Photograph: Gauri A. Pitale – Waterlogged rice fields of rural Konkan, Maharashtra
Please note: As Associate Editor, I am soliciting reviews of recent dissertations in the Anthropology of Food. So if you have written a recent thesis or would like to review one, you can contact me directly: Katharina Graf (email@example.com).
Anna He Purnabramha: Deorukhe Women’s Agency in the Making of Bodies, Cuisine, and Culture in Maharashtra, India. Gauri Anilkumar Pitale. Ph.D. Thesis in Anthropology, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. 2017.
Elizabeth Finnis (University of Guelph, Canada)
Gauri A. Pitale’s doctoral work takes a biocultural approach to understanding potential health implications of dietary changes in the context of liberalization, globalization, and national change in India. Pitale worked with 66 pairs of Deorukhe Brahmin mothers and daughters living in rural and urban Maharashtra; mothers were all born and raised in a pre-liberalization India, with daughters born and raised in the post-liberalization era. Drawing on qualitative and anthropometric data, Pitale looks at intergenerational differences, asking how changing dietary practices are implicated in notions of the self and identity. In doing so, she considers Chronic Non-Communicable Diseases (CNCDs), including obesity, hypertension and diabetes, testing a range of hypotheses, and exploring foodscapes in terms of the lived experiences of her participants and issues of purity, perceptions of health, and the body. What particularly stands out in her ethnographic approach is the placing of anthropometric measurements within larger contexts of notions of identity and caste purity. Her anthropometric results and discussions are bracketed by chapters that draw on her qualitative data and her fieldwork reflections, including considerations of changing perceptions of food/cooking and implications for relationships and exchange, and the ways that processes of urbanization can affect food habits and preferences.
There is much to think about in Pitale’s work, including reflections on the expected and unexpected in fieldwork, urbanization and the presence of CNCDs, and changes in food habits that have both dietary and moral implications for participants. Pitale’s dissertation allows readers to reflect on questions that are of importance both in contemporary India and that also address broader issues of identity, belonging, food, and place. These include: How do notions of purity and kinship intersect with cooking rules, not just in terms of food eaten, but also with regards to how the space of a traditional hearth is used, and what it symbolizes? How does convenience get complicated by notions of authenticity and taste? What do kitchen implements and home-grown or home-prepared spices mean in terms of family history and tradition? How do space and place affect the types of food that daughters want to cook, and their relative cooking skills? How are community ties reinforced through shared cooking activities? And, How are anxieties around maintaining caste identities and/or engaging with cosmopolitan identities, intersecting with food?
These questions are considered through different cultural and data lenses. For example, Pitale provides a discussion of cooking and kitchens, including the symbolic, sacred value of the traditional chul (a u-shaped clay stove, coated with a double-layer of plaster made from cow dung and water, and red earth) and its associated rules for use, versus the comparatively rule-free and convenient gas stove. Through her discussion, Pitale demonstrates some of everyday complexities of balancing multiple factors in food preparation and consumption.
Photograph: Gauri A. Pitale – Chul in a rural Deorukhe kitchen
Another example includes considerations of some of the differences when it comes to cooking skills among rural and urban daughters. While young rural women are expected to develop cooking skills and learn how to manage a kitchen at a young age, in part related to the need for an alternative cook when mothers are practicing menstrual seclusion, urban daughters are less likely to have significant skills in the kitchen. When urban daughters do cook, it is more likely non-traditional recipes, or “fun” foods like pizza and cakes. This also connects to the chul, with urban daughters preferring to use gas stoves, and in some cases, being unable to effectively cook on a chul at all.
With her anthropometric data, Pitale also considers how nutritional transitions are implicated in CNCDs; she hypothesises clear differences between her rural and urban participants, with a generational effect. Her findings indicate that, for example, based on weight circumference, almost all mothers (rural and urban) would be considered obese (86.4%), but rural daughters were more likely to be underweight than urban daughters. One of Pitale’s surprising findings was in terms of blood pressure; contrary to expectations, rural mothers had higher blood pressure than urban mothers. This finding questions underlying assumptions that traditional diets and activity levels can help to minimise high blood pressure, while urbanized diets and lifestyles can increase it.
Overall, this is a rich dissertation that uses a range of data collection methods to create a complicated picture of the ways that food intersects with notions of the self, and health. Who should read this dissertation? This work is of interest to anyone who is thinking about how food practices shape and are shaped by everyday rural or urban life, and the implications that this has for how people think about their identities and health, and to those looking for an example of the complexities of economic liberalization, rural-urban differences, and caste in contemporary India. The thesis will also be of interest to researchers thinking about how to approach biocultural research projects, and how to integrate anthropometric and qualitative data within ethnography. As I read the dissertation, a number of questions emerged for me around some of the public elements of Pitale’s work, her findings, and her fieldwork experiences, and my review concludes with an interview addressing some of these questions.
