Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Itinerant Mendicant: The rules of the table

As a little boy, in the home of my mother, I learned my table manners well. Many years later, sitting at a table in an Urdu speaking household, I learned that these manners were so esteemed they were elevated to an etiquette, the Adab e Dastarkhwan. The rules were simple. When sitting at a table, and before serving oneself, make a mental count of the number of people at the table. Subsequently, take just less than the portion that would result from the notional division of the served food among the people at the table. This was your justifiable and polite share of the food. The assumptions of this Adab assumed that everyone at the table would be similarly courteous, leaving behind a substantial portion of food left behind. Once the first servings were exhausted, the great game of the Adab would begin, where the host, would press upon his guest to have more. The Adab requires that elegant guest politely decline, indicating that one had had one’s full. Not to be undone the host would press his entreaties to eat some more upon you. It was only on refusing about three times, the rules indicated, that it was proper for one to accept the offer of the host.

It was these rules of politeness I carried on my first trip across the seven seas to the New World. There in San Francisco, I was invited one evening to dinner at the home of a neighbor and friend. The main, course was a grilled salmon. There were three of us at table, and as I was serving myself, my mother’s voice that I had internalized kicked in. I took less than what I could have. Predictably, there was some salmon left over once every one was done with round one. This is when my host inquired of me, “Jason, you’ve hardly eaten! Would you like some more?” Recognizing the signal for the baroque dance of pressing, and refusal, and pressing some more, I politely refused, “Oh no!” said I, “I’ve had quite enough thank you.” The “American”, it appears, takes the word at face value. So onward proceeded my good host, to my mild discomfort, to the next guest “Flacko, would you like some more?” Flacko too, had apparently had quite enough, and so it turned out that my host, with a great sigh declaimed, “oh well, in that case, I might as well eat it myself and not let it go waste.”

Horrors! This was not the way it was supposed to be! What happened to those rules that first Mummy, and then my adopted Urdu family had stressed were fundamental to civilized life? Perhaps that was the first step of this mendicant’s itinerancy, realization of the post-modern condition. The moment when he realized that the world does not run by one single rule, but by a variety of rules. There is not one game, but a series of games. The trick lies in figuring out the rules (because there are always rule) before you get thrown out of the play.

That evening, after dinner, I returned home, hungry and cooked a farewell dinner for the certitudes of my pre-itinerant life. A new world was now beginning to open up.

(A version of this post was first published in The Goan on 10 Nov 2012)

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