Survivance - Sarover Zaidi - The Gift of Food

The Gift of Food

Sarover Zaidi

Protest Langar on Grand Trunk (Karnal) road. Photo: Sarover Zaidi, 2021.

August 2021

The movement that began from our fields
Has travelled well beyond our fields,
Your nefarious game stands exposed,
This people’s movement will not subside…
Border o border…
—Madan Gopal Singh1

On a normal day, the Grand Trunk (Karnal) road is a highway running northwards from Delhi. Cutting through flashes of fields, small roadside villages, food stalls, shops, and strangely grotesque marriage halls, one does not dwell in the highway. The speed of the highway is such that it passes as a blur of non-destinations. Embedded as only speed or velocity between cities, the highway beckons a dromosphere of the landscape. Velocity has that capacity, to make us dwell only in speed and our destination.

I have travelled this highway for a few years now on a near daily basis, to my university in an industrial satellite town of Delhi. Earlier in the year, I encountered another speed on this same highway, provided by the Farmers’ protests that started here in November 2020. The protests arose in response to three bills introduced by the current government that ease restrictions for private players to function in the country’s agrarian markets. After protesting locally for a few months, farmers from the agrarian state of Punjab marched towards Delhi (the national capital) as a form of protest.

The farmers’ protests in Delhi today can remind one of what is known as the Salt March, when on March 12, 1930 Mahatma Gandhi walked 390 kilometers from the Sabarmati Ashram to Dandi to produce salt from sea water in a non-violent act of civil disobedience to protest the British government’s salt monopoly in India. Today at the borders of Delhi is a protest site of historically unprecedented proportions in post-independence India, contesting the government’s laws.

I have walked the course of the protest a few times, and have come to understand another type of speed, and time. How do you slow down a highway? With work, labor, protest, and with the slow cooking of food. The protest site unfolds as a ten-kilometer-long langar, or a type of community kitchen central to Sikh belief. Here, cooking and serving food is both an act of protest and also a reminder towards, what the protests are trying to protect, namely food security and its production in India.

As an old man asked me to sit with him while he stirred a huge pot of rice, sugar, and milk to make kheer (sweet pudding), I understood another idea of speed emerging on the highway, based in the experience of gravity. The slow cooking, the stirring, the conversations, the labor of love of the protest, suddenly provided the space of the highway with a vitality that only comes with the practice of gravity, and with being earthed. Gravity is a force that holds, but it is also generative of different cosmologies of the self, survival, communities, and knowledge. These emergent cosmologies provide us with an insight into the forms of life that the protesting farmers are willing to inhabit in their demand for rights.

To see a seed grow after sowing; to know weathers, ploughing, threshing; to know the mud, the monsoon, and the making of food from these grains affords different notions of continuity. It also affords the knowledge that things don’t change overnight. It is to know aging, labor, exhaustion, and silence. To know that revolutions don’t happen immediately, but endures in gravity, in its life force; in its its nights and days of labor, its slow stirrings, its cooking and feeding each other; in doing what needs to be done.2

Barbed Wire and Borders

The prevention of motion in any direction generates a border, and in the history of the Indian sub-continent, a border, barbed wire, and the segregation of people across religion, class, caste, wealth is an intense haunting.3 Approaching the protest site, you walk past innumerable forms of barricades. Layer upon layer, we move across, check-posts, armed personal, state buses laid on their side, concrete slabs, shipping containers, and convoluted barbed wire designs. The state even dug trenches to prevent movement away from the border. Police personal watch you if you walk past the obstacle course, and they watch you if you attempt to take pictures of them.

It’s a cold winter morning, and some of them have borrowed wood fire from the protestors to light small fires and keep themselves warm. The police themselves are walking past this monstrous gallery of state presence and control to the protest site, where the farmers are offering them tea and breakfast before they walk back to their cold fortress of concrete and barbed wires.

The state border only appeared after the protests had already started, building new tactics for cordoning off protestors from moving forward. The state is working at a relentless speed to control the border. However, the aim of the protestors has not entirely been about movement, but to sit in. At a few instances when the protestors called for moving towards the center of the capital, the police created concrete poured barricades overnight, with sariyas (iron reinforcement bars) as spokes. Each day new materials and new appearances of state power become part of the milieu of state barricading. Each day the protest continues.

Camps, Kinship, and Communes

Moving forward into the protest site, one enters into an entirely different form of life and materiality. We move into a landscape of cloth makeshift tents, wooden structures, bamboo, and tarpaulin. The scale of the built environment suddenly shifts to the intimacies of rooms, homes, and kitchens. Tractors and trolleys used in farming have been systematically arranged alongside the road, or converted into spaces for living. Covered in cloth tents, bed sheets, and tarpaulins, they become places of rest and sleep, with blankets and quilts lining their insides. In early morning, protestors step out into the courtyards these trolley rooms generate and go about their day, starting the kitchens and continue the protest.

The kitchens and the cooking stoves thicken with kinships, friendships, and alliances across villages, castes, and classes. Within, people are working hard together to cook food and offering it to everyone who visits or lives at the site, creating a sense of contentment that comes from eating home-cooked food, making our bodies warmer on a winter morning. The highway has transmogrified; its dividers have been removed, and square tawas (iron griddles used to make rotis) have been put in their place. Wood-fired ovens and cooking in large pots continues throughout the length of the site. Everyone is doing something: peeling vegetables, chopping, stirring, or serving food to each other and those visiting the site. The gift of food is ever present, a slow reminder of the purpose of this protest.

