Food democracy

A religious profiling request to a food aggregator service sets a dangerous precedent of divisiveness that needs to stop

If there’s anything that symbolises the positive swamp of globalisation, it is the fluid republic of food where both the makers and the buyers share the best form of gratification there is, of taste buds. It is one space where everybody coopts and adapts each other’s choices in their daily lives and opens up to each other. No questions asked. You can prepare a dish continents away and perfect it so much that nobody would wonder if the cook was an ethnic local or not. Fusion has meant that a successful chef is one who has been able to innovate on existing flavour profiles and create new ones. In fact, food has democratised the celebratory aspect of religion so much that festival food is now an independent menu in its own right with everybody participating mind and belly. So it comes as a surprise that in such times, a Hindu user of a food service aggregator demanded that the delivery boy sent to his house not be Muslim as he was observing purist rituals of a holy month. Zomato may have earned kudos for standing by its brand philosophy of honouring India’s pluralistic spirit and providing equal work opportunities, but it is the question posed by the user that is symptomatic of a bigger societal concern. For if he insists on Hindu-only service as his right to freedom rather than an obstruction of humanity, then India’s civilisation is at stake. For this one question leads to many others. Would he not order out or eat out at any restaurant till it is racially profiled and certified? Will he not avail medical services without running a background check of providers? Will he not be sharing space with co-workers at his workplace? While we laud Zomato for daring to declare that its business wouldn’t override values, we should worry how India’s value system now seems to be modified by muscular majoritarianism at the granular level. Worse, the way the man kept on ranting about his right means that fringe extremism has now become mainstream thinking insidiously, that propaganda has achieved its purpose. And in a country, with an unimaginable culinary diversity, the only fair semblance of multi-culturalism is under threat.

Many might argue that food is a personal matter but such ridiculous demands, as the one made to Zomato on a public platform, means that it is now being appropriated as part of identity politics and a tool for segregation. Today, it is the deliverer, tomorrow it might be the contents itself with businesses required to announce their customisation codes. And like any other business, the food business, too, runs the risk of being linked to codified power structures and endorsements in the absence of a level-playing field. If a question is raised about who you are going to hire depending on customer preferences, what should you serve, what should be your staff like, and they become a flood of demands, it is difficult for a business operator to make choices. What the likes of this particular consumer don’t understand is that we had one of the most sophisticated food cultures hundreds of years before the French, and that was born of an evolutionary grammar of the ancient Silk Road and Spice Route, the two most successful commercial corridors that opened us up and yet taught us to stand out millennia ago. The Zomato fiasco is just a manifestation of an intolerant triumphalism that is percolating down the societal trellis. That’s the bigger problem.

The Pioneer