Eating with the hands

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.

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Comments (39) Closed

Cyrus Howell
Jul 29, 2012 04:46pm
Of course not. She is, in some ways a snob, particularly on the subject of African American men. She does not like to remember her childhood in the South..
Jul 29, 2012 09:04pm
The hands and fingers are needed to eat even at McDonald. May be Oprah eats these with a fork and knife
Ajaya K Dutt
Jul 29, 2012 04:51am
Another tempest in a teacup from Mr Akbar.
Jul 30, 2012 01:14am
Oprah who?
shaukat ali chughtai
Jul 29, 2012 04:19pm
Introduce dal and rice bhujia and chapati all over the world. Can u do that? Mr. Akbar, excellent narrative. Appreciate your courage.
Per tab
Jul 29, 2012 11:15pm
we are proud of our tradition plus we enjoy our rotti and curry because it is finger licking good .How did Oprahs ancestors eat!,!!
Jul 29, 2012 09:48pm
Mr.Amar,well said.At least we asians are taught to wash our hands before and after eating.I never saw any amrican washing hands before eating burgers etc,even they might have visited toilet prior to that.I would love to learn how to eat burger with fork from O.Winfry.Or how O.Winfry can justify obsulute cleaning with toilet paper.
Jul 29, 2012 09:45pm
easier said than done, i am afraid.
Jul 29, 2012 11:02pm
Excellent article. This write-up shoukd be forwarded to Oprah Winfrey so that she could not utter such useless thing.
Jul 29, 2012 01:29pm
You can add to that items like hot dogs, pizzas, buffalo wings etc. Oprah is a hypocrite in American mould.
Amar Singh
Jul 29, 2012 06:47am
I would love to see Oprah Winfrey and her country men and women eat McDonald's hamburgers with fork and knife!
onkar Sharma
Jul 29, 2012 06:38am
Very good article Mr. M J Akbar.
Jul 29, 2012 10:42pm
Rice should not be eaten with hands
Mohammad Zubair Khan
Aug 01, 2012 02:55pm
Assalamo Alaikum. I am a Muslim from Pakistan now in the US. i spent most of my childhood in India (Bharat). I very much appreciate the article. Some of my learned friends have said that some Indo-Pakistanis don't wash their hands before or after eating. That may be correct in some cases but that is not the general practice. Exceptions are always there. Eating with hands/fingers is very healthy. Our Prophet Muhammad ( peace be upon him) stressed upon eating with fingers and licking them after that. But there a good way and also a bad way doing the same thing. Eating with hands/fingers has some etiquette. It has to be done very carefully. Not all the hand and all the finger be dipped and dripping with food. I have seen Pakistanis, Indians and Bengalis eating with hands/fingers in a very nice and sober way. Some may eat with Forks, spoons and Knives that your will hardly be able to have a second look. I appreciate the article and congratulate the writer.
Jul 29, 2012 08:14am
Does it matter, what Oprah thinks of our eating with our hands?
Jul 29, 2012 07:38am
I think Oprah may now comment on the use ( or non use ) of toilet paper!!
Jul 29, 2012 09:23am
Guess trousers were not "given to us" by Brits, it has Turkish origin. Any comments?
Jul 29, 2012 10:59am
or may be,Oprah Winfrey does nor wash her hands...she must use fork and spoon to stay healthy but it does not mean you do not rinse your hands to disinfect your touches...
Cyrus Howell
Jul 29, 2012 04:41pm
Extremely rich and too civilized. She can't let African Americans down. American men cannot stand her. I know jokes about Oprah that could not be printed here. As my father used to say, "Fingers were invented before forks."
indian guy
Jul 29, 2012 08:21pm
In the year 1800, Indian GDP was more than the GDP of entire Europe. In 2050, Indian GDP will be very close to USA,when China will surpass them. Source Wikepedia. Ignore Oprah, concentrate on education like the jewish people, and make money in the west. In UK, Indian Sardars are second to the jews in wealth. Bahe guru.
Cyrus Howell
Jul 29, 2012 04:47pm
You have no class if you don't clean your finger nails and wash hands first..
Jul 29, 2012 04:44pm
Eating with hands and licking fingers is indeed repulsive -- but the Indian-Pakistani food still doesn't taste Indian and Pakistani food without using the fingers and without licking them either.