Some trolleys open out during the day to let sunshine in. The insides unfold like little rooms, with charging points, Darees (carpets), kitchenware, quilts, clothes, and everyday utility items. Many other trolleys function as granaries for storing grains, lentils, rice, sugar, salt, and wood. Regardless of their function, however, each contain—and offer—a particular domestic intimacy. Many have personalized the trolleys with stickers of protest poetry and farmers’ protest signage. A strange coterie of symbols, signs, songs, and slogans emerge. There are stickers commemorating historical wars Sikh armies fought against the rulers of Delhi, the 1984 Sikh pogrom by the state, leftist farmers’ union stickers and slogans, and Ambedkarite and Dalit solidarities posters.

The material taxonomy of the site changes regularly, softening to fit the human body with cloth, wood, and plastic. Even the tractors and the trolleys lose their original form and use. On the side of one, someone is hanging clothes up to dry on a clothesline where washing machines have been installed, while someone else is clearing away the garbage. Tea stalls staccato the whole atmosphere, and makeshift bazaars that sell socks, slippers, and screwdrivers appear and vanish. Small tents are set up as libraries, and makeshift charpais (jute woven beds) that are traditionally used in aangans (courtyards) are spread between the parked tractors and trolleys. The tractor and the trolley, normally a tool for movement, has become still here, centering new gravities to the protest site.

The Kitchen

The langar was originally introduced into the Sikh religion by its founder, Guru Nanak, who was possibly inspired by Chishtiya Sufis who also ran community kitchens. Cooking, serving, and eating food at the langar forms a central tenet of Sikh religious practices. The langar is a community kitchen, a congregation, a form of serving the other, a socio-religious practice, a sacred tenet, and here a political formation, a practice, and a method and location of the protest.

On visiting the protest site one instantly realizes the presence of food being continuously served. Mornings one is served tea and biscuits, as well as breakfasts traditional to Punjab such as maize rotis and sarson ka saag (mustard greens). Through the day, lunch is cooked and served with fresh vegetables that come into the site from different parts of Punjab/Haryana. There are innumerable types of mixed vegetables, pickles, and lentils that are generously poured out from different kitchens running across the highway. There is carrot halwa, and jaggery, and butter, and milk. There is gregariousness, and love, and a sense of plenty that can be shared with all. The protest generates a fantastically organized and synchronous kitchen, with different people cooking, serving, coordinating, and cleaning. Yet each provides different forms of speed that undergird the protest and form it. How do we see this synchronization of speed, this labor of love, as a form of protest?

The self begins to fold in while walking through the protest. Everyone is eager to feed you from makeshift kitchen stalls, and at some point, you become part of the protest itself, jumping into the kitchens to help stir large pots of chickpea curries, help roll the chapatis, or serve food to others. Other immanent paths and rituals of protests continue with these in tandem. There are a group of old men marching with flags of leftist parties; another group of volunteers of Khalsa Aid running washing machines on the side; a set of older women sloganeering against the head of the state; a group of young men and women cleaning the roads. Some students have set up a small library with revolutionary books; someone is singing the ardas on loudspeakers. Someone else comes and hands you some more tea. An old Sikh gentleman is sitting like a storyteller with some young visitors, telling them the tales of the land, of the oppressive rulers, and that this is all that he can do; to be here and continue this protest for the coming generations.

What is this new speed of protest? How do we measure its weft and weave? When is it a crowd, and when does it become a camp, a community, a commune? Is it socialist, Marxist, or Sikh in its voice, or can it speak in all these tongues together? What is its expanse? Do the farmlands of Punjab extend all the way to parking lots of Toronto? Is it about totalitarian states or free market states, or the fact that they could become the same? Is it a protest about rights, or is it a sit-in, a kitchen, brewing the rights and freedoms of the farmers?

There is a new intensity in every differential that this protest represents. Perhaps the velocity of the state will try to raze this highway, this protest and its speeds. Yet it seems to survive, and continues to provide its inhabitants many speeds, each rooted in the earth and its endurances.


theforgetfulblink, “‘Border o Border’: ‘Trolley Times’ Teaser with Madan Gopal Singh,” YouTube, January 8, 2021, .


The Sikh notion of Chardi Kala, namely the rising life force, sometimes spoken during religious sermons, other times deployed at personal existential or community levels, emerges here as a reflection or a continuum of Hannah Arendt’s idea of Vita Activa, where human life generates the provisions of freedom and work, of doing and acting.


Reviel Netz, Barbed Wire (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2004).

Survivance is a collaboration between the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and e-flux Architecture.

Borders & Frontiers
Revolution, Food & Cooking, Indian Subcontinent, Public Space, Community
Return to Survivance

All photographs by the author.

I would like to thank Guriqbal Singh, Mila Samdub, Aditya Singh for all the literary, editorial and emotional support in doing this piece. I would also like to thank everyone at the protest site for letting me provide this offering to this very large and important cause.

Some Instagram handles that continue to report on the Farmers’ protests on Delhi borders:
Trolley Times (@trolley_times_official)
Kisaan Rally (@kisaanrally)
Sandeep Singh (@punyaab)
Khalsa Aid (@khalsa_aid)
Nav Rahi (@nav.rahi)
Jaskaran Singh (@_jk_photography)
Swaiman Singh (@dr_swaiman_singh)
Jagdev Singh (@jagdev.singh.90475)

Survivance is a collaboration between the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and e-flux Architecture.

Sarover Zaidi is a philosopher and a social anthropologist working at the intersections of critical theory, anthropology, art, architecture, and material culture studies. She currently teaches at the Jindal School of Art and Architecture, Sonipat, India.


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