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Notes from “Axone”: The Aroma Of Food, Smell Of Culture And Stench Of Racism

The Netflix movie Axone: A Recipe For Disaster, is a comedy-drama directed by Nicholas Kharkongor that tells a story of a group of friends who hail from the North-eastern states of India and are staying in Delhi. As the group plans to surprise their friend on her wedding day by inconspicuously preparing a special regional dish, hell breaks loose as the odour of a core ingredient, axone (pronouned ‘akhoni’), spreads out, inviting trouble from neighbours and the landlord. The movie represents all those who have migrated from the North-eastern states of India to the metro cities in search of better education and work opportunities but every day, experience discrimination and “cultural policing” by the “mainlanders” through stereotyping, cultural alienation, and racism.

The portrayal of food in pop culture to explore the notions of private space and personal rights is not new in the discourses of identity politics. Podcasts like “Racist Sandwich” or movies such as East Side Sushi narrate stories that discuss xenophobia and misogyny through a universally understood medium – food. Stories of “Lunchbox Moment” also discuss the discrimination and ridicule faced by first-generation Asian-American children while opening their lunchboxes.

In Axone, smell awakens a unique set of emotions; it is ubiquitous, layered and disturbing for the protagonists, for us, and everyone else.

In Axone, smell awakens a unique set of emotions; it is ubiquitous, layered and disturbing for the protagonists, for us, and everyone else. The stench is sinister as it betrays Chanbi (one of the protagonists) by foiling the plan, threatening their social status, and exposing their struggle to us, the viewers; the effort to “blend in”, “compromise”, and seek acceptance by the dominant culture. Nobody in the movie utters the word “racism”, yet it is the odour that draws the physiognomic and cultural boundaries between the “north-easterners” and “mainlanders”.

The repugnance of neighbours is immediately apparent as the odour of axone proliferates within the residential complex. Although the sequence is intended to be comic, there is plenty to unravel; the closed windows personify our hearts, reminding us about the shunning of numerous Chanbis and Upasnas living in the country’s metros.

A tenant even threatens the girls in public. The rebuke is the consequence of violating an “oath”: How dare you exercise your freedom to practice your culture? The sentiment is hard to miss. In this scene, the tenant not only represents the multicultural society of the apartment complex, but at a degree of abstraction, also represents us (humans) and reminds us how our everyday interactions harm another person’s mind for not having enough “sameness”. The director masterfully targets the reality of racial inequality and the process of “otherisation” to show the trauma they bear by this effect of “olfaction”.

The role of smell in Indian identity politics is not only restricted to ethnicity and race. Omprakash Valmiki, one of the most prominent literary figures who belonged to the ‘Untouchable’ community of India, tells a story of an untouchable man who would bathe and scrub profusely to escape bullying for the smell of carcasses which became his pahchān (identity). The Untouchable communities work with animal carcasses, and can be recognised and identified by a faint whiff of animal flesh. Discrimination based on the mere scent from an individual is a lived experience of countless untouchables, in both rural and urban India.

Significance of smell in the group identity is not an Indian archetype, rather a global and timeless phenomenon. Smell influences social order and acts as a symbolic cue to social bonding. The burning of incense, “havans” in temples, burning incense in churches, and mosques can be a typical example where group identification occurs through smell. The symbolism of smell extends much beyond the religious space. In his famous piece “The Road to Wigan Pier“, George Orwell explains that smell is a powerful device of class segregation; how the lower class always smell unpleasant!

Smell as a distinguishing factor of the class of a character has been depicted beautifully in the Oscar-winning Korean film Parasite too.

Smell as a distinguishing factor of the class of a character has been depicted beautifully in the Oscar-winning Korean film Parasite too. Michelle Ferranti in one of her insightful article “An Odor of Racism: Vaginal Deodorants in African-American Beauty Culture and Advertising,” writes, “For many recently emancipated African Americans, a clean and odour-free body signified personal progress and enterprise, and the hope for racial assimilation.” The impetus to police even the odour of the vaginal discharge of an African-American woman speaks volumes about the malicious stereotyping. As Classen has written in “Worlds of Sense: Exploring the Senses in History and Across Cultures” that the “Otherness” is always categorised as foul, stinky or sterile, whereas “sameness” is perceived to be fragrant or deodorised.

It is needless to say that smell, be it stinky or fragrant, plays a subtle role in our personal and social behaviours influencing our group identity. In the words of Marcello AspriaThe diametrical opposition between sameness and otherness, integrated and marginalised, desirable and undesirable can thus be rendered by the olfactory contrast between foul and fragrant“. This perception of smell varies culturally and is learned as pleasant or disturbing, depending on the social setting or environment.

Olfactory discrimination is universal, subtle, and powerful. There are class, caste, racial and gender stratifications to the society, wherein smell adds a unique dimension to each stratum; each needs to be understood. It is only when we recognise the illness, we can create a better diagnosis, and thus a better treatment.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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