Lavina Melwani in Scroll.in (Photo Credit: Lavina Melwani):
It was, however, left to Madhur Jaffrey, who grew up during the British Raj, to explain the deeper implications of the split personality left in Indians by colonialism. To eat with the hands or not to?
She explained that it begins at birth. In her family, the custom was for the grandmother to come with a jar of honey and dip the little finger into the baby’s mouth, writing Om with honey on the tongue. “It’s a first finger going in to the mouth and it’s a very, very sensual taste but also the finger of a loved one,” she said. “There’s something so intense about it, so loving about it that that love and sensuality stays within you forever. This is where you belong, this is your world – and it’s a lovely sensual world. My grandmother did it, my mother did it and I’m doing it.”
Eating with hands was regarded as routine, even when Jaffrey went to England as a teenager. “I was very comfortable in my skin and nothing was going to change me.”
The Raj co-existed with homegrown Indian culture, and Jaffrey recalled that though they always ate Indian food with their hands at their home in Delhi, they often ate “English food” with knife and fork. Indeed, certain concessions were made by even the British – curry and rice was eaten with fork and spoon, and even today Indians use these rather than a knife. Also, many Indian foods are just not meant to be eaten with cutlery. A textbook example is the Bengali fish with its many fine bones – fingers can do the detective work and discover the smallest of bones.
Heems recalled travelling to India on holiday with his family and eating at the five-star Bukhara – with their hands. His mother joked that they charged them thousands yet couldn’t even give them a knife and fork. The combined legacies of the Raj and the Diaspora had complicated things: he remembered his mother looking at all the wealthy people eating with their hands in the posh five-star surroundings and saying, “There are so many of these people here!” And he responded, “Mom, you are one of those people!”
“The Raj had this bunch of western people coming and telling us how to eat with these things – and one thinks, we had a good thing going before you came.” said Heems. “In the Diaspora we grow up with more shame while it’s very normal to eat with your hands in India. Here we wonder, do I eat with my hands? Do I smell like curry?”
Jaffrey recalled a Korean acquaintance who went to India and couldn’t bear to eat with her hands because she found it disgusting and dirty. Jaffrey asked her, “When you make love, would you make love with these tiny chopsticks? You are making love to all the contents of your plate – and eating them with that kind of pleasure.” Turning to Heems, she proclaimed, “Never allow anyone to tell you that you smell like curry. It’s a wonderful smell!”