Networks of food

From the inception of the project, while building a relationship with these single mothers we have been continuously observing a crucial lack of adequate food supplies and arrangements for medical care for the residents of the shelter.

When we began our work at Urdu Park in 2015, Anganwadi, a government-run social services programme under the ministry of Women and Child Development, was providing shelter residents with three meals a day. This was discontinued for some reason. In 2016 a government- sponsored NGO began supplying two meals – lunch and dinner – but this effort also came to an end. The residents then began cooking for themselves in the open, in the courtyard of the shelter. They made a rudimentary stove by placing two bricks in parallel, between which sticks
or other wood and waste paper could be burnt as fuel. The residents buy ingredients from the vegetable market, fish and meat market, and a particular grocery shop that gives them items on credit. They also obtain leftover food from various local dhabas (roadside eateries). Despite these daily efforts, at times they do not have enough for a proper meal and can only feed their children biscuits or bread with tea for lunch and dinner.

While working on the large collaborative map of the locality, participants delineated the shops where they regularly get food, tea and ingredients. This visual narrative enabled
a parallel map of their social networks in the neighbourhood. The women’s day is not complete without wider interaction in the community – going out of Urdu Park into the market on their morning mission to procure ingredients and food for the day’s meals, and chatting to each other and to the people around Lala’s grocery shop and Kalim’s dhaba, Bihari dhaba and Bangali dhaba. Sometimes they start the day with a breakfast of tea and fan shaped biscuits from Ustad’s shop or Number 18 Tea Stall.

The participants developed personal narratives in more depth through exploring the relationship of their food, cooking practices and their environment. This resulted in the production of recipe books, based on the discussion of food traditions of the communities in which the participants were raised, where and how they learnt to cook, and how they have adapted their cooking techniques and philosophies of food to the available ingredients, available money and exigencies of life in the shelter. Each participant created her own recipe book with paints and collages made from coloured paper and sequins.

Participants generated content for their recipe books through focused dialogue around three sets of associations, documented by the facilitators:

Personal Memories

While creating the recipe books, participants talked about their favourite foods that, in some cases, they had not eaten for a long time after migrating to the city from rural areas. For instance, Sabrun recalled the dish she most loved: makai-chawal (corn-rice) that she last ate in her village as a child. Corn was a major crop in her region, so corn-rice and corn- our were staples in the local diet. Sabrun spoke of becoming an orphan when she was very young and being raised by a strict and demanding aunt. One day, instead of tending to the pot of makai-chawal on the stove Sabrun left the kitchen to play in the courtyard. The food got burnt, and her aunt punished her by making her eat all of it. At present Sabrun has the support of a man who ensures two daily meals for her, but he is reluctant to feed her children even while he wants her to be with him and cook for him. She does cook makai-chawal today but uses a different method from the one she learnt from her aunt.

Sabina, a participant with three daughters, explained that she learnt some cooking from her father, but she was mostly taught by the mother of a friend in her home town of Muzaffarpur in Bihar. This neighbor showed Sabina how to cook roti ( atbread), chawal (rice) and different kinds of vegetables and fish. Her partner here in Delhi can cook very well, so she has also learnt from him. He has a job as a parking lot attendant and fortunately earns enough for them to eat regularly, and her children do not have to skip meals.

Masala / Spices

Each participant painted small (1 ft x 2 ft) canvases with brightly coloured images of the particular spices they use in their cooking, and of the vegetables they cook daily. Reshma commented that dire poverty limits food choices, and while people who are destitute know they should not reject any food, it is still important to them that whatever they eat should have swaad (good taste). They don’t like to eat food which is not tasty, even if it is free or very cheap. For example, the meals that were sent to the shelter, rst by Anganwadi and later by the Delhi government, were completely bland, no swaad whatsoever. Those nutrition schemes have been discontinued, but in any case the women prefer cooking their own food in the courtyard of the shelter, even if it is a struggle to get money for ingredients. And they make sure their food always has swaad. Reshma’s favourite curries are made from magur (black cat sh), shikhara (silver cat sh) or rohu sh, cooked in mustard oil with onions, tomatoes, garlic, red mustard seeds, coriander seeds, cumin seeds, black pepper, green chillies and salt.

The participants also talked about their good relationships with shopkeepers at the particular stalls in Meena Bazaar where they buy their ingredients, as well as with the dhaba owners who support them by giving them food on trust, accepting payment later. The women rely on this generosity. For example, Binu explained that when they buy a ten-rupee plate of dal-chawal (lentils and rice) from Kalim and ask for an extra helping in the form of meat gravy, he adds a boti (small piece of meat) to the gravy. Bihari, another dhaba owner who has known the residents of the shelter for a long time, does the same when they buy dal-chawal from him.

Bartan / Utensils

Each participant painted 3 ft x 3 ft canvases with images of the kinds of utensils she generally uses in
her daily cooking. This was the rst time the women were depicting actual three-dimensional objects, and most of them found it very dif cult in terms of both shape and scale. Rather than drawing from memory, as with their individual and collective renderings of the bazaar, vegetables, spices and other subjects, etc., they had to place the utensils directly in front of themselves in order to portray them. This mode of life-sketching was a conceptual and aesthetic challenge but they helped each other through it, sometimes calling on their daughters for help.

While the participants worked they shared their personal associations with utensils. Binu said that the word ‘bartan’ rst became signi cant to her at the age of eight, when her maternal uncle gave her some toy metal utensils he had bought at a local fair. These included a miniature patila and bhagauna (deep cooking vessels), kadhai (wok), katora (small bowl), karchi (ladle), plates and spoons. Binu was fascinated by these tiny items and each day enjoyed playing with them, sharing them with her friends on the terrace of Meena Bazaar at the foot of the Jama Masjid steps. Parveen explained that she uses different utensils for cooking rice, cooking lentils, cooking meat, cooking vegetables, making tea or roti – she cooks each kind of food only in its designated bartan and does not mix them up.

As mentioned earlier, the shelter residents used to cook on a makeshift stove made of bricks, using wood and waste paper as fuel. Now they cook on gas, getting their cylinder re lled at Kala Mahal as the owner takes Rs 80 per re ll, while Lalaji near the sh market charges an extra Rs 10 for his effort. The women used to buy their utensils from Kala Mahal, but now they buy them from the Sunday Market. They prefer to use heavy utensils such as kadhai for cooking as these are more durable and food cooked in them does not easily burn.

Open Day (27 April 2019)

On the project’s Open Day, the shelter at Urdu Park turned into a temporary art space vibrant with colourful paintings. The SPYM staff, shelter residents and Art Reach volunteers hung the participants’ canvases from the central rod that runs across the ceiling of the shelter. The texts on spices, recipes and utensils were placed on tables borrowed from another nearby shelter, with similarly borrowed chairs placed for visitors to sit and read those narratives. Participants guided the visitors around and enthusiastically answered viewers’ questions about the artwork.

The collaborative creation of the map of Meena Bazaar had inspired the idea of a shared kitchen, and for some time the participants had been discussing how to pool their limited resources, acquired with great dif culty, towards cooking meals in the courtyard of the shelter and selling this food as a source of income – an option to their normative practice of earning through begging, and a form of work that would enable them to maintain their dignity. The participants collected money towards this, and on Open Day actively initiated a one-day kitchen, preparing snacks such as potato and vegetable pakodas and samosas, each plate costing Rs 10 along with tea. Visitors enjoyed the eatables just as much as they enjoyed the participants’ artwork and oral accounts of the process of creating the map of Meena Bazaar and individual paintings.

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