(This article is part of ‘Ways of eating‘: a mini-series on food in Southasia)
What could be an academic’s concern for the niceties and nuances of food and eating? At the same time, as a blind woman, how did I engage with the complexities and drudgery of cooking to turn it into my passion? For those who are familiar with my work and my interests, this piece may come as a surprise. Admittedly, I am no food connoisseur. Yet, I feel compelled to write about my experience and narrate what led me to tread a hitherto untraversed terrain, a transformation which is not sudden, mystical and inexplicable but gradual and conscious, aimed at understanding who I am and breaking away from the various symbolic constraints that determine and dictate my life.
I was born with a genetic eye disease called retinitis pigmentosa in the burgeoning small town of Sidhpur in Gujarat in the Dawoodi Bohra Muslim milieu. In due course, my parents migrated to Kolkata in search of greener pastures. Their chief concern was to make sure I received a good education. I went to an inclusive school and was in the midst of kids who could see and read and write and run around. As I grew up, I became cognisant of my disability and wanted to withdraw. I was an introvert – shy, timid, reclusive, always shunning the presence of too many people while despising exclusion, deprivation, and marginalisation.
Eating with others was the most serious cause of anxiety for me. I would not mind friends eating from my tiffin but was always reluctant to eat from theirs. How could I know what they were offering, unless explicitly told? I was too diffident to ask. Even if I attempted to conjecture on the basis of some passing comments that a particular member of my group had my favourite delectable in her tiffin, how could I even fathom how much of it was there and how much I was expected to pick up? I did not want to make a fool of myself. Nor could I allow myself to be the cause of unconscionable mirth or the subject of repulsive tete-a-tetes. I began concocting excuses for staying away from eating events. To avert the possibility of having to eat with others, I started exhibiting strong dislikes and severe reservations against specific kinds of food. This could have led inadvertently to my selective eating habits that have remained with me till today.
How to locate food on a common plate independently? How to know where food is on the plate if it is so far from us? How to navigate the dining area without bumping over utensils or dirtying our neighbour’s hands?
What compounded my consternation and added to my chagrin was the fact that I was arranged to be a part of a community social group of eight or nine friends that would meet at least once every month for ménage – an English word with French and Latin roots meaning ‘household’, used by the Bohras to refer to a somewhat kitty party like get-together for food and frolic. For a considerable spell of time, this was my most dreaded nightmare. My parents thought I needed to come out of my cocoon and mix with others. They felt there could be no better way than this to ensure my belonging and recognition. Not even for a moment did it occur to them that the gossip so integral to such gatherings would not appeal to my reticent personality. In fact, my mother was firm in her decision and would not listen to my appeals for letting me be alone, and I was too obsequious then to express my disapproval or voice my ire. I would try hard but could never convince my parents that there was no one or nothing substantial that could ever make me feel I fully belong.
Communal eating as a shared space of encounter
Contrary to the conventional shibboleth that food is a potent binding agent capable of forging social ties and a sense of community leading to increased happiness, well-being and contentedness and providing necessary social and emotional support, sharing a meal could never bring me closer to my so-called friends. The customary Bohra practice of eating from the same thaal (a large raised circular steel or aluminium platter around which typically eight or nine people sit down on the floor to eat) made matters worse. What others found unifying and fraternising about it was more often than not very tormenting and oppressive for me. I have always been an avid admirer of Gandhi for whom interdining and intermarriage were no more than artificial contrivances, in no way a necessary or integral part of the fight against untouchability and social inequality. In fact, for most of his life, Gandhi did not oppose restrictions or prohibitions imposed against these practices. Naturally, counterintuitive though it may sound, I could never unquestioningly concede to the presupposition that social dining would definitively and unfailingly guarantee amity and solidarity within entrenched structures of hierarchy and systems of oppression. And I do not believe such practices could go a long way in the cultivation of free and equal democratic spaces either.
The Bohra dining etiquette with its elaborate set of ritual dos and don’ts in keeping with Islamic injunctions, has several noteworthy features and I have always regarded these with careful deference. The Bohra thaal is the pivot around which Bohra community life revolves. Even dissident groups within the community do not dispute its importance and value. In fact, one such group, Sahiyo (Friends), has been using Thaal Pe Charcha as a medium to encourage Bohra women to bond over food and discuss critical issues affecting their lives. At the thaal, diners sit with both legs tucked underneath or with one leg bent and raised and the other pressed compactly against the raised thigh, never with legs crossed or stretched out, as a mark of respect for food and for each other. During community meals organised at Bohra jamaat khanas or dining halls, the portions served at individual ‘thaals’ are just right for eight people. Diners are instructed to consume every last morsel on the thaal and to make sure not a single grain of food is wasted. Once everyone is seated, one serving person walks in with water in a chilamchi lota ( mobile basin and jug for everyone to wash their hands before eating). It is customary to take a pinch of salt before and after every meal – believed to cleanse the palette, clear the gut and fight 72 different kinds of diseases. Each dish is placed in the centre of the thaal in a single plate and diners pick their share from it.
Eating with others was the most serious cause of anxiety for me. I would not mind friends eating from my tiffin but was always reluctant to eat from theirs.
