Saturday, December 03, 2005

On Eating and Social Responsibility

Indians (and possibly all Asians) are obsessed with feeding their guests. Step into the home of an Indian person and open your mouth, even if only long enough to breathe the spicy air, and it will be tough to shut it again without something being stuffed in. Perhaps a sweet, some chai, even just a cashew must be swallowed before you escape. If you’re Indian yourself, your innate mathematical sense tells you to ask for one spoonful when you really want two, and to eat with one hand, so that the other can play defense against the overweight auntie shoveling more shak onto your yellowing, oil-dribbling plate. There is a powerful sense of obligation in our culture to feed others.

I never realized just how deep-seated this sense was until a few nights ago, when we dined at an all-you-can-eat pizza place. Another pizza came, and the classic struggle began: no, I don’t want more…come on, just take, I’m full…here, I’ll put two on your plate…except instead of family urging family to take the plunge into overeating, the waiter was begging us to eat more. For the life of me, I couldn’t see what he stood to gain by it. He wasn’t even our waiter, so there was no large tip on the horizon, and the restaurant would make more money if we left; yet his cultural instinct was so strong, he wouldn’t take no for an answer, and he kept serving up more slices.

Now if you know me, you know I love food, so it may seem strange that I’m complaining about this. But I’ve come to hate overeating, because of what it does to my health and sense of well-being. I realize that my reputation as a garbage disposal may still be strong in some households, but the past few years have seen me change (dramatically) into an advocate of smaller, more frequent meals. This has meant trouble when we visit relatives in Ahmedabad, since eating less at another’s table is often taken personally. I’ve stuffed myself to bursting point, for no reason other than to make my hosts feel better about themselves. I recall a night many years ago when I was given 5 large sweets after an overindulgent meal, and told by well-meaning relatives that I had to eat them all before leaving the table. I actually resorted to stuffing them into my socks when my relatives weren’t looking, and dumping them out the window once in the safety of my room upstairs.

They probably lay outside for weeks, decomposing into the soil of a country where millions succumb to hunger. Where does this overpowering sense of obligation go when the hungry hold out their hands to us on the street? And why do I get the sense that in many of my extended relatives’ households, they could care less about who I am or what I think, as long as I have something to eat? Does my act of chewing and swallowing absolve them of all familial responsibility to get to know me? Food certainly fills an awkward silence every bit as well as it does an empty stomach.

So I’ve come to dislike it when people say, “eat what’s on your plate, there are people starving in {insert developing country here}.” A fat lot of good it does those people when we eat more than we need. I might as well walk up to one of the starving children in (insert developing country here} and say, “I realize your body’s needs are neglected. Hell, mine are too. I don’t want to blow out my metabolism eating 150% of my daily need, and suffer from obesity later in life. But I take the hit, and I do it to preserve our social structure. You’ll never understand, will you?” (A plea from the bottom of my gut – if you can’t eat everything on your plate, there are options – take it home, give it to a beggar outside, or simply take less the next time around. Please don’t overeat and hurt your own body in a misguided attempt to stop starvation in Somalia.)

All these musings on feeding and hunger led me to be quite surprised when a group of NGO workers in Ahmedabad opened Seva Café. I attended a meeting on one of the debut evenings of the café (way back in October), where passionately service-oriented volunteers discussed the particulars of their new eatery. The concept was this – open a restaurant/café where no one is required to pay for their food. Rather, explain to the guests that whatever they choose to give in return for a meal will help to feed the next person that comes in. So, after every dinner is served, a bill is placed on the table that says “Total: Zero rupees.”

At first the concept startled me – why would so many volunteers dedicated to helping the plight of India’s poor spend all their energy providing food for people who could afford to pay? What was productive about opening a café to serve people like me free of charge? However, I soon witnessed the brilliance of the endeavor. The café creates an atmosphere where the spirit of service comes to life. By relieving you of your monetary obligation for the food you’ve eaten, it leaves you with the feeling that you’d like to do something nice in return for someone else. Perhaps you can pay anyway, which will help finance the meal of the next guy who walks in. Perhaps you can go back and help do dishes (which I did once, only to be kicked out of the kitchen less than an hour later for being too slow!)

In effect, the café turns the idea of obligation onto its head. We’re conditioned to think that if we pay money for a meal, our obligation is done – just as many here seem to think that feeding a relative fulfills the purpose of family ties. But by taking away this reflex, it forces us to imagine what we can do to help others in return for the unexpected gift we have received. Not obligation, but motivation.

The café is located on the fourth floor of the building opposite from the Municipal Market on C.G. Road…a location mostly inaccessible to the poor and the hungry. But while it does not serve the needy directly, it goes a fantastic length to stimulate those of us who may have forgotten that the food we eat is a product of someone’s service to pass that sense of service along to others. Today, the café attracts a wonderful mixture of NGO volunteers, international students, and interested locals, who engage in dialogues of change and take turns helping the place stay alive. I urge those of you coming to Ahmedabad during the winter holidays to show your support, and if you do, call me up, and I’ll be there to join you. Seva Café helps show us that in the end, our responsibility is not to serve food, but to serve each other.


Blogger Calliope said...

Hi Rishi, this is Anna, your favorite manic depressive. (You may remember I posted on an earlier blog?) Anyhow I was just going to say I absolutely LOVE the idea of the Cafe, thanks again for posting, you have a brilliant mind.


1:13 PM  
Anonymous Lucy said...

hello hello old friend! been trying to catch up on your blogs, but you are a man of many MANY words. =) As much as I do enjoy your insights, I must admit I'm sleepy, so I am only able to catch up on a couple of your blogs. One of which obviously is this one. This cafe you speak of, what is their main purpose? What do they want to achieve ultimately? I'm curoius, it seems like a pretty good idea, but what point are they making? Is it to teach people not to waste? To teach people a sense of comaderie? I'm not quite sure, but if I was there I would absolutely visit the cafe. But alas, I am not. So Rishi, you must answer these questions for me.

12:33 PM  
Blogger Rishi said...

Sorry, I know I get wordy sometimes! If you knew the amount of stuff I don't have time to blog about, all the big and the little things that make this experience so rich, you might see why I spend so much time committing some of these tales to blog form...this will be my way of remembering some of it years down the line. Lucy, I'll answer your questions in an email...miss you out here!

4:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

hi rishi,

again am a bit behind in keeping up with your blogs, but it makes absolutely fascinating reading.. keep the good work up.

about the need for so much "aagrah" for food for the guests... i think traditionally it comes from 'atithi devo bhava" which is sanskrit for treat your guest like he is God. And 2-3 generations back, when things were very different, food and resources were scarce... guests were given even the share of the family members and "forced" to eat more, lest he suspected that the family really is going to go hungry at his expense. But now ofcourse i think the whole tradition is ludicrous and out of place in our age of excesses and an alarming increasing trend for obesity!! i think we should set aside all the extra food our hosts expected us to eat and then go out and hand it out to the needy ones!

12:50 AM  
Anonymous heena said...

that previous comment was from me... not anonymous


12:51 AM  

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