On the politics of hunger: In the midst of a lockdown and humanitarian crisis, notes from practising a meditative fast

Contemplate the politics of hunger; availability of food for all individual, community food practices; the vegan politics; vegetarianism; the beef ban; hunger strikes and who is able to do them or lead them and why, in a country like India.

Priyadarshini Ohol July 15, 2020 10:05:45 IST
On the politics of hunger: In the midst of a lockdown and humanitarian crisis, notes from practising a meditative fast

The lockdown has been a time for reflection, contemplation, exploration and going back to the basics; for building a better relationship with my body, mind and self.

I have spent the last several years in retreat in the Himalayas, in Dharamshala, with solitude for company and the canvas as a lover. Ever so often, I would venture out for walks along the mountain paths, find a nice spot in the forest, lay down on rocks to stare at the trees tops, be one with nature. I would wave and exchange pleasantries with my neighbours or take my ukulele and walk down towards the khad, have chai and chat with the locals, listen. Occasionally, I would walk up the hill to the more urban part and mingle with other city folk, make some activity acquaintances. Sometimes I would take lessons or workshops, and meet or sometimes go to dance with my Tibetans friends.

But I got stuck in Delhi for the lockdown. Delhi where I come to be extroverted and meet people, do things, engage with the world out of retreat. Delhi where there is neither a home nor hearth nor a studio that’s apart. It just happened so suddenly. I was barely able to source a canvas roll and some non-synchronous paint supplies right before everything shut down. The initial days of the lockdown were fragile. Suddenly, years of not using the phone too often or requiring much communication gave way to it becoming the sole tool of connection.

It was at this time that conversations with a young friend, with whom I rode out the dark days of the Delhi pogrom, reminded me of the years that passed by: living, struggling, fighting and losing people, yet winning at life. Their youth reminded me of the passing of mine. Their innocent childhood love reminded me of mine spent in perpetual worry, their carefree 20s reminded me of my hard-battled ones, my need to find me, and all the people and places and relationships I left behind in the course of it. The simplicity of their existence contrasted with the many layered complexity of mine. In the lockdown, I started grieving: for me, for the huge mass of people who have suffered and were suffering. I was experiencing an emotionally tumultuous time.

The migrants were walking, the poor going hungry, young students and activists being attacked and jailed. How would the working class, survivor caste, Muslims in North East Delhi survive this lockdown? How would the karigars, the raddi kapdewalas — whose houses were burned by torching the gas cylinders from their own kitchens — survive? Was there a limit to the suffering dictated to them by this socio-political system? How could I help? I had in the last few years gone from being an activist with networks and contacts to focusing on my own self. I had traded living for others with living for myself. In the process, I had become a moderately successful artivist, sure, but I wasn't much help to mankind when it needed it. I needed to contemplate on what was, should be, and can be — and process everything. I needed to be a Butoh practitioner and resonate with what was happening, such as the widespread hunger that was taking lives.

I instituted my first fast for seven days at the end of March. I put my phone and laptop and all other stimulation and communication in the cupboard. I rolled up my canvas and shut all my books, stopped all the writing. The only thing I kept out was my camera. For some reason I felt like it was necessary to have it for my record.

The migrants had embarked on their long marches home amid the lockdown, and my body wanted to be in resonance with them, their hunger and suffering.  My great-grandparents were daily wage labourers who built cities.  My paternal great-grandfather supervised the laying of the railway tracks between Bombay and Thane. My grandfather joined him and that was a job that made him a Mechanical Engineer. My maternal great-grandmother and grandfather dug and built the Mumbai-Lonavala tunnels and expressways. My grandmother tells me about growing up on these construction sites. I am of these people.

I have been hungry before: When I had no food, or for a long time when I could only eat one meal a day or nothing. As a teenager, a well-off cousin once told me that I looked like I had escaped from Somalia. It made no sense to me then, not knowing either Somalia or the hunger there.

My fellow somatic practitioners, mostly from the West, were discussing fasting last December and I could not even comprehend willingly going without food. (Fasting is one of the ways that you can push the body and mind, a form of testing endurance. The severities of these can change.) Before those discussions, I had met a popular activist of a popular movement who does hunger strikes and was wondering about what allows them their ability to move in and out of the worlds they inhabited. It took me four months and the inescapable sense of defemination because of the current state of our humanity to come to terms with the idea of fasting.

