Art market boom stories do not end it seems. To qualify a contemporary incident it is always good to contrast it with a boom time story. I remember how ‘stylish’ our artist friends had become during those years. Especially when it came to ordering of food or wine in a restaurant they used to compete with each other in ordering (as well as paying the bills) the most exotic food available and also in selecting the best wine available there. I lack in such skills. I do not understand most of the names seen in a restaurant menu. Obviously as a writer I am interested in reading the names of the culinary specialities of the place and I like the phrases that they people have come up to qualify their food and beverage items. Like many names in the Latin American and African novels I still find it difficult to remember the names of food items. While I could comprehend which character does what in a novel, in a menu it becomes all the more difficult to track the movements of the ingredients (which are often given in brackets in black italics) and how they turn to a classic taste wonder.
Sometimes it reads (in bracket) ‘king prawns fried with spinach in white rum and coconut paste’. I wait for a royal lobster to come hiding its untimely death in the beautiful shroud of coconut paste and the dirge of neat porcelain accompanied by the stewards who exactly look like bier carriers of church. The head priest (the chief chef) makes an appearance to recite some magical words of exhortation that makes the passage of prawn to the nether worlds of hungry patrons in mourning clothes (haven’t you noticed that for both mourning and celebrating they prefer black attires?). But often I am disappointed. Instead of a majestic prawn what I see is its shrivelled soul of it hiding in the centre of the plate with an abundant dressing of various greeneries for effect. Where I expect a Delacroix and I get to see an Ophelia; Where I want to see Sudhir Patwardhan they give me a Prabhakar Barwe. I should not complain because the pure ecstasy seen in the countenances of my hosts and their Epicurean words remind me of Ecstasy of St.Teresa by Bernini; I cannot deny it as faking though it is faking. If I go by Descartes, I say then and there, ‘I accept, therefore I am.’ However, I cannot suppress a reeling out of pornographic visuals in my mind when I read a menu and come across something like ‘Sex in the Beach’ (a mocktail) and ‘Chicken 65’. Except for the small little umbrella that comes perching at the rim of the mocktail glass there is neither sex nor beach in it. Only evidence that you had drunk something of that sort last night is seen when you confront a blue pee at your commode; only if you care to look at what goes out of you with as much as care you had taken last night about what went in.
One day I was telling my inability to decipher a menu to a rich young artist friend of mine. When I say, rich, young and artist, polite arrogance comes with it as topping. He said, “You are not able to do it because you do not have the habit of throwing parties or taking out family or friends eat out in high-end restaurants.” For a moment, it was shocking for me. I am used to bluntness but such straightness is sometimes difficult to take. ‘Satyam Bruyat, Priyam Bruyat, Bruyat na Satyam Apriyam’, says Indian philosophy. That means, Tell Truth, Tell Pleasing things and Never tell truth that hurts (obviously, the listener). I, happily do not believe in it. My motto is exactly the opposite; even if it hurts, tell it. Hence, when he said it I liked it. I liked the way he told me the truth. But after some deliberations in my mind I thought why he had told me so. He knew that I did not take friends and family to high-end restaurants. But still, was he doing the same till recently, till acquired all his wealth through his art? So, for him it is an acquired etiquette; something came to him by chance. But the fundamental truth is that millions of people in this country are not able to do what he does. They never understand a menu. The eateries that they frequent out of choice or by force may or may not have menus with or without spelling mistakes. But they do not want to read the menu to order their food. They already know what they want. They know how much they could pay for what they would eat. So it is economics/wealth that takes a person out to high-end restaurants. Some people, however wealthy they are prefer to live a simple life; they too do not read menus. They already know what they want.
I have been living alone for some time now. This stay has given me a few great revelations. As I have not yet set up a kitchen where I could cook what I want to eat, I eat outside once in a while. There are a few blessed hands that give me home cooked food even if I do not expect them to do so. I want to acknowledge them taking their names but they are not doing it for name or the ‘good points’ that they would earn in the final count before the so called God. If I mention their names they may be offended; so I avoid doing it. Blessed are those hands that feed me; be those of a friend or of a person who works in a local wayside eatery.
I eat from the places where working class people eat. When I say working class one may tend to think that they are all menial workers. No, working class includes office goers, people working in IT industry, doing small executive jobs, people who have come to the city for giving job interviews, college students, drivers, helpers and people who look like coming from settled home with caring families. People eat from such places for different reasons. For some people, like me, they have not yet set up a kitchen, for some others they could not eat at home, some people do not have a permanent place to stay or they have erratic hours of work. So they all eat from small eateries; they are affordable. But I wonder how a person who earns two hundred rupees a day (approximately four US Dollas) spends fifty rupees out of it for one time meal? It will be too pinching for him. I see people drinking sugar cane juice early in the morning so that the sugar in it helps them to hold the body and soul together till the next meal which may come or may not. I see rickshaw pullers sucking on cheap sweets in their mouth to supply the body with sugar. I see young people eat a full meal for Rs.20/- from subsidized food booths between 10 am and 11 am so that they can skip at least one meal. I see people eating two samosas (Rs.10 or Rs.12/-) for their dinner! People do not have money. If I do not know how to read menus, I am okay with it.
In small eateries, you may not be treated with affection. In high end restaurants, everyone would come to you as if you were a king or queen. The waiters in the small eateries work for their food. They are weary of doing what they are doing. They are saddened by their hands to mouth existence. They cannot give you a smile with the food they serve. Even if they try to smile at them they will look at you with suspicion. In high end restaurants, you eat the exotic sounding food items with relish. But your relishing is affected one. More than you eat, you talk to your companions. You pretend to be happy. None goes to a high end restaurant to feel depressed. Eating there is a celebration, feeling good; it is about accomplishment and gains. It is a display of your social skills. It is a temporary feeling of power to order others around and pay. It is about negotiations and setting up deals. It is more about acting out than eating out. But in small eateries, there is a strange communion with the food. You do not hear people talking there. People eat as if they were participating in a secret ritual. Yes, there is a secret ritual there; between the miseries of life and the act of bracing up for facing it in the next moment. Eating is an interval of introspection; meditation. It is a communion with one’s own self. The saddest sight in the world is that of a person eating alone in dim light; perhaps, that person is the happiest person in the world too because he is one with his food. It is my flesh and it is my blood, take it, says the son of God. And you break bread with him and you feel good about it. Never mind you don’t know how to read menus.