Communal dining is the easiest pathway towards breaking age-old identity barriers that prevent the buildup of social capital.
This is from The Intersection column that appears every other Monday in Mint.
You might not have noticed it, but it is extremely difficult to find a restaurant in India that can seat a dozen people around a single round table. If you have more than six diners, you have to ask the restaurant to join two or more tables to create a long rectangle. While this allows several colleagues or family members to technically sit at the same table, conversation and sharing of food is limited to groups of four or five people sitting next to each other. Compared to many East Asian countries where big round tables are commonplace in restaurants, communal dining in India mostly caters to rather small groups.
The oldest surviving restaurants in this list date back to the late 1800s. There certainly were restaurants before this period but it’s highly unlikely they were open to, or were acceptable by all sections of society.
In fact, both eating out and with others are relatively new phenomena in Indian society. The oldest restaurants date back to the mid-19th century and until a few decades ago, were either not open to all or not acceptable by all. Before independence, there was hardly any communal dining that cut across caste and religious lines. Festivals and weddings could be very large, with thousands of guests, but scrupulously avoided mixing of caste groups.
In his translation of the Indica Richard Stoneman says that Megasthenes “seems to have observed the separation of castes at meal times, of which Strabo expressed disapproval.”
Indeed, India’s lack of a culture of communal dining is ancient. Over two millennia ago, Megasthenes noticed that Indians “always ate alone” and this was not good for social and civic life. A thousand years after him, Alberuni not only observed the same thing, but also documented the sophisticated caste rules that caused it. In her brilliant doctoral dissertation, Divya Narayanan recounts the story of how Anand Ram Mukhlis, a Mughal-era chronicler, took his home-brewed beverage to the new coffee houses of Delhi so that he could enjoy the conversations without crossing dietary borders.
Robin Dunbar’s excellent paper on the functions of social eating connects communal dining to neuroscience.
The consequence of such an inter-dining culture is that India’s stock of cross-cutting social capital is weak. Like a family, a nation that eats together stays together. That traditional wisdom has been backed by evolutionary psychology in recent decades. Communal eating creates social bonding. Our sense of ‘us’ depends on who we eat with. The more we eat with ‘them,’ ‘they’ become ‘us.’ Religion and caste impose severe limitations on our choice of dining companions and limit us to very small, exclusive communities. It is not surprising that the Buddha, Guru Nanak, Sahodaran Ayyappan and various social reformers through the ages sought to shape egalitarian communities by breaking inter-dining rules.
As I have argued in recent columns, the lack of bridging social capital imposes severe costs on India’s national development and economic growth. I could go so far as to identify weak social capital as the single biggest factor that undermines our constitutional aspirations, economic competitiveness and national power. So the weak tradition of communal dining is not just a cultural quirk that we can afford to live with. To the extent that it is one of the most effective ways to build a national community, we must eat together more.
There has been progress towards this. The hierarchical, discriminatory caste structure is no longer considered legitimate. We are a long way from an egalitarian society, but as the title of M.N. Srinivas’s last paper declares, the India republic has written the obituary of caste as a system. That does not mean castes and jatis are dead. Unfortunately, they have flourished anew in the political economy of democracy as identity groups, jostling against each other for their share of power, privilege, rights and entitlements. India continues to comprise a large number of small communities.
Inter-caste marriages hover at around 5% of the total and in some parts of the country are met with significant social disapproval. It is difficult to see how inter-caste marriage rates will increase dramatically if the sense of ‘us’ remains restricted. Building good public schools and civic spaces where people can build a shared sense of community takes time. More importantly, it requires intention, which is absent because we lack a sense of community. I think communal dining is a simpler, low-cost and low-risk way to break these vicious cycles.
But how? Tagore abhorred caste, but being a liberal was reluctant to impose inter-dining in Shantiniketan hostels. In The Mahatma and the Poet, Sabyasachi Bhattacharya writes that “It was Gandhi’s presence and forceful persuasion, which persuaded the Santiniketan community in 1915 to accept inter-dining, much to the delight of Tagore.”
Educational institutions, factories and workplaces should have common canteens where people with different food preferences can sit together at the same table (albeit loading their plates from different stalls). Municipal corporations could make space available for street food stalls with common seating areas, much like food courts.
National holidays like Republic Day, Independence Day and Gandhi Jayanthi are excellent opportunities to have feasts around our national and civic identities. As our society becomes more insular and exclusive with home delivery and eating in front of smartphones, we must create new occasions for eating together.
And if restaurant owners reading this were to install a few big round tables, they would be performing a national service.
There are many more The Intersection columns here
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