The desire to eat, and eat unapologetically: reflections on the meaning of home via Axone

Deboleena Sengupta invokes her personal experiences and contemporary politics while reviewing the Netflix film Axone.

Axone (2019), a Nicholas Kharkongor movie, showcasing a range of ingredients to cook a pork dish, talks about the racial politics of food in India. The anxieties around food and citizenship remain central, and for me it was a “personal is political” moment watching it.[1] It is also exciting to tell that each ingredient carries social meanings, memories and unseen borders. To start with, yours truly, a Bengali girl from Dibrugarh, learned to indulge in pork dishes in a home which belonged to the Mising community.[2] It attached their culinary sense to my childhood. I demanded Gahori at home![3] In the movie, Upasana, a Nepali girl cooks the dish for Minam, her Naga friend. For me it was cooked by a didi, a Bihari girl (Mahato). Her father worked as a security guard in my father’s office. It was also cooked to me by an Uncle (Kurmi) who belonged to the tea community. He had married a Garo lady- my mother’s friend. The desire to eat pork was hindered by many layers of caste and class hierarchies, but what was most important to me was the love. Unlike the movie character, they knew and loved to cook it.

Some non-pork eaters from my family would enquire that why take a “dirty” animal on the plate. They would subtly remind me that there are social boundaries. I first ate Shuor in a Bengali restaurant in a border town of Tripura.[4] But what fascinated me was that the pork curry was not listed in the food items of the display board. Yet another narrative that I frequently confront among the upper caste Hindu pork eaters is that, “We are not allowed to take it home, but we eat it outside”. It would be a secret from the family, but many a times the latter would be aware of their “love” for the “dirty” animal. The caste divide in a society is maintained and reinforced though notions of “hygiene” and “purity”.[5] Kate Millet reminds us that the family and its roles act as an agent of the larger society, who not “only encourage its own members to adjust and conform”, but also act as a “unit in the government of the patriarchal state which rules its citizens through its family heads”.[6] Besides, with new food outlets and festivals in the market that lists pork as a “Tribal” dish, a Mising friend commented that I must be a “Tribal Bengali”. Thereby, the social boundaries attached with food habits are imagined and re-imagined in our daily lives.

On the contrary, bamboo shoot arrived in the house before I was born. My relatives who do not consume pork may “salivate” over bamboo pickle. I mention it to make reference to the social and geo-political aspect to time. I was introduced to the fermented soya beans, by the name Akhuni (or Axone) in as late as 2016, through an article by Dolly Kikon, a scholar from Nagaland. In her article, she explores “the notions of modernity, citizenship, belonging and transgressions in South Asia through the fermented food, Akhuni”.  To explain so, she refers to 2007, when Delhi police produced a handbook to resolve a conflict between the Akhuni eaters and non-eaters. The handbook titled ‘Security Tips for Northeast Students/Visitors in Delhi’ cautioned the students and workers of Northeast India and Eastern Himalayan societies that “bamboo shoot, akhuni and other smelly dishes should be prepared without creating ruckus in neighbourhood”.[7] Such official directives suggest the role state plays in influencing and legitimizing how one’s taste buds should remember a food.

What the landlady calls a “lie” is a tactic to cross unseen borders for the other?

With intimate themes like food, love and friendship, the movie makes the hierarchies and vulnerabilities experienced by the migrants from Northeast India visible, and their attempt to transform them into spaces of resistance by cooking a food of their own in the cities. The movie and its after-watch experience left me in questions- how the idea of home is layered; how home itself becomes a site of protest and transformations; and how the movie ultimately disconnects itself from realities.

