India is known for its vibrant aura, idiosyncratic quirks, and awe-inducing culture. In contrast to the west, the values and ideals that Indians are brought up with are collectivistic in nature, and consequently, we subconsciously tend to put others' needs before our own. While our disposition towards stereotypes such as arranged marriages and obsession for religion are established world-over, there is one thing that goes unnoticed about our culture; and it is the most peculiar trait. Our love for food: cooking it, eating it, but most importantly, feeding it to others. From the rich, spicy rajma chawal and dal makhani of north India to the tangy sambar and rasam of the south, we’re all obsessed with food—literally any type of food.
If you visit an Indian’s house, chances are the situation will pan out in the following way: first, you will be asked, “have you eaten?”, and depending on your answer will be the level of astonishment and state of panic. Because if you haven’t eaten (in the last two hours at least), there will be chaos, and you will be served leftovers, or if that’s not available (which is highly unlikely), something will be cooked and served to you in a matter of minutes. It doesn’t matter if you’re not hungry, it doesn’t matter if you have somewhere to be; this is how Indians show love, and annoying as it may be, I think it’s beautiful.
But like everything else in our country, the notion is probably backed by logic, and deep, meaningful history. Let’s break down this unusual symbol of love.
Think back. Way back. I’m talking 1500 AD. India was flourishing; the civilization dined on silver plates, and gold was adorned on bodies like mere fabric. Saffron was used in generous amounts, and access to water was as easily available as air to breathe. Hard to imagine in an era where poverty is rampant, and people in our country don’t even have resources to buy food and clothes, nor do they have access to decent shelter. But that’s the point: it wasn’t always like this.
With devastating invasions and brutal colonization, our nation was stripped bare of not only tangible riches, but also the sense of individualism, self-esteem, and intellectual properties of every person. Gold, silver, diamonds were all replaced by pain, poverty and suffering. And that’s where the point of food comes in—in the post-independence era, the competition for a single grain of rice was cut-throat, and Darwin’s concept of ‘survival of the fittest’ was exemplified in real life. When a family is struggling to make ends meet, begging, borrowing, and stealing cash and jewels to earn a single day’s worth of food, no one could afford to share. A family of five would survive on a serving meant for one person.
Despite this dismal state of being, the people stuck to their belief of ‘mehmaan hi bhagwaan hai’, which loosely translates to, ‘the guest is always the God’. Whenever there was a visitor at home, he was treated like God, and it was made sure that he was comfortable, and by serving him food, the host family’s concern and love was portrayed.
Often we may wonder why our mothers are so bent upon ensuring we are well fed—randomly bringing to us cut fruits at odd hours of the day, and making it a point that we go for second servings at lunch or dinner-time. We may not realize it now because we belong to a generation that hasn’t seen that cruel, bloody side of independent India. It has been embedded in our psyche: feed your own before it’s stolen from your mouth. Perhaps, when we have children of our own, we may indulge in the same behavior without realizing, because whatever said and done, at the end of the day we are a third world nation, and every day is a battle to survive.
Therefore, yes, even today when we visit someone’s house and we’re over-fed, it’s just a pure act of love, and the family is coming from a place of concern. In India, food translates to love.
By Nandini Sethi
Lady Shri Ram College for Women
Nandini, a Journalism student at Lady Shri Ram College for Women, writes about society & culture, her opinions on the world, and enthralling poetry that's hard to put down.