Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Have You Eaten?

Coming Attraction: My trade has now been updated to a computer, mosquito net, and green sweater in exchange for a green turban cloth and a load of manure. You’ll have to come back in future days to see what that is all about.

In Tamil culture, it seems to me that the very next thing one is supposed to say have Vanakkam is “Have you eaten?” I have seen Krishnammal ask everyone from cabinet ministers, to her own staff, to bankers who have come to visit her, to workers who she knows have just come out of the LAFTI mess. It is as if no business can be conducted before it is assured that everyone has eaten (if it is lunch, it is likely that they needed a nap as well.)

“I have fed thousands of people in my life,” says Krishnammal, I have fed Martin Luther King, Nehru, David Ben-Gurion, I have cooked food for entire weddings (usually those where the groom’s family, which is supposed to provide the wedding feast, does not approve of the marriage), tsunami victims, or just hungry people who have come to the house. So many!”

But the reality is the expression “Have you eaten?” seems to have become an ingrained feature of Tamil conversation, or simply acknowledging another person’s basic needs. I have almost never heard anyone say no even if it were true. It is politeness ritual which has maintained its power, perhaps reflecting a culture where food has been, and in many cases is, somewhat scarce.

Gandhi has explained to me that there are in fact two expressions (with my less-than-basic Tamil, I have been unable to pick up the difference. “Have you eaten?” is the politeness expression, whereas “Do you want something to eat?” can be construed as an offer (though not necessarily one you are supposed to respond to positively.

We head into Dindigul. I am going to visit my veena teacher! This is easier said than done. Dindigul has grown by a factor of five since I traveled to my veena classes daily in the 1981-1982, and she lives on a one-block, dead-end street. She has no phone number, and certainly no Internet connection (though she has in fact used those of the cardiologist next door, who provides her with meals as well.

But, in what could be considered a miracle, we find it! Mommy is now 86 years old, and, she says, surprisingly healthy. She of course asks us all, “Have you eaten?” but she really means it, and is desperate to serve us something. This could be quite a production for her as everything has to come from the outside, and we do our very to fend off her urgent pleadings.

She is well (though she had a stroke about eight years ago can no longer play the veena), but cold and lonely. The new clinic next door has walled her tiny little house off from the sun, and she is in a warm sweater and socks (it must be 80 degrees outside). I show her pictures of my kids (she asks after Aliyah repeatedly), and I ask her a music theory question Aliyah had sent me. Her five unmarriageable nieces (coming from a high Telegu brahmin family, but her father – a Communist Party activist – died very young and there was no money for the expected extravagant dowries) are now all married (said to be by my blessings, though I think I’ve only met two of them), and four are settled in the U.S. and Canada. I give her my new business card, and we take pictures, all of them horrible, for as in old Tamil fashion, she doesn’t allow herself even the hint of a small.

We climb into the car, and listen to her last pleadings, “Please, have you eaten?”

Sigh. She has been caught in the breakup of the old Indian family system; I am the only ‘son’ she has known, and I can’t bring her back with me to America.


Blogger Krish said...

Dear David,

I came across your blog and read this piece about my Aunt(Your Veena Teacher). There are some factual errors and some comments that I don't agree.

But everyone is entitled to their own opinion and perspective. Little sad that her life events have been distorted due to lack of understanding and knowledge about her relationships.


8:17 PM, August 26, 2015  

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