For my first fast during the lockdown, I cut down to one meal a day for four days. Then I went into a water fast with no food intake, meditated and contemplated on hunger, the politics of hunger and hunger strikes. The first four days and the first couple of days of no food intake were comparatively normal: Wake up at 4 am, shower, turn on kettle for hot water, sit outside to meditate. After about an hour, start the day’s chores. Finish chores and attempt meditation again and keep at this all day long.

On the politics of hunger In the midst of a lockdown and humanitarian crisis notes from practising a meditative fast

I was barely able to source a canvas roll and some non-synchronous paint supplies right before everything shut down. All photos by Priyadarshini Ohol

My body with its stored fat didn’t react the way it would if I was a daily wager. But by Day Four I was looking forward to my ritual of making and eating that single meal and sometimes I was eating off the plate even as the cooking was happening. There was nothing noble or dignified about it.

For my mind, this was hell. Shutting off all communication and stimulation is hard. One starts to act compulsively in various ways. My mind revealed so much: During meditation, I grieved for the people I connected with and parted from in all the places I’d been to and left; I grieved for what could have been but never was; taking and giving and all the people and all the places that I had left behind, and the fact that there is more to come. I grieved for it all. I grieved for the anti-Muslim pogrom in North-East Delhi. For the activists and students being targeted by the Indian state for the anti CAA-NRC protest at Shaheen Bagh.

When I stopped all food, I craved company and connection in spite of having spent so much time with myself for the last many years in the Himalayan retreat of my Dharamshala studio. Within the first 24 hours of stopping all food intake, I had turned on my phone. I didn’t break my silence by communicating, but I plugged into the internet and when offline, read a book. I spent a lot of time facing myself but at some point, I unrolled the canvas and started painting. I rolled it up again the next day as I fought with myself to be with myself. By Day Three of the water fast, I got weaker. I was too weak to do any chores; my mind wouldn’t cooperate, there was brain fog. My blood pressure dropped and I would be dizzy standing up or walking. But that was still okay, I could lay down and spend the day.

By the end of 72 hours, I started panicking about the availability of food in the lockdown. I had only stocked enough food for the first four one-meal days. My anxiety about access to food shot up. It was a lockdown, most people were hoarding. What if I had no food at all? How would I live? I could not stop the panic and meditate until I got on an online grocery shopping app to place an order for pulses and other dry foods. I could never have continued fasting if I was not privileged enough to be able to access food whenever I wanted! By Day Four, all I was doing was looking up food-related things and recipes on the internet. I considered my fast broken after 96 hours when I had a glass of water with some lemon juice.

Contemplate now the politics of hunger; availability of food for all individual, community food practices; the vegan politics; vegetarianism; the beef ban; hunger strikes and who is able to do them or lead them and why, in a country like India.

For a migrant daily wager, hunger is a reality, access to food limited, and food is sustenance — not a luxury. They cannot and won’t willingly give up food. It is a primal need. To die without food in three days on the road meant that the migrant workers who undertook these long walks home would have hardly had any fat stored to convert to energy. Not only the glycogen in their liver and muscles, but also any fat was spent in 72 hours. This means they were already living on the verge of starvation. The sheer number of migrant labourers leaving for home and the number of them dying on the way is proof of the fact that we are a country full of hungry people living in starvation.

This is our condition. This is our nation. What should be our politics? What sort of social structures have we erected? And why? It is a shame that the large majority of mankind on this subcontinent doesn’t have dignity either in life nor death. What is the point of a nation and governance of the privileged, by the privileged, for the privileged?

Where is the basic right to life of a human if they have to fight beyond death to reach home? Why don’t so many millions of human beings have availability and access to food security? What is this nation of India and what have those who ruled made of it since Independence if it is unable to ensure that a citizen who wants to go home will stay alive for three days?

For a few days now, I’ve been prepping to go into my second silent, meditative, water fast since the lockdown. A dog bite and the resultant 14-day vaccination course delayed its beginning. This time, I will fast for 10 days. This time, there is a well-stocked pantry and I am staggering my reductions and restrictions. I should have started it some days ago but couldn’t as I needed some more nourishment before I deprived my body. I have stopped texting or speaking, or any unnecessary contact with people. I have eased into Noble Silence. I had my one meal around midday, then eased into a predominantly liquid meal. I am listening to my body-mind. How does it feel, what does it want? I will slowly start listening to my whole being. I will slow down and practice silent contemplation, self-observation, deep listening and after listening to my life, I will institute a routine that best suits my current needs.

I will observe what my body does without food, and if it does not break my Noble Silence, and serves a larger purpose, I will journal an honest account of what happens.

Priyadarshini Ohol is a contemporary artist. She can be reached on ohol.priya@gmail.com

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