The sociality of food becomes implicit and explicit in the way it contains and reproduces differences and sameness. It is in the production and consumption of food that social relations are reproduced across social structures. The social relations of food and labouring subjects go a long way.
The social relation between the labouring subject and food is brilliantly captured in a film that I watched today in a film workshop called “The Lunch Box” by Floridne Devigne. The film maker embarks on a journey of Belgium’s social relations and revisits various tensions and contradictions through the prism of the lunch box and brilliantly weaves in the story of production- reproduction- and waste in the everyday life of Belgium.
What struck me is the way in my work on labouring lives in industrial zones the army of workers entered with the three tier steel containers popularly known as “Tiffins”/ “Dabbas” (In Hindi). Growing up in an industrial township when the clock struck one, an uncle rang our bell to collect “Tiffin” which was neatly packed with Rice, Dal and Fish Curry to be ferried to my father’s workplace. Browsing through my field notes from Falta SEZ if one asked me to visually capture the army of workers entering the zone; the first image would be an army of workers either on foot or on bicycle with their three tier Tiffin Box entering the factory gates.
Mostly women carried their tiffins as they felt shy to sit in canteens or walk back to the factory gate to have tea and snacks in the series of shops lined along the zone. The women workers usually carried their leftover lunch for the evening shift. In fact majority of the women preferred the evening shift from 2pm-10pm as they could cook lunch and carry food with them. Some of them carried their lunch to the workshops as they often got late doing household chores. Mostly women gathered in groups and shared their respective tiffins. While on one hand, mostly the unstructured interviews with women used to begin with what food they had cooked on the respective day it was not so for the men. Infact, for men, when they wanted to wind an interview particularly after morning shift they excused themselves by saying “Have to go… take a shower. I am hungry.” For women it was “ Need to go and cook both lunch and dinner. I hate morning shifts”.
Men not only had the choice to sit for a meal which was already prepared they often ate in the roadside tea stalls lined along the factory gates. In my field work of three months I had never spotted a woman barring me and the respective owner’s wives who helped their male folk in cutting of vegetables in the shop. Even the women who helped in the shop had to cook in their respective homes before they reached the shop. While women managing tea shops and lunch stalls are a common sight, the customers remain mostly male. For instance, one of the shopkeeper owners through some arrangement with the security used to send his wife with a bag of 30-40 packets of Puffed Rice and Vegetable Fritters to the zone to capture the female clientele.
During this field work, even my social relation with the workers came to be determined by food that I ate and consumed. For instance the very fact that I rested in a shop close to Falta Special Economic Zone where they prepared vegetable fritters to be sold to Zone workers; made me acceptable to a section of workers who were the patrons of this shop. Infact one of the contractors who had misbehaved with me in front of a factory gate actually apologised when he found me eating Dhakai Paratha with ghugni ( Dhakai Paratha is a layered paratha which is made of flour, and water. What is interesting is that it is shredded, and sold according to the weight). Ghugni is a popular Bengali breakfast of roadside tea stalls. The basic ingredient is Dried White Peas. We sat with our respective kanshi ( Bengal word for an steel / aluminium utensil with a shallow base usually used to have puffed rice) and discussed various issues relating to the zone and beyond. So Tiffins- not only represent a “break” of the routinised schedule of the labouring subject it is also a space where through the tiffin the labouring subject is able to gaze/ engage with the product of his/ her labour.
Coming back to capturing everyday life through the prism of “lunch box” presents a materiality of political economic life which is both productive and reproductive. While on one hand the food that is inside your tiffin is the product of “labour” ; the labour also “consumes” the tiffin. It is almost as if the image of army of workers walking with tiffins point to the banality of work. It is this banality of social relations that we as labouring subjects produce and consume through food.