BE LIKE TEFLON, Jasleen Kaur

31/05/2020.      ZM

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Wednesday night I called my dadi back; she calls me every day at 3pm, and that day i’d missed her call. I sat outside on my beanbag with the patio lights on, the moths shuffling around above my head. She asked me if I’d spoken to my dad and I said, ‘we facetimed him this morning and he’s been busy doing the gardening, they’re growing tomatoes, courgettes, lettuce and peppers’. And my dadi went quiet for a moment; paused and said, ‘do you remember the garden at our old house? Your dada used to grow everything; apples, laal saak, tomatoes, coriander, so many things at the back of the garden!’ I remember my dada’s garden; there’s a picture on my bedroom wall of the tulips he grew at the front. The garden sloped up away from the back of the house, so when you opened the back door, you were met by a wall of furious tulips; red & yellow and rigid. I remember he had a huge compost bin at the back, and in the summer my sister and I would scramble up a ladder and pick pears off the tree from the garage roof. He patched up a hole in the patio with concrete, and I wrote ZARINA <3 into the pasty wet surface with a screwdriver.

‘He planted pumpkins too, and when he died they turned red. At the mosque when they took his body there we gave them 2 lambs and I made the pumpkin curry myself. I brought it from home, gave it to them. They wouldn’t let me leave without giving me pulao to take back in the container though.’ I don’t remember the pumpkins, I just remember the carpet of the mosque floor was covered with white cotton sheets. I remember being sat at the back of the men’s section and I remember seeing my dad at the front, but I don’t remember what happened or what he said. I just remember the domed ceiling from this new angle, looking up, holding someone’s hand, clammy and cold. 

I read Jasleen Kaur’s <BE LIKE TEFLON> on a plane to somewhere. Alone on the row, I cracked the spine and felt my fingertips slipping against the plasticky library jacket. It is a book that takes in many parts; part cookbook, part transcript, part collection of essays. The bulk of the book is 4 transcripts of conversations between Jasleen and the women in her life; about family and how those discrete relationships play out a larger power dynamic, about migration and its sticky complications, what we are given and how we are given it, what we give to others. Food feels circumstantial at times, and at other times it is so centrally important that it’s the reason and cause in itself. It opens:

‘At the age of sixteen or seventeen I developed bulimia. A means of shrinking, disappearing, a slow suicide. To ask yourself, ‘What are you feeding yourself?’ - physically, spiritually - strikes me hard, deep in my belly, in my gut. This self-destruction, performed for almost half my life, was a way of coping, an accomplished ritual, used to block out a feeling, a memory a betrayal. It was an unconscious frenzy to fill a void, to then spill out violently the contents of my body, till numbness was restored. Now healing, I wonder if resisting nourishment was a silent scream for help - a hunger strike, a protest. I’m still trying to understand it, as I carefully pummel roasted jeera seeds, knead my fists into atta, peel the skin from a roast batao. This book began out of silence and smallness, of a desperation to find my voice and body. These pages are an act of self-nourishment, self-preservation and survival.’

- <what are you feeding yourself>, Jasleen Kaur.  

I wrote <EAT THE RICH> thinking I could clear the slate and continue with a happy little food column where I just write about my conceptual obsession with blackcurrants, the social purpose of rotli, or some other bizarre shit, and continue on without ever talking about this ~Thing~ I do. I don’t want to write about disorder again. I don’t want to make it a thing. I don’t want it to define the words that come out of me, or even for it to define the way I’m seen. Because I know it changes the way I’m perceived; it tips a balance towards my body as a site of tension, it calls my body into question when actually you probably never even thought of it before. But I don’t know how to talk about what this book means to me without having this weird weird thing I do play in the background. 

‘Perhaps the strongest form of protest for a south asian woman is to not be a feeder, or to not feed herself or others on time. To hate the smell of raw and cooked ingredients, to ignore well preserved cooking methods and hand-me-down recipes. And to reevaluate the tastes, stories and memories we have been told to hold dear to us. To not feed on the pain and his-tories of others, and to not feed one’s self for a collective cause. Hunger Strike - a refusal to eat food. Often undertaken as a form of protest.’

- <the feeder and feeding - a parallel text>, Amanprit Sandhu

In January I listened to an episode of Stance podcast curated by Jemma Desai, about ~Revolutionary Mothering~. It features an interview with Jasleen, and she, Jemma & Chrystal Genesis talk between experience, writing, and these parts of <BE LIKE TEFLON>. They speak about rupture and refusal; Jemma reads the bit above from Aman’s essay. I was listening on my way to work, and as Jemma read that part I started crying in the packed tube carriage. 

