City City Bang Bang, Columns

Knife & Fork Modernity

In the film Chhoti Si Baat, one of most striking ways in which Amol Palekar the diffident, Adam’s-apple-bobbing loser, turns into a winner is by turning into an accomplished eater with knife-and-fork (actually even more impressively, by using chopsticks). He humiliates his rival who is defeated by the unfamiliarity of his eating implements and ends up hungry, broke and alone as the hero leaves with the girl. Among the many markers of progress and modernity that we use to express ourselves, particularly in public spaces, eating with a knife and fork (and more rarely with chopsticks) takes its place along with speaking in English and drinking coffee instead of tea. Of course this quest is never ending as class ladders come with infinite rungs.

To be seen to be civilized or cultured, the need to make the transition from eating with one’s hands to using utensils, particularly the knife and fork seems to be an important landmark, given the determined attempts of a large section of the upwardly mobile middle class today. Of course, given that for most Indians, this is an utterly alien form of negotiating one’s food, what we end up with are various kinds of hybrid modes of adoption. We either use a spoon and fork, use the right hand for both the knife and fork, use the knife as spoon and so on. Trying to use a dosa with a knife and fork is a hopeless affair and it doesn’t help that the sambar needs a spoon, making three hands a biological necessity.

It is interesting that we think of eating with cutlery as a form of progress. The western view, that eating with one’s hands is primitive, unhygienic and socially repugnant is clearly a culturally skewed perspective, resting on its own assumptions. In any case, this view is hardly held consistently, given that the preferred mode of eating burgers, sandwiches and hot dogs is clearly to catch them by the scruff of the necks and to stuff them into achingly wide mouths. Like any system of etiquette which is designed to keep out interlopers, the rules governing eating are implicit, complex, and have just enough unpredictability to keep the outsider guessing.

Perhaps the reason that we think of eating with utensils as a sign of civilisation is that in doing so we distance our body from our food. The leisure class did not descend to the vulgarity of using one’s hands and perhaps this is one reason why the use of eating utensils is seen to be aspiration for the upwardly mobile. But while we can see why this led to the western toilet and the use of toilet paper for instance, it is difficult to classify food in the same way. After all, we live because we eat and food is hardly akin to dirt, given that we ingest it so eagerly.

It is likelier that by not eating with our hands, we put food in its place. Yes we recognise that food is central to our existence and that every fibre in our body strains to transfer food from outside our bodies to the cavernous insides, but being civilized means being able to control our biological urges and utensils are perhaps a form of culinary chastity belts, that rein in our libidinous craving for food. Otherwise it is incomprehensible why we must use tools to perform tasks our hands are perfectly capable of. We don’t use implements to wear our clothes, button our shirts and tie shoe laces. Where we do use implements, as in grooming, we do so because they perform tasks our hands cannot.

Far from being civilized, it is possible to read the use of the knife and fork as being exactly the opposite. Imagine decapitating your food and pitchforking it into your mouth. In some ways, all food turns non-vegetarian under a knife given the violence with which it gets treated. A knife and fork makes the natural cede to the mechanical as instinct gives way to manual dexterity. Morsels becomes individualized and we separate each from the pack with the knife before nailing them with a fork and placing them in the mouth. We need to carve our food, and pick at it carefully; the sensuality of warm fingers is replaced by the industrial brusqueness of steel. Food is no longer an extension of ourselves, it is no longer what we are made up of, it is instead an external agent to be poked at, dismembered and inserted into our oral cavity.

The truth is that every culture creates its own set of rules about eating and it is perhaps absurd to argue that any system is superior to another. The pre-eminence of knives and forks is as much politics as culture. What is true is that every system carries in its wake a set of implications that emerge from the choices it makes. For instance, It is easier to put food under scrutiny when seen under the cold light of steel utensils. The separation of food from its eater allows for it to be analysed with greater objectivity and detachment. By resisting the sensuous charms of food as it slithers from one part of our body to another, we begin to objectify food. Now it needs to be dressed up and made to look delicious. The eyes begin to play a greater role, and the idea of food pornography becomes possible. Equally, this world disaggregates food into categories and begins to measure it in new ways-notions like nutritional value, fibre content and glycemic index are pruducts of this worldview. Of course, this new discourse is not created by the knife and fork alone, but it does play a significant role in converting food from being the delicious basis for life into an outside agent with motives that are suspect. Like most things that signify modernity, the knife-and-fork separates us from what we are an unconscious part of. If that is a good definition of progress, then perhaps we are becoming more modern now.