(Written in December 2009)
Have you ever noticed how we fight for our place at the table?
A bustling but crammed eatery in Kalimpong brought home the point. It was market day and the place was doing brisk business. There wasn’t an empty seat to be found and here we were three. Thinley, my friend of fifteen minutes, an affable sort of fellow, hovered near the entrance. We hung behind him, our politest ‘after you’ behaviour.
Two portly ladies bypassed us in and disappeared behind the curtains at the far end. A family of five had stepped out and was paying at the counter. Some more eaters walked inside and stood in the aisle looking for place behind the curtains.
This way we’d be standing here all day, I thought. Deciding to take matters into my hand I followed the lead and stepped inside. “Abhi ho jayega,” said the hassled waiter. I looked back. My two male companions had reluctantly followed me in. They were pushed aside by a threesome who reached some vacant seats first and nudged in.
“For three,” I told the waiter, determinedly lifting the corners of curtains to check. Awkward and embarrassed at first, I caught glimpses of individual choices of order, faces startled on mouthfuls of momo, spoons of thukpa in midair, families with children, lovers in school uniform silently eating, their mini worlds exposed to my intrusion.
I didn’t stop till my quest for a table for three was met.
The other day Rob, the instructor in a workshop I’m attending, asked us why people on street side eateries don’t like to show what they’re eating, sitting with their backs to passers by on tables often lined against the wall. Foreigners have a way of making us question practices that we become conditioned to, and in trying to explain to him my limited understanding of food and its culture in our land, I remembered that small eatery in Kalimpong and how often I’ve noticed and participated in the vulgar yet dire act of fighting for a place to eat.
The trick is to stand near the elbow of an eater about to finish his meal, throng within his sight and give a wordless but persuasive reminder to hurry. We do it everywhere, from wedding receptions to community pujo meals to roadside dhabas.
The eater is forced into shame by our stares if he lingers with his food, eats slowly or dares to chat with his neighbour between the gulps. Feasts are no longer to be savoured in leisurely appreciation
Perhaps the irony would not be so painfully bitter if we hadn’t established an entire culture of hospitality around food, woven nuances of behaviour around the serving and eating of it.
So while all my childhood I was taught that it is rude to stare at someone’s plate it has become a survivor’s instinct to do so now…or go hungry!