"I heard some Indian people eat with their hands still?" - Oprah Winfrey
Even as I try to wrap my head around your amazingly presumptuous statement, your host breaks into a huge grin and says "usually we use only one hand to eat." Good god. But there's laughter around the table. You will soon realize that food humour is the best kind of humour in India, next only to toilet humour.
The upper-middleclass family you visit offers you a thali, an assortment of food that in India is considered a filling and balanced meal. The man of the house points to a green lump in the corner. "That's okra." "This? This is okra?"
Only, in India we call it ladies finger. In fact, if vegetable vendors had their way bhindi would join bandobast in the English dictionary any day. I am mildly thankful to you for not referring to it as gumbo, which I am sure would have baffled millions watching the spectacle that you made of our way of life.
You are helplessly disarming when you ask your host to show you how to eat with your hand. "I have never eaten with my hand but I can try." They fall over each other to oblige. Use one finger to hold the bread (puri) down and tear like this. Now dip it in anything you want. See? So easy.
Oprah, you brave, brave thing, you are now one of us. Millions of us risk infection every day to eat food with our hands. When a child is born we teach it to eat with the hand. In the desolate, backward hole we live in, this is considered perfectly normal. Our table manners are minimal but they do not include humiliating our host with a question that plainly indicates our backwardness.
We, the Indians who amaze you with our resilience and our sparse lives in 10X10 slum chawls, have always thought you were well travelled, well read and well spoken. How do we know? We watch your show of course. We have had cable television revolution since 1992. Poverty is an inseparable part of India, you say, and seek out the human stories that make the grind bearable.
But which India have you come looking for? The one that shops at state-of-the-art supermarkets and vacations abroad or the one whining about their misery in tiny holes of homes with LCD televisions on the walls? The India that scrapes by with $200 a month but sends its children to subsidised government schools to pick up fluent English? The India of your press information - fascinating, with its many-headed goddesses and grimy, naked children playing by roadside hovels - or the India of the future - an economic superpower that looms large outside the range of an average American's myopic vision?
Oprah, your comment about eating with the hand is really not that big a deal to us; we are used to gross Western ignorance regarding our ancient country. But as a responsible public figure about to air a show that will be beamed across the world, you should have done your homework. Using our hands to eat is a well established tradition and a fact none of us are ashamed of. Our economic distinction has nothing to do with it. A
millionaire here eats the same way a pauper does. You have been to Asian nations. You should know that.
In fact, we scoff at people who try to tackle their pizzas and rotis with cutlery. In one sweeping, general statement you linked the usage of cutlery to our progress. If anything, the mockery brings out in sharper focus the underlying insecurity and the latent threat developed nations sense from third world countries such as ours. Do you say you did not mean it as an offence? It is then an abominable insensitivity to Indian hospitality.
I am a part of the nation that struggles to give its people a livelihood and sometimes fails to even provide basic amenities such as a showerhead in their bathrooms (gasp!). Don't even get me started on our problems; you will miss your flight back. We have seriously twisted issues but shooting innocent people at random inside a cinema theatre is not one of them. Our problems are generically different from yours. But we don't make a spectacle out of yours. That's the difference.
You have become the butt of jokes here, some well deserved, some not so much. Did you think the idea of 'India' is the culmination of an Algebraic equation? You are not alone in this sweeping ignorance and larger insensitivity. But you are a powerful brand ambassador of the America that tries to make sense of Indians. If this is the level of awareness you bring to our country, and the half-informed truths you take back, I feel apprehensive for the people you influence.
Yes, we eat with our hands and it's high time we stop eating out of yours.
(Oprah's Next Chapter premiered on Discovery Channel on July 20 and 21, 8 PM with a simulcast on TLC and Discovery Channel Tamil. Sunday Special on July 22, 8PM to 10PM)