That evening I tweeted: ‘When I wrote <EAT THE RICH>, I quoted Chris Kraus saying: ‘Anorexia is a violent breaking of the chain of desire’. In <BE LIKE TEFLON> it feels more tangible that it is also breaking ties to something more abstract and sticky, darker than just desire alone. It feels like a refusal that shatters a relationship between yourself and a bodily history that you have no power to grasp with both hands.’ 

[about that bodily history]: I am thinking about how famine affects a people and a psychology, how generations after feel the ripples of trauma upon and within their bodies. It wasn’t just my Dada in Bengal, but on the other side too; my mum’s family left Gujarat for Kenya to build railroads for the british empire, forced hand in leaving as drought swept across north India and the british viceroy, Lord Curzon, sent surplus food back to england or into the hands of stockpiling traders. My family fled to Kenya to seek refuge from a famine that was entirely avoidable, but british priority was trade and profit, and that was that. And I am thinking about the word terroir (that I only know because Ruby Tandoh tweeted about not being able to pronounce it, so I literally only googled it this week, excuse me for writing about it like it’s a novelty). Terroir: ‘a french term used to describe the environmental factors that affect a crop's phenotype, including unique environment contexts, farming practices and a crop's specific growth habitat. Collectively, these contextual characteristics are said to have a character; terroir also refers to this character.’ It is usually used in lofty discussions about things like wine, cheese and coffee; things that people care about pedantically. And now I am thinking about how my body’s literal genes are probably carrying a history of famine, and probably so is the literal land all my family left behind. And I don’t think that’s a romantic kind of entanglement, I think that sounds like hauntology.

‘Forget roti just have some oven chips on the side. Sometimes you’d dip ‘em in. I wonder, back in Punjab, back in the day, whether there was anyone innovating, growing new things? Or, something wouldn’t grow that year so they’d use something else. When we’ve come over here, it means so much over here, it’s your heritage, you eat your heritage, your eating your culture every night. It’s so important, it’s how you remember, how you sustain, how you feel a certain way, it’s your tongue, it’s your taste, it’s everything - but I wonder whether we hold onto it more because we’re not there?’

- <she’s got her whole life, now is her time to study. I don’t want her to be stuck in the kitchen>, Jasleen Kaur in convo with Amanroop

It is more than just eating, more than just putting a Thing into your Mouth that you then Chew and Swallow, Digest and eventually Shit Out. And I don’t care about how I look, really, because when I’ve been at the peak I have been quietly terrified of how I look. Food represents; it is a signifier caught up in other systems, other power and labour dynamics. It ends up being about wanting a distance between yourself and this system, so you replace one system with another. The system that you’ve opted for just looks more violent than the last; I can promise you it’s not actually, the old system is a bruising of its own. <BE LIKE TEFLON> details the bruises, and never once presses on them. It is discrete in front of an audience it isn’t familiar with; it speaks specifically, exclusively, latently. Anorexia’s breaking of the chain of desire involves food losing a hold as meaning; as nutrition, fuel for the body so the body can go on to perform more endless labour: produce capital or serve others to enable them to perform labour. The chain of desire is broken when food is seen for what it is in this power dynamic, and refusal is a real and solid grab at power, as well as a disruption to that system of capital and production. 

I have written all of this before, but it bears reiterating in a new shape, at a new time, with a new inflection. I appreciate that Jasleen has managed to take that & also simultaneously make a book with 11 recipes; at no point does the level of conversation veer into an affirmation of refusal as the only course of action. The point is that refusal is a halfway step to reclamation, it’s a rupture that ~must~ give way to a system in which you, we, tbh ~I~ am able to foreground joy and have that be the way I enact agency. The end point of (re)claiming ownership over our bodies is obviously not starvation; it is caving to their primacy, caring for them collectively and in unison, for no other reason than that they are all we really have. 

{The end point is my Dada tenderly planted pumpkins in the ground with his own hands, and when he died, those same pumpkins fed the people who loved him dearly and mourned him}. Peel, de-seed & chop up a pumpkin however you want, Dadi says rough cubes are best. Put oil in a shallow pan & fry off some onion, garlic & green chilli; toss in some haldi & coriander seeds and roast off the spices, but don’t let them burn. Add in the pumpkin & salt to taste, cook until tender and garnish with fresh coriander leaves. Best had with pulao. 

Jasleeen Kaur's <Be Like Teflon> is for sale on the Glasgow Women's Library website here

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