Food for Thought

Food for Thought

FoodI was working as a “production assistant” with a British film crew that was making a documentary for a British multinational firm about deforestation in Nepal. We were based in Trisuli, a small but bustling town named after the well-known river, which is about 85 kilometers north of Kathmandu. My job as the “production assistant” was to find “extras” from the surrounding villages where we were filming; I negotiated their pay, explained the “terms and conditions” of being employed for a few hours, and even had to instruct them on how to “act,” per directions given by the British director. It was not a pleasant job because I was caught in the middle between the demands that led to misunderstandings between the Nepali villagers and the five-man British crew. My primary job was to placate each group or individual, if not make him or her happy.

One hot, steamy afternoon in a forested area alive with vicious red ants, we stopped shooting for lunch. We found a sunny, flat spot in that hilly terrain. Our lunch, packed in various pots by the kitchen staff at the guest house in Trisuli, was in the two rented Landrovers that were parked nearby on a narrow, dirt trail that passed for a road.

There were a dozen villagers, our “extras” for the day, with us. There were no tea shops nearby and the villagers were not close to their homes. They had nowhere to go so they watched us as we, the sahibs, spread plastic sheets over the ground, unpacked our lunch of lentil soup, rice, curried vegetables and meat, and chapatis. The English crew and our two Nepali drivers began to eat, but I declined, saying I was not hungry. But the real reason I did not eat was because I did not feel comfortable eating while a dozen hungry people watched.

In our large, extended family, it was considered rude to eat alone in front of others, especially uninvited guests who happened to drop by just as you were about to have lunch or dinner. You immediately offered to share your food with the guest, even though there may not be enough for all. The guest always declined because he or she knew that there was just enough food for the family. So you delayed your lunch or dinner until the guest left. If it was bad manners to eat alone in the presence of others, it was worse to watch others eat.

Attached to this idea of civility, there was a darker concept of what may be described as the “evil eye.” I had first learnt of this as a child when I visited my grandparents who lived in a small town in the southern part of Nepal that bordered India. Occasionally, a servant would be sent out to buy some hot jelabi or samosa to accompany morning or afternoon tea. And the servant would always be told to cover the snacks when he was bringing them back. The idea was that when he was returning with the food, and if it was uncovered and thus available for all to see, then someone could cast a spell and we could have stomach trouble, or worse, after we ate the food. Of course, the educated person knows that when the food is uncovered, it immediately attracts flies and such, and one is likely to get sick eating such unsanitary food. But the concept of the “evil eye” has remained deeply buried in my modern psyche, dislodging more rational explanations about food and people.

After the film crew and the drivers had finished eating, there was still food left. The director said to me, “Perhaps these people would like to eat. It would be a shame to throw food away.” I answered I was not sure. Again, I was aware of the delicate etiquette of food and guests. Leftovers were given to servants; among certain orthodox Hindu families, I was aware of a practice where the wife ate what the husband left on his plate after he had finished eating. In most homes women ate after the men. But these villagers were neither servants nor our family members. I was in danger of insulting them by offering them leftover food, especially food first eaten by foreigners, who are perceived as untouchables and outcasts in the eyes of certain Hindus. Yet, like the Britisher, I did not want food to go to waste. And I had noticed some of the villagers had that unmistakable look of hunger. So I asked them if they would like to eat some of the food that remained. There was an audible but garbled murmur. Some wanted to eat, others didn’t. Some of the men, feeling insulted, broke away from the circle of villagers, muttering, “Jutho khadaina.” They were not going to eat food already “polluted” by foreigners. But the majority surged forward. Yes, they were hungry, they wanted to eat.

I asked a woman near me to ladle out the food. She was squatting close to the pots. She was elderly with kind, gentle features. I felt that she would be share the leftover food equally. She hesitated, and before she could do anything, a young woman aggressively approached the pots of food. She said loudly, “Here, let me do it. I’ll take care of it.” Her aggressiveness annoyed me. I said to her, “No, you sit down. I’ve already told this old lady here. She can do it.” The young woman stopped in midstep and slowly stepped back into the circle. Then a man called out, “No, sir, let the young woman do it.” I ignored him and requested the elderly woman to begin serving food. Suddenly, looking shy and avoiding my eyes, she said, “No, sir, I shouldn’t do it.” Still squatting, she began to shuffle away from the gathered villagers.

“But why not?” I asked, totally perplexed. I was now more concerned about who should serve food than their hunger. Now several men spoke up, even those who had first refused food. There was a chorus of male voices urging me to let the younger woman take over. And before I could say anything more, she purposefully strode forward, squatted by the pot of rice and began to ladle out food on the unused paper plates. The rest followed suit, crowding around the food and the young woman, hands outstretched for the plate of food. All except the old woman who remained squatting, just outside the sheets of plastic on the ground. She had a pine needle stuck between her teeth, as if she were picking her teeth after lunch. She looked on calmly, as if a mother watching her happy children crowd around bountiful food.

Intrigued by her, I approached her and asked her why she did not serve the food. Was she not hungry? But she simply repeated, “No sir, I shouldn’t.” And then a man, in between mouthfuls of rice, told me that she was not of the right caste. If she had even touched the pots of food, other villagers wouldn’t have eaten.

But of course! I knew that! Yet it had not registered. My encounters with untouchability had occurred in my grandparents’ village. Yet it had been in an intimate, family situation. Thus, the Muslim farmhands never entered the kitchen and they always ate outside in the open veranda. In the sacred part of the kitchen, where rice and lentils were cooked, only a Bramhin man or woman cooked and no one, not even my grandparents, were allowed to enter beyond a certain invisible line that separated the “sacred” from the “profane.” Meat and vegetables, especially those cooked with onions, garlic, and other spices, were cooked in a separate part of the kitchen, accessible to all, except Muslims and untouchables, such as those whose caste duty it was to clean the outhouses and open drains. As a child visiting my grandparents, I had taken such separations for granted. There were degrees of discrimination, and everyone was discriminated at a certain level, including my grandparents. But at our home in Kathmandu, there was no practice of “untouchability”; my father rejected such ideas and attitudes as “backward” and “undemocratic” and actively encouraged us to disregard such traditional practices. So I grew up in an environment where outcasts and untouchability were not on daily display. Thus my failure to recognize the aggression behind the young village woman, as well as the calm dignity (or fatalism, if you will) behind the older woman’s retreat during lunch above the town of Trisuli.

The young woman called out to me. She had noticed that I had not eaten and asked me if I wanted some food. I asked her if she had had her share. “Not yet,” she replied. I told her to help herself and then I would eat if anything was left. She said there was plenty of it. Then she ladled out a plate of rice, meat, vegetables, and one chapati and brought it over to the older woman. “Next for you?” the young woman asked me.

“No, after you.”
But she didn’t listen to me. She brought me a plate of food too. Seeing that everyone had been served, she finally helped herself.

The old woman began to eat, and I sat down next to her and began my lunch too.

About Rajendra S. Khadka:
Rajendra S. Khadka was born in Nepal, educated by the Jesuits in Kathmandu and Yankees in New England. His desultory career pursuits have included freelance journalism, managing a movie theater during the pre-VCR days, and a chef-on-call. For several years he was a writer, editor, and researcher at Travelers’ Tales, and back then when he was not sleeping, he could be found cooking, reading, or practicing zazen by doing nothing in the People’s Republic of Berkeley. After 25 years in the USA he returned to his homeland of Nepal, and now lives in a penthouse above a pack of howling curs in Kathmandu.

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2017-04-24T02:32:12+00:00