Rachel Berger

Clarified Commodities: Food Fights Between Politics and Economy in Interwar North India

This paper explores genealogies of food, taste, nutrition and questions of governance in India through attempts to regulate the production and sale of ghee (clarified butter and it’s mimetic others) in interwar India.  The idea of food regulation was itself a very new, introduced with the various health acts ratified by the provinces of India in the 1910s and 1920s, but never implemented. As such, the possibility of a reflexive regulatory system brought to the fore a series of questions about the role of the Raj and the power of provincial governance as interwar structures of governance in India took hold: what was the responsibility of the provincial government vis the private lives of the citizen – and especially regarding their embodiment? Was it possible for provincial governments to even attempt to account for – much less regulate – the vast expanse of food production? How could taste and desire be gauged in rational terms, and how could authenticity and fraudulence be measured?  Finally, and most importunately: could food be governed? This paper uses these questions to examine the unusual debates about clarified butter, its forgeries, and the context of interwar citizenship. 

Rachel Berger is Associate Professor of History and Fellow of the Simone de Beauvoir Institute at Concordia. She is a historian of medicine and the body in South Asia. In the past, she has worked on the history of Ayurvedic medicine in the context of late colonial biopolitics, Hindi-language discussions of gyneacology and reproductive medicine in interwar India, and the visual culture of consumption in the subcontinent. These topics are addressed in Ayurveda Made Modern: Political Histories of Indigenous Medicine in North India, 1900-1955 (Cambridge Imperial and Postcolonial Studies Series, Palgrave MacMillan, 2013). Her current South Asia-based research project takes up the history of food and nutrition in interwar and early post-colonial India. The SSHRC- and Wellcome- funded project focuses on the emergence of nutrition as a governable category in the 1920s through an examination of the political, social, cultural and economic nexus of food production, distribution, preparation and consumption. Her new work, entitled “Reproductive Politics in Queer Times”, centers on evolving discourses of ‘choice’ in neoliberal times. This research engages ethnography, textual & cultural analysis, legal studies, and queer theory to take up questions of reproduction and coupling set against the backdrop of homonationalism and the economization of life.