Elizabeth Finnis (EF): Hi, Gauri! I enjoyed reading your doctoral work, and thank you for letting the SAFN blog host this review and an interview with you about your work and research experiences. My first question is something that I often ask people during (or immediately after!) a defense: Who would you hope would read your work, outside of anthropological audiences?
Gauri A. Pitale (GAP): I would love for everyone to read my dissertation because I certainly find it rather riveting a topic! Jokes apart, I think my study would be illuminating for those governmental agencies that are working on addressing problems related to the double-burden of overnutrition and undernutrition that India is facing. As a country, we [Indians] are leading in the numbers of deaths that are connected to CNCDs. The increasing encroachment of multi-national corporations that sell fast foods and ones that may result in the disappearance of small kirana (grocery) shops is concerning. India is in a precarious position. The coming two to three decades will vitally change the food consumption and the food distribution system of the entire country. Yes, certainly we should address the biological causes that make Indians susceptible to CNCDs. But if the government does not increase awareness among people, there is high likelihood that India will face the same challenges that western nations like the United States of America faced starting the 1970s and 1980s. On the one hand, we notice that an increasing number of urban Indians are becoming more and more conscious of how to maintain their health by going to dieticians and/or the gym. On the other hand, large swathes of Indians are turning to Ayurveda and traditional remedies to counter these same problems. It is my hope that this dissertation highlights how variable the answers can be within one country. Other than government agencies, I would also love for my research to be read by the Deorukhe community. I hope they find it useful. I have already given them a copy of my dissertation and am currently waiting to hear back from them.
EF: So, then what do you hope a non-anthropologist will really understand about your research?
GAP: When I explained my dissertation research focus to my Indian friends and family, their responses were rather interesting. Some found the research topic to be rather bland, while others thought that the information I was gathering was so commonplace that they couldn’t comprehend why it needed to be researched at all. Non-Indian friends and family also found the subject pale in comparison to studying the more “exotic” aspects of Indian culture and society. I soon realized that people take food for granted. While Indians have a medicinal system entrenched in food, westerners are usually more focused on the nutritional aspects of food. That said, food and eating has been and will always remain a social as well as an emotional experience. Though the relationship between food consumption and health seems like a straightforward one, my study demonstrates that making any sort of policy decisions to control or even address the rising appearance of Chronic Non-Communicable Disorders (CNCDs) will remain hopelessly abstruse if we disregard the historical, ecological, political, as well as the economic aspects of why people eat the way they do. Certainly, there are a multitude of factors involved but a deep understanding of the issue on both a local and global level is valid and necessary. To actually affect change, we need to start making lay people aware of this simple fact: food and the body are not things that can be studied bereft of their social surroundings.
EF: Your answer makes me think a bit about how the participants in your research thought about blood pressure and mental/emotional stress. You argue that for your participants, particularly the rural ones, high blood pressure is considered related to mental and emotional stress, and is therefore seen as a temporary condition. Are there bigger implications of this understanding of high blood pressure?
GAP: This is one of the aspects of my study that surprised me immensely. I hypothesized that high blood pressure would be more common among urban participants in comparison to rural participants. This is in line with published research doing a comparative analysis between urban and rural populations. Therefore, the results of my data collection coupled with my experiences in the field were atypical and confusing. My rural interlocutors did view high blood pressure to be the result of a temporary condition. These people were also going to rural medical practitioners. I wish I had the time to visit these doctors to ascertain whether they had actually told the interlocutors that this was a temporary condition. The main thing that concerned me was, if hypertension was being viewed as a temporary health issue occurring as a result of stress, then treating it accordingly might result in more health complications in the long run.
More importantly, the implications of this perspective are two-fold. One, if and when a complication does occur in the future when these women are older, the problem would be treated as something to be expected because high blood pressure is seen as a chronic health condition that plagues old people. Two, most studies expect hypertension to be a condition that is commonly noted among urban people; rural people suffering from the same condition might not even be considered to be at risk. This could mean that they will never be tested or treated until a complication arises. A large part of rural India bears the burden of undernutrition. The Deorukhes are comparatively well-off thanks to their caste status. Therefore, we must also acknowledge this occurrence of hypertension among this rural population might not be something that applies to people of all castes in rural India. For all of these reasons, it is highly likely that these conditions will not be noticed anytime soon. This concerns and worries me, especially in connection to their long-term health and their quality of life.