Jul 29, 2012 01:10pm
I do have to say that Indians lack table manners. They slurp food, eat with mouths open, talk while eating, etc. no harm in being more civilized like the rest of the world. Don't be so touchy.
Jul 29, 2012 01:02pm
All Oprah asked was: "'I heard some Indian people eat with their hands still?" She never said things like "suffered deep and choking revulsion at the sight of Indians eating with their hands" Like anyone else in the world would, she did not know how to eat liquid Indian food (curry, daal, raita, etc) with hand. The article just shows media's habit to sensationalize things to gain attention.
Agha Ata
Jul 29, 2012 02:58pm
Lets face the facts. About 50% people who eat with hands do not wash their hands before they eat it. Second, dirt and filth usually accumulate in nails, and alot many people do not cut their nails as often as they should.
Jul 29, 2012 06:31am
excellent article. We Indians enjoy eating rice or chapatti with hands. my experience is that Europeans and North Americas respect that and do not see as repulsive. Many times I returned salad etc in restaurants as it had meaty smell because of improper cleaning
Jul 29, 2012 10:09am
Akbar still retains his wit since his Calcutta (now Kolkata) days. To add eating with the help of fingers by infants ultimately controls obesity as they grow up, researched by psychologist Dr. Ellen Townsend and originally reported in the Daily Mail. Obesity is a major problem in the West, attribute it to the forks and spoons, and we suffer from under nourishment thanks to our fingers! Yes, we are different..
Jul 29, 2012 05:38am
No one is right and no one is wrong. We are merely different, and long live the difference!
Aneel Verman
Jul 29, 2012 05:40am always
Bobby Srinivas
Jul 29, 2012 05:55am
Quite right MJK! Using cutlery and even crockery in ordinary eating joints is extremely a health hazard. In most rural South India joints, plantain leave piece is used as a plate and you eat with your hand. You don't eat someone else's 'jhoota' ! Each unto his own. Wrong to premise that eating with your fingers shows lack of class!!
Jul 29, 2012 04:24am
Nice One:)
Jul 29, 2012 06:16am
let us boycot all American Symbols like MacD, KFC etc
Jul 31, 2012 02:23am
I don't think it is true -- no Pakistani or Indian would dare to eat with hands without washing his or her hands. You are making it up.
Jul 31, 2012 11:37pm
the americans use purell to disinfect their hands instead of using soap & water to wash them clean.....
Jul 31, 2012 11:41pm
Speak about urself...& don't lump others with yourself....
Aug 03, 2012 10:09pm
Adding to that How would she eat barbecued pork ribs or chicken thighs ? Would she eat a Chicken Burrito with fork and knife ? Desperate Sri Lankan!
Aug 03, 2012 10:29pm
Recently in a Birthday party arrnged by myself on behalf of my son, I invited few Sri Lankan families and some American families to my house. We had Rice, Chicken curry, Idi Appa , Dhal Curry, Poteto Curry, some meat dishes. We all ate with fingers as usual. I asked my American friends to try it, so they ate Idi appa with curries mixing with fingers watching how we do that . I said " for the maximum taste of our food you should do it the way we do, eat with fingers, otherwise you cant mix them".
Aug 03, 2012 10:29pm
So they asked table manners.. 1. You dont lick your fingers 2. You dont allow fingers to be involved above your 2nd finger born joint. no food on palms. 3. You dont mix all food at once, start from a side and gradually finish the plate. 4. You dont clean up the plate, you leave few bites and finish eating 5. You dont make chewing noice. 6. You must eat with lips closed, dont make your mouth load full. 7. may not talk while food is in the mouth. 8. when you want to serve yourself with a curry handle the spoon with left hand. 9. Dont 'Berp' loudly, if you get a cough, close your mouth with your left hand or handkerchief 10. Befor and after the meal wash your hands with soap. 11 Always cut your nails and keep clean. these are some of them...
Agha Ata
Aug 08, 2012 03:07pm
I lived in India and Pakistan for 60 years.