THAT infallible icon of contemporary mores, Oprah Winfrey, seems to have suffered deep and choking revulsion at the sight of Indians eating with their hands.
The very rich and extremely civilised Oprah must be eating with her feet. All of us eat with our fingers. Some of us feel the need for metal or wooden appendages attached to our fingers. To each his own; why get smug about this?
The cutlery-wallahs believe that the spoon and fork are hallmarks of cleanliness. This logic seems a trifle dubious. At least your fingers belong to you. Cutlery does not. Do you really want to know who shoved the fork into his mouth just ahead of you in a restaurant? You don’t want to go there, so unconsciously keep such questions out of your mind.
Convention can become a barrier to the obvious. Those who do not believe in being spoon-fed simply keep their hands and fingers clean. They wash before a meal. Moreover, the Indian climate is conducive to bathing; a bath is not considered a special event, as it was in colder climes before central heating and running hot water.
History confirms that the major power of an era determines what becomes socially correct within the penumbra of its influence. Power, empirically measured by economic growth and military supremacy (the two are not entirely unconnected), is a cyclical occurrence. Egypt, India, China, Mexico, Mesopotamia, Persia, Greece, Rome, Turkey, Mongolia, Kampuchea, Russia, Britain, France, Germany, America: all have had their turn.
Success sets the standards of usage and behaviour. The Persian beard was doubtless all the rage when Darius ruled the roost. And Bernard Lewis notes, wryly, that the gentlemen of Cairo began to prepare for the Mongol onslaught after the destruction of Baghdad in the middle of the 13th century by adopting the drooping moustache of Genghis Khan.
Mughal dress influenced court and popular wear all across southern Asia from Herat to Rangoon for an age, and the bright red Ottoman fez was a defining visual of Muslim identity up to Hollywood films of the 1950s, long after the reformer Mustafa Kemal Ataturk had abolished it in Turkey as a memento of medieval nostalgia.
The British gave us trousers for which I, at least, am deeply thankful. They are far more comfortable than the lungi or dhoti of my ancestors — although I may now be talking like a victim. The British gave their empire and its huge hinterland a dress code. The Americans gave us food. It was fast, but it was food. This is entirely appropriate as a difference between a democracy and a plutocracy, which is what Britain was during its imperial phase. British food may or may not be described as an oxymoron, but it was designed for the stomach, not the palate.
America, on the other hand, does not quite understand dressing up. It is stretching a point to call jeans, America’s contribution to clothes, haute couture. But only in the Age of America could something created for obesity, such as the McDonald’s hamburger, conquer the world. You can eat this hamburger after a stern party committee meeting in godless Beijing, or after a submissive pilgrimage in Makkah, or after a holy dip in the Ganga at Allahabad. Wherever you go, McDonald’s follows you. You can, with some luck and creative positioning, avoid the American army, but you cannot escape the American McDonald’s. The law of capitalism is unflinching: no army can defeat a market force.
Any prevailing superpower can influence style and surface behaviour, but when it tries to permeate through culture, the effort begins to congeal. Style has a value; it can be purchased. Culture, to use a familiar line, is priceless. Culture is far deeper than modern needs, compulsions or attractions.
Let me end with an example from — where else? — India. We inherited English from the British empire, and have turned it into the operating language of the ruling class. We govern in English. We write our balance sheets in English. While news is available in every language, English news in print or television still earns a premium in both advertising and influence. We seem to have everything in English, but we do not have television soap operas in English. Why? Because we still laugh and cry in Hindi or Urdu or Bengali or Tamil or Bhojpuri — in the tongue of the mother.
We can turn for news to BBC or CNN, but Oprah Winfrey would flop on Indian television. Not because she is good or bad, but simply because she is the voice of a different culture. She thinks fingers are distasteful; we consider finger-licking a gesture of great appreciation.
No one is right and no one is wrong. We are merely different, and long live the difference!
The writer is editor of The Sunday Guardian, published from Delhi, India on Sunday, published from London and editorial director, India Today and Headlines Today.