Live and let dine

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Published: October 18, 2015 12:02:02 AM

The need to open up our borders to alternative forms of engagement is imperative and what better way than food?

THE LAST few weeks have been contentious when it comes to food—and with justifiable reason. Never before has food occupied such a central place in our public discourse. The ban on cow slaughter has a long history in India and has been used as political currency through the decades. The initiative of the Congress in making it a reality is undeniable and the gusto with which the present government endorses it is also evident. There’s also the debate over Pakistani artists and writers finding a platform in India for their work today.

Clearly, you might think it is not an opportune time to hold a food festival—like our ongoing Food for Thought festival—in India. The idea behind the two-day fest, which wraps up today at the India Habitat Centre in the capital, is to celebrate culinary diversity in the south Asian region, which includes Pakistan. On the ground, though, there is little to celebrate. And this hitherto unique forum for interaction seems like an act of revolt today. However, it shouldn’t. After all, we have more than one neighbour. We also need more than one dimension of engagement. For too long, we have defined our engagement with our neighbours militarily or economically, or through forums and summits that spell out agendas. The need to open up our borders to other forms of engagement is imperative and what better way than food?

Historically, food has been a unifier, something that brings people together. Communal eating, now gentrified, has existed since man gave up his solitary existence. Old wives’ tales, often retold with dramatic effect in our soap operas, signal a dissent in large homes, wherein kitchens were separated, implying that members of the family ceased to eat together. Bollywood celebrities, however, endorse the ‘one-family-meal-a-day’ concept. And closer to reality, a friend has a working kitchen in her flat for tea and coffee, but the main cooking is done at her in-laws’ home on the ground floor. In a city like New York, a communal table, where strangers are seated together engaged in conversation or their smartphones is the ‘new’ style of dining. Eating together has been as much a part of our heritage as what we eat. So it is necessary to define culinary heritage not only in terms of what we eat, but also how we eat and with whom we eat.

However, communal dining or eating is not only about food. It is also about the conversation it invites. Very few people argue over a meal, if ever at all. If there is an argument, it is culled by action: a pushing back of the chair from the table, the throwing down of a napkin and an exit. In other words, even the arguments, should they occur, are abridged. It is this anecdotal wisdom, foraged from personal experience, that led to the creation of Food for Thought—a conversation about food and eating amongst neighbours. The fest’s first session—called ‘Whose biryani is it, anyway?’—was emblematic, with the usual claimants on the panel from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, but also from Nepal, Bhutan and Sri Lanka.

Flavour is a great equaliser. A satisfying meal on the table does not fall from grace by virtue of provenance or economic or military might. It stands up to all these mighty considerations.

Twitter, with its automatic feedback mechanism, ensured real-time reactions every time I tweeted about the fest. A consistent query was whether this platform, which identifies itself as south Asian, will indeed be one in spirit. A Twitter friend from Nepal was concerned that like most things that announce themselves as south Asian, this, too, might become just about India and Pakistan. It was an interesting insight.

Could it be that this normative hyphenation (India-Pakistan), the shrill protests by one section and the overt-romanticism by another make our other neighbours feel ignored? It could very well be and, in my experience, I must admit that it often is. India shares its borders with eight countries. In many ways, what happens in India influences all of these countries in positive and negative ways. For many, ours is an aspirational land, one of opportunities and of liberal democratic values denied to them in different measures in their own countries. It’s time we didn’t pursue false equivalence for political purposes and dropped the hyphen.

Advaita Kala is a writer, most recently of the film Kahaani. She is also a former hotelier having worked in restaurants in India and abroad

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