Breaking bread, breaking barriers

#1 Jun 18th, 2017, 10:30
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This is a story I never tire of telling. Many years ago, as an outsider in a big and bad city, my knees quaked each time I entered the office. It did not help that I was a woman in a male-dominated environment, and had to work alongside two guys who behaved as if I was something the cat had dragged in. Or perhaps they thought they were the cat's whiskers. Whatever, one day, I lost it. I marched up to the duo, who had just sat down to a rather attractive dinner they had picked up from the Press Club, and let loose. Along with my rant, I demolished their dinner of egg-on-toast and shammi kebabs, as they watched me in silent horror. That was the beginning of a beautiful camaraderie and friendship that has lasted 25 years. Struck over egg-on-toast.

Sociologist Alice Julier, in her book Eating Together: Food, Friendship and Inequality, points out that shared meals can change people's perspectives and blur the socially perceived lines of inequality -racial, gender or socio-economic -creating a more level platform than any other social activity. Take, for instance, the food frenzy that is unleashed every Ramzan. Was it this way even 10 years ago? Critics of lavish iftaris question the sanctity of celebratory eating during the month of abstinence. I, too, have strong views on mindless eating, which seems to be the order of the day with food being viewed as entertainment. Is that good or bad, is my question.

Food has never been only about survival. It has had a definite purpose. First to keep us alive, second to remain a pillar of cultural traditions and third and, most importantly, to create bonds that cut across social strata. After a month of abstinence, my domestic help comes bearing food from her kitchen cooked to celebrate Eid. Whatever little she has, she shares it with me. Her generosity overwhelms me. I embrace the ges ture wholeheartedly and it opens up further channels of communication and bonding when she sees me tucking in delightedly.

Food, as is evident in present-day India, is also used to divide in the swiftest and most cruel way, hitting at the very core of self-respect and humanity. Empathy, among the most precious of human qualities, is at a premium. It is perhaps this very characteristic -empathy -that cultures across the world sought to nurture by instituting the custom of `breaking bread' together. We see that in Judaism, in Christianity and in Islam. The last, on many occasions, takes pride in families and friends eating out of the same plate, a fine tradition of sharing equitably.

The best examples of it all come together in India itself. Community eating and celebrations have long been an integral part of India's multi-faith fabric. While divisive lines in the form of caste, creed and politics have time and again made rents in the fabric, the empathetic, the faithful and the atheist have all gathered at a single table, time and again, to repair the damage. Durga Puja or Ganesh Utsav are as much about eating as they are about a god or a goddess. Special foods are made and shared, or distributed. Puja pandals are lined with stalls for anyone to partake of the goodies. Community bhogs and langars for the needy are part and parcel of such traditions.Langars at gurdwaras, where the entire community take on duties of cooking and serving whoever comes to eat, make us proud of our Sikh heritage. So too Ramzan, when the streets fill up at night with people of all kinds, status and beliefs, eager to partake of the iftari food, which is a window to a different tradition and hence, a stepping stone to understanding the people behind such practices and their beliefs. The first step, too, towards reclaiming empathy.

When I lived and worked in Bangalore in the mid-80s, lunchtime was a journey of discovery. I had no idea so many different versions of a dosa existed, leave alone the idlis and thorans. Or that a Syrian Christian fish curry could have green mangoes much like our Bengali Aam Katla, or that a banana blossom dish was as much Bengali as it was Kannadiga. It made me want to know more about them.Just like they examined my paneer bhujia with curiosity mingled with suspicion. Paneer was unknown in the south of India even as recently as the 1980s. Today, they have Paneer Chettinad and Paneer 65 on the menu, a radical shift from when they thought paneer was impure and that I was trying to feed them “polluted“ food.

My friend Saleha Singh and her husband Paramjit are members of an interesting initiative called PeaceMeals in Melbourne.Peacemeals, an NGO, promotes racial integration through food.With meals sponsored and cooked by more established Australians once a month, the communal table nurtures the interaction of refugees, new arrivals, `minority communities' and locals. The vision is to break down cultural barriers and build a socially cohesive society. Guests pay what they want for the meal and the money raised goes to refugees, or new migrants who need help.

“Param and I cooked a meal as a way of giving back to a country that has given us so much,“ said Saleha who migrated to Australia 15 years ago. Over a pan-Indian spread of samosas, vegetable chops, channa, paneer, bhuna gosht, Gujarati-style cabbage, peas pulao, raita, milk cake and jalebis, Saleha was privy to some incredible life stories. “There was this 19-year-old Afghani who lost his parents to terrorists and was shoved into a boat by his uncle. He had no idea where the boat was going. He landed in various refugee camps before coming to Melbourne six years ago. He's now studying law. Another travelled from Kabul to Melbourne, and his travel document said he was a stateless person.I don't think we can even grasp the enormity of suffering. I feel a better person by hosting this small dinner.“


Mumbai Mirror

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