The many layers that home is

In search of work, education or an inherent desire to explore the world, many people migrate to the Indian cities, more so since 1991.[8] The new form of land relations that they enter with the city is through a landlord/lady. The co-operation between the tenant, landlord and the society turns essential. The film unfolds this relationship as Upasana and Chanbi plan a surprise for their friend, Minam, by cooking her favourite dish, popularly known as Akhuni in Nagaland, on her wedding day. In the process of cooking it, the characters who are based in Delhi’s Humayunpur, encounter offensive remarks about the food- from the landlady, her grandson Shiv, and neighbours who refuse to accept it. Shiv even compares the smell of the fermented soya beans, which is aromatic for many communities from the Northeast and beyond, to that of a “septic tank”. Throughout the film, Upasana and Chanbi are seen struggling to find a place to cook the dish, and they wander to their friends, Zorem and Martha for help. It suggests that the power equations are biased and tilted, on which survive the fate of institutions- like the family, society and the state.[9]

Martha on the right to cook one’s food states, “These things create a lot of tension between us and them. Now, whose right is more right? Tell me!”

Their home in the city is seen making them question their Indian-ness, and Upasana had to resort to a “Butter Chicken” moment to skip “tensions” with “them”, so that she could cook Akhuni for Minam. The structure of a home remains the same, but in the process of making of a place (a nation’s capital), the variations are distinctly noted. The everyday racist attacks, humiliations and citizenship anxieties as shown in the film are “uncannily familiar” and “real” to many from the region.[10]

The reviews from the people in NE India also make an important point that the region is not homogenous. The economic and political engineering of the region since the colonial times have fractured the social relations of its people. Few instances of which were that migration from erstwhile East Bengal was encouraged, but with Inner Line Regulations introduced in 1873, they controlled people’s interactions. The colonial constructs, with a linear wisdom of modernity was imposed, which characterised the hill communities- as “uncivilized”, “savage” and so on.[11] The tribal areas of then Assam were designated as “backward tracts” in 1918, and in 1935 they were further classified as “excluded” in opposition to the “partially excluded areas” which mixed up with the rest of the communities.[12] The colonial character of the state is still seen in play as a coercive act like Armed Force Special Power Act (AFSPA) is unevenly extended and reviewed in areas deemed “disturbed” and “dangerous”. [13] Friends from NE India, “loved” the film, some “hated” it, and some found it a “problematic watch”- since the talks of different bodies, social positions and performances, identities, localities, or how one experiences victimhood- which cannot be separated from the colonial history of the region.

Racism in India, further, cannot be detached from its caste and class privileges, that have not restricted itself to the city spaces. The outcry to ban trade of dog meat in Nagaland indicates that some notions of love, cruelty, morality and care are deemed superior than the other.[14] At the same time, while Nido Taniam’s murder enabled a series of protests against racism, the murder of Reingamphi Awungshi in Delhi had gone unnoticed outside the communities of Northeast, because she worked at a beauty spa.[15] This is a relevant area that a movie on racism in India doesn’t dialogue or engage with the audience.

Home: a site of protest

The brutal killing of Nido Taniam from Arunachal Pradesh in 2014 led to large-scale protests in Delhi, which made Indian Home Ministry shift their stand from denial to some form of acknowledgement of the racial violence in the city.[16] In 2004, to protest against AFSPA, after the brutal murder and rape of Thangjam Manorama in Manipur, mothers shed their clothes and shouted, “Indian Army Rape us… Kill us!” in front of the Kangla Fort, Imphal.[17] Akhuni and Bamboo shoot is still present in the “nation’s table” in spite of the attempts to “dislodge” it.[18] These are few of the many ways the people of Northeast India have claimed their home in the nation’s capital or in its northeast.

Shiv tries to help out, while he makes prejudices sound casual at the same time

When Shiv asked Zorem in the movie, “You guys don’t think you are an Indian?”, I felt Zorem’s silence was powerful. I felt he refused to engage with a person who is deeply prejudiced. It may also appear that Shiv, as the landlord’s son, holds a position superior to Zorem in the place. However, to realise in the next scene how Chanbi (Bendang’s beloved) lessons Bendang for his failure to “make friends in the city” because some of them are “nice”, shifts the tone of the movie. With a close projection to Nido Taniam’s case, Bendang, who had to chew a pill to calm his citizenship anxieties, and is seen reminding his self, “It is well with my soul” is made to sing an “Indian song” (as Shiv calls it).[19] The movie ends in a note where it doesn’t trouble the prevalent status-quo embedded in “nice” relationships like love and friendship.

