food The Sad, Sexist Past of Bengali Cuisine
Near the end of the 18th and final of her pregnancies, my great-grandmother, Hiranmayi Ghatak, became a widow. Her body had withstood a whirlwind of miscarriages and stillbirths, which resulted in a total of eight living children by the time she was 37.
This was in the district of Paschim Dinajpur in 1924, well before Bengal splintered into what is today known as the Indian state of West Bengal and the country of Bangladesh. My great-grandmother was a decade her husband’s junior. He, a doctor, had fallen victim to a sudden stroke that left him paralyzed but alert until his death 11 days later.
My great-grandmother, my mother told me one day this spring, was only 11 when she wed my great-grandfather in an arranged marriage. In the absence of anything resembling a formal courtship, they treated their marriage like the preamble to a wedding: At the end of each night, she would stare into her vanity and unspool her hair, which she’d restricted to a taut, unforgiving bun throughout the course of the day. As she admired herself in the mirror, he would stare at her from the comfort of his bed. This was their nightly ritual.
The death of her husband left my great-grandmother dazed. Afterwards, she did what most widows like her, Hindu and of high-caste pedigree, had to do to repent for the death of her husband. She scrubbed her hair clean of sindoor, the vermillion smear between the parting of her hair, initially put there during marriage ceremony as a mark to signify she and her husband were permanently in union. She donned a blanched white sari, an outfit she would wear for the rest of her life.
From then on, she would eliminate onion and garlic, alliums thought to conjure sexual energy, from her diet. She would stop eating red lentils for the same reason—these were, apparently, edible pulses as potent as aphrodisiacs. She would stamp out meat and fish, staples of cooking in Paschim Dinajpur, and stick to a rigorously strict vegetarian diet. She would be restricted to one meal a day, mid-day. At night, she would have puffed rice, khoi, with milk. Following this odd, constricting decree was culturally expected of her and other Hindu, high-caste widows in Bengal.
So she obeyed orders. She'd been told that her husband was as an appendage of her, that his ghost would trail for as long as she was alive. That life without her husband was no life at all.
Though the life of a bidhobha, a woman without a husband, wasn’t a reality she prepared herself for, my great-grandmother accepted this new lifestyle dutifully. Without the ingredients she once used routinely at her disposal, she cultivated her vegetarian cooking into an art of its own, full of sensory charge. My mother would go crazy for her mochar ghonto, a dry curry made with banana flower, or echorer tarkari, a gravy prepared with jackfruit. To my mother, there was little better than didar hatther ranna, cooking from the hands of a grandmother. This food was bellied with comfort and tempered with pain.
Rumors would swirl around other widows in my great-grandmother’s proximity. Villagers, mostly men, would spread lies that these women hid meat carcasses in their houses, or that their kitchens were secret lairs of fish bones. My great-grandmother was, thankfully, able to dodge such rumor-mongering because she was diligent about observing this tradition without advertising her grief.
My great-grandmother was one of the many Hindu, upper-caste widows of West Bengal who’d been confined to this gruesome dietary fate. Cooking in those households, pre-widowhood, revolved around stews with various proteins—carp (rui maach), mutton (pathar mangsho). These were dishes of casual splendor: unctuous, hearty, and utterly commonplace in diets.
After widowhood, these women were forced to make do with the meager ingredients they were given to cook. But these culinary limitations inadvertently contributed to what is now a rich vegetarian cuisine, built around dishes made from scraps of produce. These women are this cuisine's unsung architects, recognizing a spectrum of possibilities within their loss.
Bengali cuisine, to be clear, is so much more than what this particular experience represents. This practice operates within a very distinct caste (Brahmin and Kayastha—that is, high caste), religious (Hindu), and regional (West Bengal) bracket. Bengal is an enormously and densely diverse region, fractured by partitions and wars. Travel down the caste ladder and allegiance to this tradition mellows; travel across what is today the border between West Bengal and majority Muslim Bangladesh and it evaporates entirely.
The specificity of this practice doesn’t negate its violence. The alienation imposed upon high-caste, Hindu Bengali women was meant to act as a hormonal suppressant, silencing the desire more dangerous than hunger for fish or meat: sex. In some cases, it was even thought to induce malnutrition, prescribing an early death sentence. Party line suggested that widowhood made a woman’s sex drive fickle and vulnerable. A woman’s libido was a site of such agita that she couldn’t be trusted to keep it quiet, and so her body needed to be governed. Following widowhood, then, high-caste, Hindu Bengali women assumed the power of mythological creatures dubbed “husband-eaters” by elders. Responsibility for their husbands’ death somehow fell upon them.
Adherence to this tradition persisted even after the Hindu Widows’ Remarriage Act of 1856, which reversed the equally hateful convention of forbidding widows from remarrying, and the British outlawing of sati, the horrifically theatrical practice of making a widow self-immolate on her husband’s funeral pyre.
The stigmas around widowhood did not die with these formal, legal mandates. They still flourished in private. Even as these reforms took shape in colonial Bengal, women were still collateral damage. Legal shifts were more like gestures of colonial dominance over a perceived barbaric subordinate. Bengali men were cast as savage aggressors by the British, and Bengali women were mere currency to be exchanged in service of proving everyone else’s humanity but their own.