Photograph: Gauri A. Pitale – Roadside fruit seller, Mumbai
EF: I found it interesting to read your brief discussion of the guilt felt by some mothers if they don’t – or can’t – cook for their children. Do you think similar feelings can play out in different kinds of households, both within and outside of India? What makes it different (or not) for your participants?
GAP: What a fantastic question! I am happy you asked me this. The guilt felt by mothers is certainly not unique to Indian culture. There are many cultures in which I assume women experience guilt that corresponds with the diet and health of their family members. I assume because having grown up in India, I experience this guilt and deal with it on a day-to-day basis. I believe the difference lies in how my participants experience this within the social dynamics of Indian society. I am certain women in other cultures also have certain expectations that are thrust upon them. In the case of my interlocutors however, there is the added layer of caste-related food prescriptions. The expectation that Deorukhe Brahmin women in general have to safeguard household purity is a larger part of this guilt. Women have to learn to prepare traditional foods so that they can pass on traditions to daughters and daughters-in-law. And while every culture has a family recipe that can be learned from elders in the family, how integral these recipes are to one’s communal identity changes from one culture to another.
I can give you an example of something that occurred in my own family. I happened to visit the family of a friend who was of a lower caste. They invited me for dinner one evening. I remember that her mom had made some type of shellfish that I had never tried before. I found it to be rather delicious. Upon returning home my grandmother promptly asked me what had been served for dinner. I told her about this unheard-of shellfish and asked my mother why she never cooked this fish at home. My grandmother immediately replied, “We don’t buy that kind of fish. Those are eaten by lower caste people.” Until that moment, I had no idea that my friend belonged to a different caste group at all. But my grandmother deemed it necessary to educate me about the differences in upper and lower caste fish consumption at the age of 10, lest I make any such demands again. These conversations are ubiquitous in rural and urban Indian households. The guilt felt at crossing these boundaries is an additional aspect of the guilt felt by my interlocutors. It may not be unique to India because I am sure this kind of gate-keeping also occurs in other world cultures. The difference may be in the amount of social consequences that result from women’s failure to control the food that enters their households in general and into the bodies of their family members in particular.
EF: I also appreciated the methodological and positionality reflections that you incorporate into your dissertation. For example, you write about how, when collecting data, you were positioned as the ‘expert’, but that when you entered kitchens, you became understood as lacking in experience and basic knowledge. What did this kind of ‘flip’ in perceptions of expertise teach you about doing ethnographic research?
GAP: The first lesson that I learned when I went into the field was that people tell you what they think you want to hear. This is a lesson we all learn as anthropologists, and that’s why we spend so much time getting comfortable with our interlocutors and participating in their lives as we observe them. My fieldwork was incredibly fruitful. Despite that, my appearance as an Indian woman who lived in America and had come back to India to study the Deorukhes put me in an interesting position. In one part of the introduction chapter of my dissertation, I discuss my position and the social capital that I had which resulted in the Deorukhes allowing me into their homes. However, my familiarity, while at times a disadvantage, was also an advantage in this case. I want to be clear that I’m not implying that non-native anthropologists may not have used this strategy to make their interlocutors comfortable. But the fact remains that the conversations about food and food habits that I had with Deorukhe mothers lacked the depth that I found satisfying. I also realized that talking in their living rooms about food often resulted in the whole family, and in some case entire neighborhoods, monitoring the interaction. The resultant conversation was stunted and awkward, something I noticed as I started transcribing my field recordings. I was spending more time asking questions and directing conversations rather than getting answers.
The request to enter their kitchens to watch them cook was put forth for two main reasons. One, not everyone is allowed entry into each other’s household kitchens. The audience had to leave or wait outside in the living room, allowing me and the woman to be alone or at least have fewer people around. This was something I noticed in one household during my first visit. I went into the kitchen to return a cup of coffee to the lady of the house. She told me where to place the dirty cup in the kitchen and promptly started amending some of her answers. Her husband and some men in the village were sitting outside in the living room hearing us talk. In the kitchen, she started complaining about how difficult it is to manage the food habits of her husband. It became obvious that the kitchen was her domain and the one place she felt safe to voice her opinions without being overheard, especially by the men since they rarely ventured into this space. The second reason was to reduce the awkwardness of sitting and talking without having anything to do. Most of my interlocutors were happy to show off their kitchens to me. No matter how small or large, how fancy or simple, these were their spaces, arranged to their liking, and spaces that they controlled. Also, if they kept busy, I assumed our discussions would be more fruitful. The dynamic shift was an unexpected discovery. As soon as I noticed it, I immediately began to ponder on the manner in which their assumption of my inexperience in matters related to running a household relaxed them and made them want to impart knowledge to me.
