By Arun Kumar Sahu*
“Any dietary preference, Sir?”
“None at all?”
“No. Just tell them not to tell me what kind of meat they’re serving. I have a sort of psychological barrier for certain meat if you tell me in advance. I have lived in places where, except aeroplanes and submarines, people eat everything. So anything served with care is acceptable.” I was hinting at the food habit of people in China.
My office assistant looked surprised. Maybe her former bosses had never given this kind of blanket permission for food. She was confirming my attendance at a dinner to be hosted by a Canadian dignitary and it is only customary for a host to ask for the dietary preferences of the invited guests.
An Indian guest is more or less predictable. Broadly, he is either a chickenitarian or a vegetarian. A foreign host is generally oblivious to the nuances of eggitarian, vegetarian with onion and garlic and vegetarian without onion and garlic, vegetarian on a particular day of the week and non-vegetarian on others.
In my diplomatic life, I have observed different kinds of visitors from India: some international, some dogmatic and some flexible. While some venture to try cuisines of a different culture, some others raise the bar of rigidity by carrying their own pickle bottles and dried “roti” with them. A few, of course, maintain a fine balance between the new and the conventional.
Food is an inalienable part of one’s culture, one’s identity, but dogmatic adherence to it under all circumstances also symbolizes one’s inflexibility. It underlines a certain degree of cultural arrogance, though the reality of a universal global existence is that cultures are unique in their own ways and so are food and eating habits. Nevertheless, we Indians have mastered the art of delivering brazen, tiresome lectures to foreign hosts or guests on our food habits. With a comparatively low global index of life expectancy, we insist that ours is the best way for human longevity.
In some cases, a lunch or dinner meeting with a visiting Indian delegation in a foreign country is less about substantive discussion and more about intermittent whispered questions distracting everyone, “What is it? Chicken or something else?”, “I am a vegetarian.” “Today is Tuesday…”, “Doesn’t taste like tofu…” Many a time I have wondered whether it’s worth organizing such a meeting when the food on the table steals the spotlight from the real issue under discussion.
I am constantly reminded of an incident that occurred early in my career, in the late 1990s. I did not drink tea or coffee then and was very rigid about it. In a meeting with the then Revenue Commissioner of the Government of Jammu and Kashmir, we were offered tea, which I politely declined. The Revenue Commissioner noticed and, pausing his discussion on developmental activities in the state of J&K, tried to explain that what was being offered was not “tea” but “kahwah”, a specialty of the Kashmir valley. I didn’t relent. He spent the rest of his time explaining the various benefits of kahwah, straying from the real topic of interest. I felt bad that because of my rigidity, we lost precious time and a valuable opportunity to learn about development in the state.
Venues, food and drink only provide ambiance. The focus of meetings over food and drink is not what is consumed, but what is discussed. I hope that we Indians understand this centrality of purpose while interacting with others and do not miss the wood for the trees.
*Arun Kumar Sahu is the Deputy High Commissioner of India to Canada. [email protected]
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