cooked on a street cart by a Telugu-speaking woman from Penukonda, a district that many Bangalore sanitation workers trace their roots to. When I reached out to pay for our breakfast, the woman often refused. Most street carts served Narasimha free hot food as long as he picked up their garbage. And most served their dishes with gongura chutney.
We often attach cosmic significance to two aspects of our social life—cuisine and language. As inheritances go, both run deep; both are simultaneously personal and civilizational. And they come together in one organ—the tongue (nalige). Our tongues determine our relationship with sustenance, and how we share it with each other. They also give expression to hunger, empathy, and camaraderie, along with greed and envy. Our cities contain many tongues. You often have to speak in a foreign one to get your next meal. But you can always squander another’s meal in your own.
Some days later, Ranga asked me to speak to the warden of a women’s hostel. The hostel had left out buckets of biriyani that Ranga slogged through with his bare hands, separating plastic from rice and rancid meat. The city had mandated that all waste be segregated and the warden refused to comply. She claimed to speak only Hindi, a language Ranga did not understand.
We walked up to her quarters and rang the bell. Her assistant answered the door and told us in broken Hindi and Bangla that she was not around.
Unbeknownst to us, our mother tongues have become organs of caste power. In recent years, Indian society has witnessed violent “cow vigilantism” against beef consumption and the brutal assassinations of anti-caste thinkers—M.M. Kalburgi, Gauri Lankesh, Govind Pansare, and Narendra Dabholkar—who chose to write in Kannada and Marathi over the safe distance of English. Our tongues, emaciated by colonial inferiority and the lure of international capital, are quickly losing the ability to taste with relish and speak with deliberation. But they are all we have when we are forced to discern food from poison. We use someone else’s on borrowed time.