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Consumer Citizenship: Instant Noodles in India
Maggi, a brand of instant noodles introduced in India in the late 1980s by Nestlé, is now not only a popular snack, but the favorite comfort food of an entire generation of young urban Indians. What is the secret of Maggi's success? And what does it tell us about taste and desire in a consumer economy in a deeply unequal society? At first glance, the fast-rising consumption of such “industrial foods” seems to be a familiar story about the commodification of diets by multinational corporations. However, this article shows that the success of global capitalism is not a foregone conclusion when it comes up against nationalist politics. At the same time, the popularity of processed foods is a form of “consumer citizenship” as poor and low-caste people who are discriminated against, in part due to their food practices, aspire to eat fetishized commodities that allow them to belong in the modern, affluent world. And, for young people, instant noodles speak to their desire for agency and fun, challenging power relations in the patriarchal family. This article shows how Maggi noodles are a useful device for understanding how industrial foods transform the simmering broth of social relations that is India's cultural landscape.
Amita Baviskar is 2018-19 FSI- Humanities Center International Visitor and Professor of Sociology at the Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi. Her research focuses on the cultural politics of environment and development in rural and urban India. Her first book, In the Belly of the River: Tribal Conflicts over Development in the Narmada Valley (Oxford University Press, 1995), and other writings explore the themes of resource rights, popular resistance, and discourses of environmentalism. Her forthcoming collection of essays addresses bourgeois environmentalism and the making of “world-class” cities. She is currently studying industrial foods and agrarian environments in western India. After studying Economics and Sociology at the University of Delhi, Baviskar received her PhD in Development Sociology from Cornell University. She has taught at the University of Delhi and has been a visiting scholar at several universities including Oxford, Stanford, Cornell, Yale, Sciences-Po, University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Cape Town. She was awarded the 2005 Malcolm Adiseshiah Award for Distinguished Contributions to Development Studies, the 2008 VKRV Rao Prize for Social Science Research, and the 2010 Infosys Prize for Social Sciences. Baviskar serves on the boards of several professional journals and academic institutions.