My home has always seemed a microcosm of twenty-first century India transplanted into the heart of rural England: the resplendent hues of my mother’s saris blossoming against the staid serenity of the surrounding fields; the staccato rhythms of Hindi intermingled with the measured cadence of English; the spicy fragrance of cinnamon and cloves permeating the evening air…
There is a curious ambiguity to the immigrant identity – the sense of inhabiting two distinct universes, yet not truly belonging to either. As a child, I was acutely aware of the palpable, if largely tacit, gulf that separated me from my British peers, demarcated by the varying cultural milestones that punctuated our lives. I, for example, didn’t learn how to properly cut my food with a knife and fork until I turned nine, having grown up eating with my hands. Even a decade later, my awkwardness with cutlery remains a source of considerable anxiety, perhaps because it bears testimony to the fragility of my selfhood – my identity still precarious, still under construction.
But it is a hybrid ethnicity I have come to embrace. Living in Britain does not automatically decentre my Indian heritage. Recreating the traditions of my ancestors sustains my memory of my homeland, and meal-time ritual is no exception. Eating food with your hands seems increasingly anachronistic in a world dominated by silverware – and I admit, it isn’t always the most aesthetically pleasing mode of consumption. It is, however, a custom – an institution – of profound symbolic significance for the Indian people, not solely on a national level, but also on a personal level.
Hand-to-mouth dining draws deeply on Ayurveda, an ancient health philosophy blending science and spirituality in the treatment of disease. It valorises the hands as the conduits of the five elements – water, air, earth, fire and space – so bringing the fingers into contact with each other and with the food activates these elements, forging a connection with the wider cosmos and imbuing the meal with cosmic energy. This emphasis on mindful eating can provide a crucial antidote to an increasingly complex and fast-paced world. Dispensing with intermediary utensils adds a tactile dimension to the meal, which crystallises the connection between the consumer and the consumed. Texture, aroma, flavour and appearance merge and meld seamlessly, at once intensifying and enlivening the gastronomic experience. Finally, there is, of course, a degree of pragmatism. Roti (the flatbread served with practically every meal) and daal (lentil soup) are, evidently, not amenable to the Western knife and fork.
Let us probe further. What can account for the longevity of a dining tradition amidst successive imperial regimes and centuries of social, political and cultural reconfiguration? Ayurvedic rationale is undoubtedly a legitimising factor, but there persists an undeniably deeper, more visceral resonance. It speaks volumes about an enduring symbiosis between nation and cuisine. Think ‘India’, and, almost instinctively, one envisions bustling sabzi mandis (vegetable markets), steeped in the rampant scents and sounds of culinary sorcery. Food is a lifeblood, the literal and figurative pulse of a personality that is constantly adapting and evolving. It pivots not solely upon the physical substance of the meal but also upon the attendant rites and rituals. The principle of ‘unity in diversity’ typifies the Indian national ethos, finding distinctive expression in the vast array of ingredients, techniques, and equipment deployed in service of the culinary art. Although the final product may vary substantially between regions, the resemblance between our eating practices is quite remarkable; whether we think of the naans and biryani of the northern regions, or the idli and dosa emblematic of the South, the custom of dining sans cutlery is ubiquitous. It is, however, more than a communal experience, composing a mutually intelligible cultural idiom through which interregional division can be temporarily transcended, linguistic and religious divergence attenuated. In short, eating with your hands denotes a national identity that does not exclude or discriminate.
But the journey it inspires is, at the same time, intensely personal. As a second-generation immigrant, ‘diaspora’ and ‘identity crisis’ are, to my mind, virtually synonymous. Mediating a pluri-ethnic heritage can be a tortuous process. It is contoured by the dissonance between culture of residence and culture of origin, the assimilation into the former, the neglect of the latter, and the haunting sense of guilt that this routinely evokes. In this context, replicating the dining practices of my parents, and my grandparents, and millions of Indians across the world is strangely liberating. Engaging in so hallowed a tradition, albeit in a western setting, it feels as though I have somehow established a dialogue between the conflicting claimants to my cultural allegiance. The sensation of internal ‘wholeness’ is soothing.
The connection between dining etiquette and identity is abstract but nonetheless compelling. As a unifying force, it articulates a shared narrative of culture, history and national solidarity of particular importance in an era of escalating regionalist agitation. But, for the individual, the implications are even more far-reaching. It reminds us that identity formation isn’t concrete. It is malleable and mobile and composite, inflected by personal agency and inherited tradition alike, derived from a myriad of experiences. It is incredible that the childhood experience of eating with my hands – so reflexive, structured, honed through daily practice – would enable me to reconcile the ‘Indian’ and ‘British’ elements of my ethnicity, and eternally anchor me to the former as I progressively submerged myself in the latter.
Perhaps, then, it is time for us to revise the old adage: you are not merely what you eat, but, equally, how you eat.