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Giving, gastronomically

I have realised that the means through which I seek intimacy is food. I experience this intimacy not only in context to others, but also with regard to myself. I have grown to understand myself better through exploration of various cuisines. I know now that, if given a choice, my last meal on earth would a hundred-piece platter of sushi! Okay, hundred might be overkill, but sushi nonetheless! I also know that despite being lactose intolerant, I will never let go of cheese. Clearly, we know ourselves best when it comes to food. In every moment of my life, I consciously or subconsciously situated my thoughts around food and the joy I derive from it. Even in the face of adversity, I run to food for comfort. Of course, this is not to hint I’m dependant, or that this is pathological. Rather, I see familiarity in food. In moments of uncertainty, I can count on food to ground me. It has been for me a constant and reliable companion.

Traveling throws me out of my element, and so it is in food that I seek a sense of companionship. The earliest memory I have of this is from a train journey as a toddler when I met a girl from Mumbai. I grew up in the valley of Dehradun, a far cry from a metropolitan. So, my childlike awe of the girl from this wondrous city, which seemed like the stuff of dreams to me, was to no one’s shock. The bond I developed with this girl over just a few hours of that journey was definitely to everyone’s shock. I was quite a reserved child (I still am) and becoming instant chums with someone was not common for me. I was uncharacteristically chatty on that trip and it was the first time I accepted food from a stranger. Rather than feeling scared, as I had hoped, I only felt comfortable and, strangely enough, safe. Even more surprisingly, on this trip, not only did I eat a stranger’s food, but I also had jhootha khana!

Anyone with even a surface-level knowledge of Indian societal norms would be familiar with the fact that the sharing of jhootha khana, or morsels of food already consumed by someone and leftover, is frowned upon. On the other hand, it is also seen as an act of love to share the same morsel. My younger self was a staunch follower of this jhootha khana philosophy, so for me to drink water from the same bottle as this curious girl from the big city was unimaginable. This simple yet profound act has etched this girl into my memory and though I don’t remember her name, I will never forget her. I have lived with the impression that friendships cannot come to me naturally and I will always have to struggle to forge them. Though not shattered, this girl did bring a crack in this belief by being the first friend I made effortlessly.

If I were to trace the trajectory of this gastronomical sense of intimacy throughout my life, my second encounter would be after moving to Navi Mumbai at age of 13. To say eighth grade was an emotional rollercoaster would be a huge understatement. All of my anxieties about being left alone came to life and for the majority of the term, I could not form any solid connections. I felt like a fish out of the water as this was my first time living in a new place. The friends I had before were people I grew up with. Now, the challenge of forging new friendships became even more gruelling as I had to deal with teenagers! The only moment that I found some solace was in the twenty-minute recess. I enjoyed quite a bit of popularity in this span as I was the only kid who brought sandwiches every single day. I suppose these sandwiches evoked such a huge reaction from my classmates since they had had to chomp through roti sabzi every day. My bench would look like a jungle where all the animals fought for the catch of the day. At some point, all I could see was a rogue arm clawing its way into the crowd and retreating only after grabbing a handful of the loot. In all this chaos, I enjoyed the central audience seat and, in some capacity, felt a transient sense of community. These 20 minutes, in all their wildness, became the remedy to my othering.

I will carry the weight of this othering throughout my life; it is most heavy during big life changes, when my insecurities reach a fever pitch. This seems to have been healed greatly after staying in my hostel in Delhi. Here, I have come to find the most sense of community I have ever felt in just a small group of three. In a recent conversation, one of them said she misses us eating together, and we came to the conclusion that most of our intimacy was built upon food. Among these three, one is an extremely expressive eater, another is a loud eater who chews with their mouth open, and the third is the curator of our restaurant crawls! While two of them devour diarrhoea-inducing food every day, one wise soul chews them out for destroying their stomach lining. We even eat lunch and dinner together like a family. Although I may have lived longer with my actual family, I have become more comfortable and come into my own with these people in merely two months’ time.

I never made much of eating with other people. Now, as I’m writing this, I realise the intimacy of food, and just how intimate it has been for me. Food is not just a means for survival, it is a means for belongingness and self-awareness. It has been a friend I could count on and brought a sense of community to me when there was none. I have yet to understand this bond further, and I am excited to see what else I uncover in many more gastronomical adventures!

This Night Owl Original has been authored by Pooja Bora. She is a student of literature who spends most of her time exploring films as opposed to actually reading the books which her degree demands. On a usual day, she may be found napping on her college lawns, lazily fighting off fire ants.


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