I have just had a hearty dinner and guess what I ate with my hands. I scooped the dal with my fingers and licked them too. It is an art perfected with practice. I call this a gastronomical orgasm! It is only of late that I have started eating less with my hands because I am trying not to become obese. I believe that eating with cutleries reduces the portion intake and you chew longer, but eating with the hand means stuffing a mouthful and gulping them down without any mastication. I am told eating with the sticks does even better for the weight. In my obsession with weight gain and weight loss, I am learning to live without my gastronomical O’s.
But the other O of television, I mean Oprah Winfrey, has made eating with the hands India's talking point. She dined with a wealthy family in Mumbai for her new television show and was treated to a great spread of vegetarian thali (I wish I was at the table), but Indians say she committed an awful gaffe. She asked her hosts, “I heard some Indian people eat with their hands still?” Her gracious hosts explained we all do and Oprah used both her hands to complete her meal on time.
But people are calling her remark a national insult? She was only stating a fact, no? A much highlighted open letter to the talk-show queen said someone as inspirational as her should have done her homework and not been so insensitive to Indian culture. Then there is the other Aseem Chhabra, a freelance journalist and columnist for the Mumbai Mirror who told ABC News, "It's all the stereotypes and all the clichés the West has, between the elephants and the palaces and the snake charmers and cows." And the debate and the diatribe against O continues. Shobha De is also at it.
I watched the video clip and my Indian sensibility is not hurt. For God’s sake she was making a show exposing cultures and mores. I am proud to show the world I eat with my hands because we make the tastiest foods, for one. And these can only be best relished with the use of mother nature’s forks. But when I see headlines that beam ‘Oprah Insults a nation’, I become livid at our own reactions.
The fact is, we live with our notion of India and when someone points out the stereotypes that do not wed with our own comfortable notion of India, we show a knee-jerk reaction. Read WSJ’s India Real Time. It says, “If you’re driven to work in an SUV with tinted windows, furiously tapping at your Blackberry all the while or looking only at the business pages, spend the day working in an air-conditioned office building with few outside views, and then head home to a condo, perhaps it really is possible to believe that your reality is typical, rather than an anomaly to be enormously grateful for. Which is why, when programs trying to sum up India in an hour or two dwell on slums rather than people like you, you think they’re being unfair.” Bang on.
Take Census 2011. Half of all Indians do not have a toilet at home, but a well over half own a telephone. Also, two-thirds of households continue to use firewood, crop residue, cow dung cakes or coal for cooking — putting women to significant health hazards and hardship. Or walk the streets of the national capital and look at the open dustbins swarming with flies. You will find a kurawallah (trash collector) foraging into the bin for food and recycling wastes. But if an outsider commented on the facts of life here, you will call it a national insult?
Yes India has middle class, India has affluence and India’s poverty still looms large. The perception of India in the eyes of others will take time to change because we still have not transitioned to a non-stereotype. We still use squat toilets, we have snake charmers, cows, monkeys, elephants and camels on the roads. Worse still, we have female infanticide, honour killings and we just had a teenager molested and beaten by a mob of 50 men for walking out of a bar after celebrating a birthday.
So what are we expecting? That people will visit India blind folded and if they do comment about the facts, we will cry hoarse about being stereotyped and insulted? Give me a break.