The movie provoked conversations and created a range of debates on racism in India. National Herald, a leading national media house “admires” the Director for not taking “sides” since “victims are also responsible for their plight”.[20] On the contrary, the movie received sharp comments from ones who saw themselves in the movie. They argue that the onus of the racist attacks has been shifted on the “victims”.[21] The apolitical position of the Director doesn’t acknowledge the structural biasness, as he clearly states in an interview to EastMojo that he wanted to make an “unbiased” film.[22] Therefore, he was quick to uncritically provide the ‘national integration’ logic of the Indian nation-state as a solution. On the other hand, the movie’s namesake, Akhuni, the fermented soya beans, crosses Indian borders and brings the East Himalayan and Southeast Asian societies together, and yet it stands unapologetic in its place- this is how we see the food we eat. [23]

Deboleena Sengupta is a doctoral student at OKDISCD and can be reached at deboleenasengupta3@gmail.com.


[1] Bose S. (2017), “The personal is political: The journey of a slogan”, Feminism in India

[2] Dibrugarh is a town in Dibrugarh district of Assam

[3] Gahori is pig in Assamese language

[4] Shuor is pig in Bengali language; field visit to “Dhalai hotel ebong restaurant” Kamalpur, Tripura, 2/11/2019

[5] Vij S. (2014), “Between the bathroom and the kitchen, there is caste”,
Scroll.in

[6] Millet K. (1969), Sexual Politics, Granada Publishing, via https://www.marxists.org/subject/women/authors/millett-kate/theory.htm

[7] Kikon D. (2015), “Fermenting Modernity: Putting Akhuni on the Nation’s Table in India”, Journal of South Asian Studies, 38(2), pp. 320-335

[8] Chakraborty G. & Chanu N. (2020), “A Novel Virus, A New Racial Slur”, The Indian Forum.

[9] Millet K. (1969), Sexual Politics, Granada Publishing, via https://www.marxists.org/subject/women/authors/millett-kate/theory.htm

[10] Kikon D. (2020), “Digesting Axone, but does it pull punches in the region”, The India Sun in Film

[11] Sarmah B (2016), “The Cauldron of Conflict: Politics of Peace, Governance and Development in India’s North-East”, Social Scientist, 44, pp. 15-36

[12] Agnihotri S. (1994), “District Councils under Sixth Schedule”, Journal of the Indian Law Institute, Indian Law Institute, 36(1), pp. 80-89

[13] AFSPA extended in Nagaland on 39/6/2020, areas of Arunachal Pradesh bordering Assam on 1/4/2020, Assam on 16/3/2020, and Manipur on 6/1/20202, via https://www.mha.gov.in/commoncontent/armed-forces-special-power-act-1958

[14] Choudhury R. (2020), “Nagaland Bans Dog Meat After Uproar On Internet”, NDTV

[15] Duncan R. (2015), Debating Race in Contemporary India, Palgrave Macmillan, UK

[16] Chakraborty G. & Chanu N. (2020), “A Novel Virus, A New Racial Slur”, The Indian Forum.

[17] Dasarathi A. (2017), “Remembering Thangjam Manorama”, Feminism In India

[18] Kikon D. (2015), “Fermenting Modernity: Putting Akhuni on the Nation’s Table in India”, Journal of South Asian Studies, 38(2), pp. 320-335

[19] Staff reporter (2014), Delhi’s Ugly Racist face: Arunachal boy beaten to death in Lajpat Nagar market, India Today, New Delhi

[20] Jha S. (2020), “‘Axone’ is a pork in the eye”, National herald

[21]Techi N. (2020), “To the cast and crew of “Axone”: You are the confusing victim and Perpetrator in racism against NE”, FPSJ Review of Art and Politics

[22] Kharkongor N (2019), “I didn’t want to make a biased film: Nicholas Kharkongor on Axone”, EastMojo, via https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OzgpNBdf9ac

[23] Agarwala T. (2020), “Expained: What is Axone?”, Indian Express

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