It’s become much easier, now, to see this practice for what it is. Forcing widows to give up meat and fish, and for such puritanical reasons, is surrealistically inhumane. Thankfully, its grip on high-caste, Hindu Bengali widows has loosened as time has worn on. The widows in my immediate and extended families don't follow this diet any longer. My mother, after the recent death of my father, grappled with a faint distaste for meat that lasted a few days, but it was more a passing gastronomic mood than anything. She had no desire to follow the same regimen as my great-grandmother. In fact, she flinched at the mere thought of doing so. The only women who still swear by this diet are very old, hailing from a bygone generation.
What remains, though, is a language of cooking that owes its brilliance to these widows. The pathways through which a cuisine assumes an identity leans on the vulnerable: It becomes easier to deny authorship to women like my great-grandmother when the world around them barely considers them people to begin with. If the world you inhabit already ostracizes you, how can you expect history to pick up the slack?
“The roots of food culture are not simple, and there is no one cause for a certain way of eating,” Bengali food writer Chitrita Banerji told me recently. “However, once the practice of food deprivation was imposed on widows, it did contribute to the enrichment of Bengali vegetarian cooking since many widows were given the responsibility of cooking the vegetarian items for the extended families they lived with.”
Banerji observed her mother’s own widowhood in a 1995 Granta essay, “What Bengali Widows Cannot Eat,” and subsequent books on the history of Indian cooking. She'd been perplexed and enraged by what she saw as her mother’s emotional imprisonment. Banerji’s piece, over two decades old, is one of the few significant pieces of writing on this subject in the English language.
When she wrote that essay, Banerji had just brought her mother over to the United States to live with her. But Banerji could detect that her mother had a lingering sense of guilt over her husband’s death. As she described it to me, it seemed “as if she was somehow failing to measure up to some ideal of virtuous womanhood.” This obedience frustrated Banerji. When considering what food injustice looks like in a patriarchal society, then, she looked at her own mother.
I should note that not everyone shares the same opinion of this custom, and that it hinges on a very specific definition of Bengali widowhood. Academic Sailen Routray, whose family hails from the neighboring state of Odisha, critiqued what he saw to be the blinkered perspective of Banerji’s essay. “I feel there is a general tendency to pass off the experiences of the so-called upper castes in West Bengal as the regional experience par excellence,” Routray wrote me two months ago. “This is just a sleight of hand, and must be exposed for what it is.”
What may explain the stamina of this tradition in upper-caste households is the double standard that dictates how marriages were gendered within this demographic, and how these norms persist. When a man cooks, it is an occasion, an event to be relished; when a woman cooks, it is practically relegated to care work. In these houses, there is something knowable and constant about a woman’s cooking, which somehow renders it barely worth celebrating.
“You may ask why was not there a more concerted attempt at reform, and here I think maybe misogyny played a part,” Banerji explained to me. “Women were always expected to be the 'sacrificers.' Even if a woman was not a widow, her role in traditional Bengali homes was that of the nurturer who either cooked or, if the family had hired help, supervised the cooking and serving of meals. They always made sure that the men of the house got the best of the food.”
My great-grandmother lived to a hollow, brittle 96. By then, her constitution had weakened significantly. She began to grow somewhat deranged, clinging to the belief that she had a seat next to her dead husband in heaven. My mother recalls a particularly illustrative episode of my great-grandmother’s grief, and its resilience in old age: She would hug a photograph of her late husband when she was moving house, bug-eyed and manic, terrified of letting him go.
My mother was born in 1955, well into my great-grandmother’s widowhood. The wound of my great-grandmother’s husband’s death had settled considerably by then, though she’d sometimes tell my mother stories of cooking rui maach before she had to abandon it. She didn’t just miss the taste and consistency of the fish she used to eat pre-widowhood, she missed the activity of actually cooking it.
My mother would see her every three or four months, consuming her cooking eagerly. She would use a frail cookstove, resembling a tin bucket over a coalbed, to cook, and my mother would watch her. She’d watch how my great-grandmother rolled the dough for luchi, a puffy, pimpled bread, three times, vigorously, until it was round like a small planet. This would make the dough softer so it could yield more easily to heat. She taught this to her daughter, my mother’s mother, who then taught it to my own mom.
A 19th century adage contends that one cannot taste Bengali vegetarian cooking’s full glory unless your own wife becomes a widow. It’s a florid, slightly fetishistic aphorism that centers the pleasure on the eater. The person who said this was, unsurprisingly, a man, and presents evidence of the blunt hypocrisy that has gone unchecked for years: These women suffered just so the rest of us could eat. Their perseverance in the face of adversity—and the embarrassing, atavistic conditions that made their cooking so magnificent—gets obscured.
When we ask where our food comes from, it’s usually more about the people and not what they’re feeling—their joys, their disappointments, and whatever mess exists in between. Sitting at the table and eating food from someone else’s hands affords you the privilege of not knowing the effort, be it minimal or extreme, it took to get to you. You’re relieved of the burden of even having to think about any of this; it’s hard to taste someone else’s grief.
During the final years of her life, slouching towards death, my great-grandmother cooked less often. She died in 1983, nine years before I was born. So I’m only left to wonder: Was cooking an outlet for her anguish, or an exorcism of it? It’s impossible to say. Hers is a pain I’ll never know.
Paige Mehrer is an illustrator in Brooklyn, New York.