Last week, I met a European friend who has travelled the length and breadth of Maharashtra. She is an old hand at Marathi, speaking it fluently and idiomatically. She has made it her business to study the people and the culture of the state. We had a long conversation during the course of which, she asked me a question: “Why are all of you so forceful in matters of eating and drinking?”
She said it ought to be a given that every person would eat as much as s/he wanted. Did I not think that insisting a guest eat more was an imposition on their liberty? My friend said that when she refused more food, it was because she had had enough. Some people would recognise this eventually. But many others would not get it and would place her in an awkward position. To refuse would be to give offence, to accept would be to be forced into eating food she did not want. What did I do in such circumstances, she wanted to know.
She put me in a quandary with these four simple questions about a common social practice.
The first question: why do we use unwarranted force when we offer guests food? It sounds like a simple question but like most simple questions, it is difficult to answer unless you’re willing to risk solipsism. Why is the earth round? Because it is round. We insist on people eating more because it is our culture to insist in such a manner. What would an inquiring mind make of such an answer?
I cast around for excuses and realise that it is never easy to think up answers to questions about customs that are so much a part of our everyday lives that we never discuss them amongst ourselves. So I thought I should reverse the question to demonstrate to her the difficulty of answering questions about the quotidian.
She seemed to see the question – why do you never insist – coming before I asked it and began to answer. “In Europe, we do not insist on people having more food because it seems an imposition on the personal liberty of one’s guests.” I remarked that such an attitude must presuppose that each person would eat as much as s/he wanted. How much to eat or not to eat is then a personal decision. When a guest refuses to take any more, the hosts do not see it as a test of their hospitality.
However, in Maharashtra, to refuse a request that issues from the person whose hospitality we are enjoying is the mark of the uncivilised. It would not do. This is not a matter of personal freedom but of cultural custom.
Her explanation also foregrounded two axioms of hospitality. In her culture, most people, by and large, live their lives in accordance with their own personal wishes and desires. In ours, we base our decisions, more or less, on the wishes of others. In her culture, marriage is a personal decision. In ours, it is a decision taken en famille and if you dig a little further, it is based on caste. The bride does not marry the groom; she takes on his entire family. To choose a spouse, one does not only examine the personality of the person concerned; one puts the entire family under the scanner. Once the woman is married, it is assumed that she is now at the beck and call of her new family. Only when she has paid her dues to them, may she use the rest of her time as she chooses. In such a situation, eating one more laddoo when one’s stomach is full is not really difficult.
The explanation offered by my friend with the inquiring mind yielded a second axiom: each person eats as much as s/he wants. If you give this a little thought, this should hold true for any adult of any culture.
Even a babe in arms knows to turn its head away from the breast when its tummy is full. My friend could asseverate this with certainty about the people of her culture; why did I not feel that I could say the same of the adult Indian? Where’s the catch?
The answer surfaces again in tradition. Eating in another person’s home is not an easy thing. Let us see how this unease arises. Let us assume that a mother is taking her daughter to her friend’s home in some European country, say Norway or France. When they arrive, their host serves a snack. A plate of biscuits is set before the child. Her mother asks her: “Would you like a biscuit?” The child says yes or no and eats or does not eat, accordingly.
Now when one of our children goes with her mother on a similar visit, she is schooled in how she must behave. She is not to ask her auntie for anything. She is not to eat anything. Thus when her auntie sets a plate of biscuits in front of her, she, obedient to her mother’s commands, refuses them and looks at her mother for approval. Meanwhile, her auntie is saying, “Go on, have a biscuit. Don’t look at your Mum. She won’t scold.”
Still the little one refuses, even if her eyes are filled with a childish longing. Auntie stuffs a biscuit into her hand with a spritely, “There you go.” Once again, the little one’s eyes turn to her mother. At this point her mother relents. “Go on then, since Auntie insists,” she says and the little one heaves a sigh of relief and falls to.
This is where the war of “No, no, I couldn’t possibly eat another bite” and “Go on, go on, you’ve eaten nothing” begins.
The guest has only two options. First, she can serve herself a little less than she usually eats so that she can give in to her host’s insistence. Or she can let her stomach stretch infinitely. If you prefer the second option, you will have to practise and you risk losing your health. If you prefer the first option, it might hurt your host a little.
As to her third question – how do I refuse without giving offence? – I told her that I always ate only as much as I wanted. When the insistence begins, I help myself to just a little more and then I place my hands over my plate and refuse to move them until the serving is over and the dinner things are cleared away.
My host’s wife says, “Now, don’t tell me you’re on a diet. Nothing wrong with your figure. You can afford to have some more shrikhand.” I smile and keep my hands where they are. My host tries a devious move. “She must not have liked our food. Don’t force her.” My smile is unchanged, my hands stay in position. His mother says, “We’ll be stuck with these leftovers. Who’s going to eat all this?” Smile unchanged, hands unmoved. Finally everyone gets it. I have eaten my fill. That is all they wanted to be sure of. Now that they have this assurance, they can abuse me affectionately and release me from the prison of the dining table.
This article was first published in Marathi in Loksatta on 23 July 1998.
Excerpted with permission The Engaged Observer: The Selected Writings of Shanta Gokhale, edited and with an introduction by Jerry Pinto.