Book Review: Metabolic Living: Food, Fat, and the Absorption of Illness in India

Metabolic Living: Food, Fat, and the Absorption of Illness in India. Harris Solomon, Durham: Duke University Press, 2016, 292 pp.

There is something quite poetic about Harris Solomon’s Metabolic Living, even while the topic of metabolic illnesses would appear fairly unromantic to most. From small kitchens in fishing villages to corporate offices in food manufacturing plants, Solomon takes the reader on a vivid, engaging, critically driven ethnographic journey that humanizes metabolic illnesses in Mumbai, India. This is a theoretically and empirically ambitious text that delivers on both fronts beautifully and perhaps will shape the next generation of critical ethnographic writing. Over the course of five chapters and five ethnographic interludes, Solomon deftly makes the argument for a reconceptualization of academic and policy frameworks that have thus far focused on overconsumption in upwardly mobile cityscapes as a way to talk about metabolic illnesses.

Instead, Solomon suggests a much more nuanced way of looking at how food, fat, and metabolism in a city like Mumbai are porous and permeable vectors that transcend the “globesity” narrative. In Solomon’s account, inside/outside binaries of bodies and space are constantly shifting, merging, leaking onto and into the absorptive everyday. He uses absorption as a conceptual tool to highlight how bodies experience their environments that range from slimming clinics and the operation theaters for gastric surgeries to vada-pav (a burger-like snack, with a fried spiced potato pancake/fritter nestled between two buns lathered with spicy sauces) city stands and kitchens perfecting “home-cooked” healthy meals. In each ethnographic encounter, metabolic living is not so much about overconsumption in the face of newfound economic and informative abundance, but rather the survival and endurance mechanisms put into place to overcome the absorptive qualities of the body in the urban city.

Each chapter demonstrates the intricate ways absorption between the outside and inside interacts with the metabolic. In the second chapter, Solomon uses Mumbai’s iconic food, the vada pav, as a way to play with Arjun Appadurai’s term “gastropolitics” and to highlight the boundary politics of street, food, and body. The Shiv Sena, which is Maharashtra’s extreme right-wing political party, generated an employment plan centered on the standardized vada pav stall run by maharashtrian men. The quest to standardize the food for fast and upscale delivery beyond the street stall, or the battle to serve food under hygienic conditions in a visibly unhygienic city, make the humble vada pav an important site of inquiry. In the chapter, Solomon aims to “foreground the material contingencies of fried food by backgrounding the eater and to show how the case of the street food can open up metabolic living to historical-political dynamics borne out in human relations” (p. 97). It is a brilliant move. The ethnographic details of the vada pav are not limited to the consumption of the fried food, but rather to a much larger space within which the vada pav (and, by extension, other “metabolically dangerous” fried foods) exists.

Solomon replicates this shifting of lenses, focus, and scaling up or down in other chapters as well. The conversations on diabetes (largely Chapter 4) and metabolic surgery (Chapter 5) make similar interventions. In these chapters, the focus on absorption is not limited to when patients are consuming insulin, managing diets, or ingesting post-operative dietary supplements. Solomon further posits that absorption blurs boundaries. This is exemplified in Chapter 3, where he writes about processed foods, which are demarcated as food made by others and not in your own family kitchen. Here, the boundaries between categories of food and drug when it comes to metabolic illnesses and absorption of medicine and nourishment are blurred, in service of absorption.

The text is made richer by the short interludes Solomon offers about Mumbai and its people. Anybody who has worked or traveled through India will read these fondly—reminiscing about the city and its people, and how as ethnographers we may have navigated those same spaces. The love of mangoes or the generative value of a long wait in a physician’s waiting room are all experiences familiar to those who travel through these spaces—absorbing and articulating as we go along. Solomon’s interlocutors from Mumbai stay with you beyond the reading. Mary in Maunali, Neha dealing with the “emotional atyachaar” (emotional tyranny of medicines) after her gastric surgery, Usha and Rashmi prescribing diets in Dr. Bhatt’s office, and Dr. Pillai, the vegetarian veterinarian in charge of Mumbai’s largest beef abattoir (to name but a few) are instrumental in making the argument for analyzing metabolism in a city as a living and lived experience.

While I highly recommend this book and enjoyed every bit of it, I hesitatingly wonder if perhaps the ethnography is too poetic, too beautiful (if that is possible). In my reading, the biopolitical aspects of metabolic life and livelihoods are not as accessible to a wider audience as they ought to be. In places, it feels like some substance been lost, in the quest to meet a stylistic goal. The book offers a novel way to talk about metabolic illnesses in urban space, often directly or indirectly talking back to medical and public health discourses on food, bodies, and urban and urbanizing spaces. However, often it is not accessible to the very people who need to rethink the frameworks they apply when creating public health campaigns against motapa (fat) and motape ki bemari (illness related to fat) in urban spaces. Solomon comes close to, but ultimately refrains from, explicit discussions about the biomedical underpinnings of metabolism in a medically pluralistic society and the tenshun (tension) this creates for those living with metabolic illnesses, offering curative therapies, or creating public policy platforms.

Medical anthropology today is an important site for critical thinking about contemporary medical issues, making valuable contributions to medical and public policy. However, I wonder if this text talks too much to us as medical anthropologists, and not enough to the people on the ground who are making policies about people’s everyday health and well-being. Perhaps the folly lies with me, the reader, wanting Metabolic Living to do everything for everybody. A lofty aim indeed, but perhaps an unrealistic one. Solomon has been able to deeply humanize living with metabolic disruptions and absorptions, making this book is an excellent example of how critical thinking develops out of ethnographic realities. That is an important contribution of the book, and it will serve as an instructive text for graduate students in anthropology and science studies.

Metabolic Living shows us how food, fat, and their complex interdependency are mediated by and within urban cityscapes. While perceived as epidemics underpinned by larger socioeconomic and medico–political histories, metabolism(s) above all are absolutely human. While reading this book I was reminded of a stanza in Robert Frost’s poem, Mending Wall:

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,

That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,

And spills the upper boulders in the sun

In Solomon’s work, it becomes clear that there is something that doesn’t love a wall between city and body. Absorption swells the city and body as each soaks up the other, spilling. Solomon encourages us to see absorption as it blurs boundaries to enhance debates on how metabolic diseases are experienced differently, even in the same spaces. In the evocative soaking, swelling, and spilling lies the beauty of this text. The poetic humanity of metabolic precariousness in India is visible in every page of this rich ethnographic narrative, making it a valuable contribution to literatures in medical anthropology, science studies, area studies, food studies, and public health policy.

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