I once watched a movie which got me thinking about the traditions that I hold dear. I saw Kaadhal, a brilliant Tamil movie, that tackled inter-caste Indian marriages. The story went like this: Rich girl meets poor boy and falls in love. Poor boy resists because he understands the chasm that separates them in terms of class and caste. Rich girl persists, convinces him of a future together and they elope to get married. Rich family finds the young couple in the city and they use deception and kind words to bring the couple back. Soon, they use the full might of their riches to cause serious injuries to the boy and then force the girl to marry another. This story line was not fictional; it was based on a true story. That shook me to the core.
In the movie, the “us” versus “them” theme was in display. Rich versus poor, high-caste versus low-caste, divisiveness between human beings was at its worst.Even though it was a hackneyed theme, this movie was different. There was an undercurrent that asked: what are the identities that you hold dear, and how do you promote them? Are there some identities that should merge?
The sub-text in the movie got me thinking—do I hold an “us” versus “them” set of attitudes? And, the answer came to me almost immediately—in the way I cooked! For every festival, I took great pride in cooking exactly what I had watched my grandmother and mother do. I did not even change the kind of vegetable that I cooked—it had to be raw banana or yellow pumpkin. The list of what “I” did and what “others” did was long. And I treasured the fact that the meal that my children ate was exactly what I had been fed as a child. But in holding these rigid attitudes, I wondered whether I was missing out on learning new ways of thinking; equally valid ways of cooking and celebrating that I ignored because, in my mind, there was only one way to celebrate.
I started to question something that I had always held as sacrosanct. Given the sheer variety of Indian and American cherished food traditions, there was no dearth of recipes to try. I decided to try Marathi, Bengali and Gujarati recipes for festivals, eschewing the tried and tested Tamilian dishes that I was accustomed to.
When I hosted Thanksgiving, I decided to leave out Indian foods altogether. I couldn’t rely on throwing in ingredients with practiced ease. Recipes were consulted and new ingredients found their way into my pantry shelves. The celebrations were just as meaningful. In fact, the festivals that year took on new meaning for me because of the sense of inclusivess I felt.
In a very small way, I moved outside the confines of what I held tightly wrapped around my sense of self—my family, my food tradition and in essence, what was comfortable. It is comfortable to invite friends and family members to festival celebrations. There is a sense of camraderie that is precious and familiar. You don’t have to explain yourself, what you have cooked or what you are wearing.
That sense of familiarity will disappear if you were to try different recipes, while inviting a neighbor from a different culture into your home. Now, more effort will be needed. But isn’t that effort worth moving out of our “tribal” mentality?
Breaking bread around the table is the best way to bring cultures together from time immemorial. Along with the food, will come the flow of easy conversation—not the formal, transactional conversations held in the workplace. The kinds of conversations that build a sense of shared understanding.
As this festival season starts with Diwali, Thanksgiving and Christmas around the corner, I hope that you will build memories where the unfamiliar becomes familiar and you build human friendships.
You will then receive more than you give. In boxing ourselves into just what is familiar or what comes easily, we lose out on what is truly offered—endless possiblities in life and the chance to make and remake traditions.