The Bohra cuisine is quite distinctive and intriguing, an amalgam of Gujarati, Arabic and Middle Eastern culinary styles. Unlike most other cultures, the Bohra meal begins with mithaas (desserts like hand churned ice creams, custards, puddings, lavish halwas or any other signature sweetmeat like malido or kalamdo), followed by kharaas (usually a meat-based savoury starter), and then the jaman or the main course, mostly the traditional Bohra kari chawal or dal chawal palidu, or even pulav and biryani, along with accompaniments like soups, raitas, salads and chutneys. The meal ends with fruits/dry fruits, paan and a beverage. On the first night of the month of Muharram, the start of the Islamic year, the thaal is embellished with a panoply of exciting dishes, ghugri or lachko (whole wheat halwa) and curd being an absolute must in every Bohra household. Even today, I feel particularly tempted by the Muharram thaal and wait for it eagerly with zestful enthusiasm.
Bohra meals are undergoing dramatic changes with wedding thaals serving lasagne, wontons and sizzlers. But the age-old tradition of eating out of the same thaal continues unabated and this form of communal eating has long held the tiny community together.
Promise of inclusion, challenge of exclusion
For many in the community, the thaal is a promise of equality. Each person who sits around the thaal is equidistant from the food that is placed in its centre. It provides an opportunity to people from disparate backgrounds to build commensality, forge community ties and share intimate experiences. For the elderly in the community, separate seating arrangements are made and the thaal is put on the table. But for blind people like me, the thaal has never allowed for eating with dignity and poise.
Decades have passed but I have not been able to efface those childhood memories of ménage or jamaat functions when friends at the thaal, certainly not out of malice but due to sheer recklessness and nonchalance in their preoccupation with merrymaking, would simply forget to tell me when one dish was over and the other had begun. I still remember how aggrieved I would feel when my little brother, ten years younger than me and also blind with the same eye condition, would report incidents of friends at his Madrasa having a hearty laugh on his searching for food in an empty plate. His experience with eating has echoes that illuminate mine.
What others found unifying and fraternising about it was more often than not very tormenting and oppressive for me.
Innumerable apprehensions such as these keep plaguing our minds all the time. How to locate food on a common plate independently? How to know where food is on the plate if it is so far from us? How to navigate the dining area without bumping over utensils or dirtying our neighbour’s hands? How to know the exact portion size meant for us? For fear of eating away another person’s share, we usually pull back our hands after a few morsels and end up eating very little. It is even more challenging to handle liquids and semi-liquids, foods that cannot but be eaten without a spoon. The journey of such foods from the common bowl placed in the centre of the thaal up to our mouths is full of intractable ordeals. My brother is never able to hold his spoon straight. Yet, the spillage and mess in my part of the thaal is always more. And our discomfiture at somebody else having to lift some ice cream or souffle from the common bowl in their spoon and pour it into ours is simply unbearable. Sometimes, at community meals, some kind-hearted soul sitting in our thaal does offer to arrange for soup or mattha in a separate glass. But that too is so demeaning and unbefitting for us. We would never ask for special or differential treatment on such occasions.
Negotiating and moving ahead
My experience with communal eating may not have been an exception. But it was torturous enough to keep me away from cooking for a long time. I had not cooked a meal until recently. Not only did I not know how to cook, but I had never thought about it either. That debt seems to have lingered somewhere. Over the years, I could not reconcile and connect the ‘mundane doing’ with the ‘high thinking’. I showed little or no interest in the trivial details of the insecurities and coping skills of everyday life. But now I cook often, to the surprise of my family and friends, think and even write about food. While first finding my way through doing what needed to be done, I became part of the blind-friendly cooking WhatsApp group and through it got to know about a unique and unprecedented YouTube channel – Rasoi Ke Rahasya – imparting independent cooking skills to the blind from scratch. My horizon slowly opened up with new enquiries, new possibilities, and the foundation of an alternative relational aesthetic experience with food with an obsessive interest and appetite for the obscure and the exotic. An initiative ventured with a purely utilitarian proclivity as well as to reap some therapeutic benefits has slowly become a powerful means of achieving emancipation and self-realisation.
The Bohra thaal is the pivot around which Bohra community life revolves.
The COVID-19 pandemic and its offshoot ‘social distancing’ has brought me even closer to being conscious of the injustice and violence of social inclusion and embeddedness when there is no equity. But I have decided to experience and evaluate my anxiety, not to suffer from it anymore, not even to avoid it. Indeed, there would have been no enjoyment outside this embrace of loss and estrangement. At last, I have discovered the pleasures of cooking and eating good meals.
I surely do have misgivings about the availability and possibility of my access to free and equal public spaces, be it within my own community setting or in the larger societal context. But my account is only an honest attempt to recapitulate and reflect upon my experience of eating from the same plate and the corresponding long-hidden pathos, and it would be a travesty to state that it is a quest for a generalised way out. Further, the fact that I have found solace in cooking does not automatically lead me to affirm and advocate the ethics of self-care for everyone. Nor could I glorify cooking as the panacea for all miseries. I would rather posit my story as an earnest endeavour to build congeniality with the blind fraternity and to derive enjoyment in our collective lack in the hope that it would serve as an instructive roadmap for ushering in the moment of freedom and equality for all.