Writing about sacred food helped me figure out my faith: Shoba Narayan

By Vishnu Makhijani

New Delhi, November 28 (IANS): Award-winning author and columnist Shoba Narayan is a graduate from the Columbia Journalism School with a Pulitzer Travelling Fellowship and writes on food, travel, fashion, and art and culture for a slew of International and Indian publications like the Conde Nast Traveller, NYT and Brunch. All her four books are firmly rooted in Indian culture, as is her latest offering, "Food & Faith - A Pilgrim's Journey Through India", (HarperCollins) that she says actually helped her figure out her faith.

"After being an atheist as a teenager, agnostic in my twenties and thirties, I turned to religion late in life. As the mother of two young daughters, the daughter of fairly religious, traditional, South Indian parents and in-laws, I had to come to terms with my religion, and indeed, all religions. Instead of avoiding and disdaining faith, I had to find a way to include it in my life. For my children's sake. For my parents' sake," the Bengaluru-based Narayan told IANS in an interview.

"Around the time I began visiting temples to write about their sacred food (prasadam and its different connotations), I decided to figure out my faith. I wanted to figure out how I felt about the Hindu rituals and practices that I had dismissed as being patriarchal. I re-read the marvellous and imaginative Hindu myths that I had heard from my grandmother as a child. And I talked to many experts about my religion.

"Food seemed like an innocuous way to do this. Sacred food as a way of fusing a secular identity with spirituality in some form: that was my plan. What I didn't know, what I didn't anticipate, is that once you step into the realm of faith, your heart and emotions open in ways that you cannot predict or control. You'll see when you read the book," Narayan explained.

It's a book largely - but not only - about Hinduism "written by a (sceptical) Hindu who seeks to answer larger questions about faith. Like the following: What is the role of religion in your life today? Do you pray? How do you pray? Do you commune with the divine through rituals? Is it through chanting verses in Aramaic, Arabic or Sanskrit?"

"Or is it a comforting routine - going to the mosque, church or temple once a week or month? Is religion part of your identity? Or is it something that you seek to distance yourself from? Is it an occasional activity that you do out of habit or because your parents ask you to? Or is it simply a connection with your heritage, home and ancestors?

"Do you think religion is a private act or can it be part of the public discourse? Are these questions making you uncomfortable? These are the questions that came up during the many pilgrimages that I undertook. These are the questions that I sought to answer in my writing," Narayan elaborated.

And what a sweep it covers! Embracing shrines in Amritsar, Ajmer, Mumbai (the Bene Israelis), and Goa, besides the prominent Hindu temples, the book explores the powerful and intimate intertwining of food with faith, history, myth and identity.

A considerable amount of research has gone into its writing.

"I started with a simple calculation. I would visit those temples that had good prasadam or sacred food offerings. These are, literally, foods for the gods, which belong to a time, place and a specific deity. After offering it to God, the devotees partake of this 'gracious gift of God'," Narayan said.

"Using food as an anchor and guide seemed like a good way to parse the hundreds of thousands of Hindu temples in India, each with specific creation-myths, rituals and, yes, recipes. If nothing else, I would eat well," the author added.

An interesting thing happened as she traversed the world of Hindu temple prasadams.

"I discovered that while the food was interesting, my journey also prompted larger questions about faith and its place in our lives and society. And that is what this book eventually became: a pilgrim's quest into the world of faith told through food," Narayan said.

Quite naturally, the writing of the book had a profound impact on her.

"I am a Hindu. It defines who I am, perhaps not as much as feminism, and certainly not as much as being a writer or a mother. But if I had to list out the top five things that are part of my identity, it would be part of the list," Narayan said.

At the same time, there was the reaffirmation that "all religions share broad strokes. They talk about developing courage, character and tenacity to cope with the ups and downs of life. Faith, at its best, is about giving strength and succour. As it turns out, the religion that I was born into, Hinduism, has answers for many of the above questions. It is also an imaginative faith, full of myth and folklore, rituals that incorporate lights, lamps, flowers, music, dance and sacred food."

We may pray to Jesus, Ram or Allah, "but at the end of the day, we are all children of God. We each have many identities. Religion is one, but there are others. We are each of us son/daughter, spouse, sibling, friend and professional. I tend to identify myself through my work, and I would suspect that most of my readers are the same way".

"I am attracted to the beauty of Hindu rituals, to its pujas, pomp and circumstance. At the same time, I like Christian gospel music, Buddhist philosophy, Sufi poetry, Jewish literature, Sikh generosity, Parsi identity. In India, we are lucky enough to be able to experience them all.

"So yes, I am Hindu. I like my faith, but please, that's not all I am.

"And now if you'll excuse me, I have a frig-full of prasadams (sacred food) that I need to eat," Narayan concludes.