The Dawn: 25th January, 2013

Food: Punjabi gathering and crowd!

Mushtaq Soofi 

Food has such a ubiquitous presence in our daily lives that it hardly compels us to take it as something thought provoking. Food sustains not just our physical being, but also supports all kinds of activities, material and non-material. Only mystics could imagine soul without body. Our ancient ancestors in their constant search for food faced ever-present threat of starvation, forcing them to look for eatables for most of their time. In scriptures we find people beseeching the God to remove the curse of hunger. “Give us this day our daily bread” is a verse from the Bible.

What man eats is source of power. Man when hungry, has an empty space within his body which causes an unease that can only be overcome by filling himself. Overcoming hunger in some measure has helped man build what is distinctly human: the civilization. What distinguishes man from animal is not the food but the way he eats it. “Eat like a man” thus goes a Punjabi saying. Consuming food in a certain way makes man what he is. Kitchen is a hallmark of human culture.

The Punjab has been and still is granary of the subcontinent. The agricultural surplus produced by the toiling peasants created cities and civilization though they themselves remained destitute due to the forced appropriation of their produce by their overlords in an inequitable system of political institutions. Scarcity of food, real or imagined, has always been a nightmare which has deeply affected the psyche of man. “To a man with empty stomach all the big talk sounds hollow” elderly Punjabis would tell you.

The recently-televised images of political workers fighting over food offered by their political parties at their meetings in urban areas show an amazing level of deterioration in the culture of eating. Just pan and zoom out to include Punjabi villagers busy eating. The villagers ready to have food on festive occasions such as wedding would sit and wait patiently. The food though simple would be served by the relatives and friends of the host without haste or hassle. The guests with their focus on the food would eat joyfully making it look like a ritual of some spiritual significance. Food for these people is sacred that needs to be consumed with care. Wasting food is almost a sin in the Punjab’s countryside.

Now juxtapose this image against the montage of what we witness at similar gatherings in our urban areas which are supposed to be advanced in culture. Group behavior of urban Punjabi gatherings at weddings or on other such occasions is all too well-known. The moment the signal is given that food is ready, guests apparently well-fed, crash their chairs, scramble up the food stands causing a rush bordering on stampede. Middle-class people, who scoff at the simple manners of villagers making the word ‘paindu’ (one belonging to village) synonymous with uncultured one, reduce the ambiance of marriage banquet to a surrealistic weirdness, showing a pathetic lack of culture.

Crucial factor in the difference of the behavioral patterns of villagers and urbanites arises from the fact that the former, when gathered together on the occasion of feast, do not turn into a crowd while the latter do. Villagers respect food. Their crops depend on the vagaries of weather born of mysterious interplay of invisible forces beyond their control. Apart from nature, it is their hard work that produces what they can have as food. “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread,” says the Bible.The villagers live in a tight-knit society that has a strong community instinct and social norms with meager allowance for deviation.

In such a society everybody knows everybody and one flouting the norms risks losing their social prestige. So peasants in their gatherings act as responsible social beings and do not degenerate into a crowd.

While on the other hand urbanized Punjabis cut off from their cultural roots and ignorant of the process of food production, treat food like any other commodity that they can buy with their cash. Hence little respect for the nature and the hands which produce what end up at their dining tables as eatable. Fast-emerging individualistic urban society driven by vulgar consumerism has hardly any sense of community essential for creating civilized social norms.

Anonymity, a defining feature of urban society, too creates a space where people in a gathering can behave like predators without fear of being named and shamed. A Punjabi gentleman in an urban dining hall unconsciously behaves like a starving primitive.

Social gathering and crowd in the guise of gathering are two completely different things. Social gathering with the creation of human bond thrives on the joy of sharing, while crowd driven by instinct and impulse, props itself up on the prospect of spoils.

The peasant gathering in the Punjab represents social togetherness and value of sharing, while our urban crowd like gathering reflects social chaos and individualistic consumption. “He who eats alone, gathers sin” declares the Rig-Veda emphasizing the value of sharing.

Our Punjabi urbanite while being a part of a gathering eats alone and gathers sin. On the other hand Punjabi peasant even when he eats alone is part of the whole surrounded by the subtle presence of nature. There may be a social and cultural need for our Punjabi sophisticate who is otherwise a thinly-veiled philistine, to learn the etiquettes of eating from our rustic. If that happens we shall have at our gatherings ‘joyful noises’ instead of a sickening cacophony.

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