How To Eat With Your Fingers

I went to the apartment of two friends of mine from Sri Lanka whom I met through the gym.  There were six of us all together and I have not eaten so well since – well, since the last time we all got together like this.

The principle dishes were a mutton curry and a chicken curry with two vegetarian side dishes (one cabbage based, and one pepper based).  A carrot salad and cheese platter appetizer accompanied.  The aperitif was a lemon grass tea and for dessert, plain yogurt topped with avocado puree and gur, sap from the date palm tree.  After the meal, I enjoyed a hot tea and cappuccino.

There was plenty of food; I am still full almost six hours later.  What I love most about these gatherings, however, is the inevitable flow of interesting and wide-ranging conversations.  We talked about the business of gem trade-shows and the business strategies of marketing gems in the United States, Hong Kong and Japan.  I gave a brief summary of my five-year business plan for developing the circus arts in East Asia.  We discussed the similarities of selling a business plan, a circus show, and applying for scientific research grants.  My friends gave me a crash course in recent Sri Lankan and Indian history.

During the meal, however, my Indian-American friend instructed me in the proper technique of eating with your fingers.  I felt a little embarrassed at my clumsiness; like a Westerner learning to use chopsticks for the first time.  I slowly got the hang of it, but asking my friends to clarify certain points of their eating technique was fruitless – like asking someone how they manage to walk on two feet, or asking me how I manage to hold a handstand for so long.

The conversation got very interesting when we started talking about Sri Lankan and Southern Indian culture in an episodic and phenomenological way.  I knew that there were large gaps between classes in India, but I was amazed at the magnitude of these differences.  There are Indians that are richer than most Americans would ever dream, and then there are Indians who live on less than a dollar a day.  It is not unusual, I was told, to see a middle class Indian family with servants.  Some even take them abroad to carry their bags when they travel, a practice that quickly ended when servants began to run away to mow lawns for 100 times their servant pay.  It was not unusual to hear stories of servant children taken to market, only to be ‘lost in town,’ never to be seen again.  My friend tells me that the most disturbing thing he encountered in modern Indian society was the blindness to the moral implications of a system which permits such inequalities.  It made me wonder, though, are we really so much more sensitive in the West?

Conversation snaked wildly around some more topics: Americans’ love for their SUV’s, obesity-causing viruses, rat hunting in the Indian countryside, the monstrous Indian buffalo, the process of Halal butchering.

My favorite vignette of the night came as we were heading home.  My friend was telling me that women from Indian and Arabic cultures, cultures that the West views as oppressive of women’s rights, remind him of rhinoceroses.

The rhinoceros, he explained, is seen as an aggressive beast, but in reality, he is a coward.  He has a powerful sense of smell, but very poor eyesight.  When it does want to look at something, for example, it must turn its whole body to take a look at it.

His friends were watching a rhinoceros in a field one day when suddenly, a frog who had wandered far from its pond croaked loudly.  The rhinoceros jumped back, startled and turned to face the direction from which the sound came.  At that moment, the frog jumped forward causing the rhinoceros to panic and stumble backwards, tripping over its own legs, and cower in fear.  Then, by chance, the frog made a casual leap backwards.  The rhinoceros suddenly felt sure of himself and charged, kicking up a huge cloud of dust and squishing the frog underfoot.  He trotted back after he had calmed down, and nudged and prodded the squished frog around for a while before losing interest.

Actually, the story doesn’t apply much to my friend’s vision of Arab and Indian women – his point was simply that when they encounter something new, they tend to be very curious about it and throw up a big defensive show which masks a deeper uneasiness – but I liked the way he told the story on the platform of the Seibu Shinjuku Line at 11:54 at night.

Well that’s the end of the wine from Monday, and time for me to go to sleep.

I like that my fingers still smell of tonight’s dinner; it’s almost like tasting it all over again.

The Tamil phrase for ‘thank you’ is never used in daily conversation except by well-meaning foreigners who don’t know any better, but this meal and the fine company I enjoyed tonight will never be forgotten.  Cheers, everyone!

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