Sheermal, literally means sweet milk, is a kind of bread made out of flour, ghee, milk, cream, and other condiments many of which are closely guarded by the sentient of Lucknowi cuisine. Except for the Mughals and the Bengalis, Indians do not use refined maida for making their breads. Indians use rice, wheat, corn and coarse cereals to make their breads; but the naan in the Mughal food and the luchi, parota, dhakaai parota among the Bengalis are invariably made of maida. Sheermal is an Iranian import, the use of all kinds of crushed nuts and spices like cardamon and saffron shows that it has travelled all the way from Iran via Kashmir into Lucknow. What is important is the oven in which Sheermal is baked; it is an Iranian invention and in the early days could only be handled by Iranian cooks. The proliferation of “Irani Hotels” in south India which serve dhakaai parota and mutton or chicken korma perhaps hints that there must have been a wave of Iranian cooks into India. The time would be the 1830’s. The invention of the rosogolla by Bhola Moira, the R & D and product development sponsored by K.C.Das, in all probability a Marwari from Bikaner, also happened around this time. Indeed, the early 19th century was a time of gluttony and consumption.
Around this time, the strands of Hindustani classical music gelled; there was integration across India of ragas, styles, beats and rhythms. Also during this time, efforts were first made at theorizing music and dance. Vernacular literature proliferated and newspapers, novels, published books for general circulation also started around this time. Embroidery, glass applique and various other kinds of fashion emerged, kite flying, pigeon honing, cock fights assumed new heights. There were fragrances and jewellery, the glitter of gold and the glamour of chandeliers. Yet, despite such high consumption and luxurious life styles, this was also the age of Umrao Jaan and of the rising practice of Sati, in short an age when women were at their most vulnerable selves. While on one hand we have kidnapping, trafficking and forced prostitution, on the other hand we have women who were being regularly burnt alive along with their dead husbands. Many women believed so fervently in the virtue of Sati that they competed among one another as to who would burn alive on the dead husband’s pyre.
These were also the times of the beginning of a new Enlightenment namely in the form of Raja Rammohan Roy and Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar; of Ramkrishna Paramhansa and of Lalon Phokir. Truly these were the best and the worst of times.
Times of high consumption and attack on the body of woman are related; for the woman’s body represents the possibility of the highest pleasure of consumption. Such times must be distinguished from Kalidas’s times when the Sanskrit plays eroticized stories from the epics as in Shakuntala and Kumar Sambhava, or the age of the Khajurao temples of the Rashtrakutas were times when the erotic was discovered and established in the public space. The consumption of the female body and the eroticism related to the female body are antonyms of one another. In the latter case, the idea is to fulfil the female as an organism, to reveal her in her climatic elements, to extend her desire to its fullest. In a sharp contrast to this is the consumption of the female body where not her subjectivity but she as an object is fully realized. In a consumerist culture the woman is too an object of consumption, innate and devoid of spirit or of being. Her availability for being consumed reinforces the male ego. High consumerism is not erotica; in fact, erotica displaces consumption and instead stirs forces of production and creation. When high consumerism explores sexuality and the erotic; it generates the obscene.
The prognosis of consumption is death. Consumption ends in the utter destruction and the death of that which is consumed. Consumerist culture cannot grow except in a death wish of a society, in the Thanatos of its culture. This is why consumerism implies a dying culture. A dying culture is usually a culture of death, a culture which cannot think of a future, a culture which has no idea of preserving intergenerational equality; a culture which is so addicted to having more and more that it loses any concern towards postponement for the future. Such cultures neither invest nor save its capital for future cultural growth. Such cultures accompany economies which are hopelessly speculative and therefore non-productive. Not unexpectedly then, the economy of the 1830’s was rife with speculation, rain betting, betting on paddy, wheat, cotton, indigo and even on outcomes of wars and carnages. Opium trade constituted the mainstay of the economy propelled by the world’s largest source of the FDI, namely, the East India Company. And women nautch girls, prostitutes, kidnapped girls, burning widows and the rest of the womenfolk shut tightly into the homes in the grip of useless rituals formed the basic pattern of society.
The 1830’s strangely parallels today’s day and age. We have the glitter of shopping malls, the luxury of high rise buildings, the flow of easy money from brokerage of all kinds, political will which is tuned towards promoting the rich, a society which seeks power through ostentation, pursuit of lifestyle as private wealth, and yet a society where misogyny is at its height. Rape, as a crime is rising fastest in India and indeed, rape is a crime which men commit against women because they are women. Rape summarizes misogyny. Misogyny and consumerism are two sides of the same coin.
Consumerism is a strange regime; it is a regime in which the person does not think of times yet to fructify. It is a regime where there is no concept of savings; the rising debt which has so paralyzed America had also paralyzed India of the 1830’s and the rising loans from the banks or against gold in contemporary India is a case in our point. Unfortunately for both men and women, women are looked upon and in almost all cases look upon themselves as machinery for reproduction. Expectedly then in times where the general attitude is of one expenditure, reproduction which is savings (because no one really wants to carry debt through) is devalued. Since women, as a category, individual exceptions notwithstanding, have never strived to create any other value for themselves except to be wives and mothers, stand utterly devalued and disowned. Instances of fathers and brothers raping their daughters and sisters are the nadir of Hell. The refusal of society to look upon women as being capable of nothing but of sex and reproduction is very far from days of Kali, Durga, Lakshmi and Saraswati when certain attributes that reproduced the society as a whole and especially its productive forces were assigned to the feminine. Even in the 1830’s when women raised the levels of dance and music to unreached heights, they were only nautch girls and baijis, elevated prostitutes for who one had to pay higher prices.
Consumerism has yet another aspect; it is selfish, it is egoist. Consumerism turns people from others; isolates them from a general fellow feeling. Community spirit and consumerism are mutually exclusive. Women, as wealth of the society is sought to be exhausted immediately; misogyny lies here. Communities become apathetic; enclosed in the private space, drawing in more and more of the public as private by putting up colony gates, claiming municipality parks, encroaching on pavements by spreading awnings and thus rendering such spaces out of public address and even shelter. The tragedy of Priya Kale, a homeless pregnant woman beaten up by the constable for occupying the public park in Pusa Road is a burning instance of resident devil in our decaying society.