Present day anthropology has come a long way from what we thought about our interlocutors to how we perceive them today. They are the experts from whom we learn. I went into the field with that point of view. And while I fully intended to carry out semi-structured interviews, I also had a long list of questions prepared so that I could collect data on food acquisition patterns. I still have this data. I have piles of data about how much rice, flour, lentils, masalas, etc. each household buys. I also have data about the money each household spends on food and other food acquisition pattern information. While I meticulously collected this data in the field, I also realized that for me, the deep ethnographic data that started to shine and capture my attention was what I encountered in the kitchens as I watched women cook. These discussions and interactions were far more rewarding and indicative of what they wanted to tell me. I chose to focus on their voices rather than only focus on my initial study objectives. What this taught me is that it is important to go into the field with specific objectives. However, it is equally important to allow our interlocutors to tell us what they deem to be important for us to know. In between these two points is where the actual fun and research lies!
EF: In focusing on the health of women, did you ever get participants wondering why you weren’t also considering the health of men? If yes, in what kinds of ways did you respond to these queries?
GAP: The Deorukhe community did initially assume that my research was about the entire household. I would have very much liked to have focused on entire households because the data gathered would have been richer, especially ethnographically speaking. There were, however, several restrictions. For one, my study was self-funded, which meant I could only spend a certain amount of time in the field. For statistical reasons, I needed to recruit at least 35 families from both rural and urban settings. I also needed to visit each family at least three times to note seasonal changes in their diet as well as their anthropometric measurements. All of this really restricted my ability to spend more time with each family. The more people I needed to meet, the more difficult it was to find time to meet with them. The men of the household, especially rural men, often controlled my access to their wives and daughters in the initial stages of my study. Though I was requesting the women to be a part of my study, in many rural families the men closely monitored the initial conversations. In one household in particular, the women and her daughters never uttered a single word in reply until the husband said, “Alright, go ahead and add us to your list of participants.”
Restricting the study to women and girls was something that I had already discussed with my advisors and committee members. This is because ease of access to my interlocutors and the ability to hold conversations in both public and private was important to me. There is a high amount of gender segregation in India. As a woman, it was easier for me to get access to and speak with young girls and women. Conversations with men were not impossible but these took place more in urban settings rather than rural settings. As for your question about whether participants wondered about why my research did not consider men, they did not. That is because I told them when I was recruiting that I was focusing on women because they were the gastronomic gate-keepers and the ones in charge of managing the household’s food consumption patterns. This made sense to my interlocutors. From their perspective, I was not only measuring their and their daughters’ bodies, but at the same time I was discussing with them the health of their entire family. My interlocutors often told me how they managed to ensure their sons, husbands, or fathers-in-law stayed healthy. This was vital to their discussions about the various challenges that they face when trying to keep their families healthy, a responsibility not to be taken lightly.
Photograph: Gauri A. Pitale – Food court of a mall, Mumbai
EF: Your picture of changing food habits among your participant households is both rich, and, as you indicate yourself, patchy in some ways. What’s next for you, in terms of research?
GAP: This is a wonderful question! I loved every minute of my fieldwork and found interacting with the Deorukhe community in general to be a very rewarding experience. As a doctoral candidate who went into the field for her first long-term fieldwork, I experienced a lot of anxiety when things did not go as planned. The lack of both time and money was on the forefront of my mind. This meant that as much as possible, I collected every piece of information that I could. Along the way, I also collected large swathes of data about factors that I had not even considered to be influential to my research results. This is a large reason for why my research results are rich and at the same time provide a patchy picture. I think that is the strength of ethnographic fieldwork. I struggled to make sense of the enormous amount of information that I gathered during my fieldwork after I returned to America. After much contemplation and several discussions with my advisors and doctoral committee members, it became clear that the only way I could write this dissertation, for me, was by focusing on things that my interlocutors spoke about the most. Those are the things I have written about. I am happy with the way my dissertation has turned out, but it honestly only speaks about 30% of the information that I have gathered during my fieldwork.
Going forward I will publish chapters of my dissertation. Someday soon, I would also like to return to the field with funding so that I can fill in the gaps that currently exist, while also noting the changes that have taken place since 2014. And while I want to continue working with the Deorukhe community, I would also like to add another caste group, preferably people who are meat-eaters. This might allow for a richer and better comparative analysis. In an India that is experiencing large-scale dietary changes, I would like to see how the idea of purity and caste identities continues to play out. That would enable us, as food anthropologists, to really study the communal tension that underlies the study of food and culture in modern day India.
EF: Thank you, Gauri, for your responses, and for your contributions to the SAFN blog!