The Joys Of A Simple Meal, Eaten At Leisure
Both food and life are meant to be savoured. It took an ordinary man to bring home this lesson
My mornings are usually a blur. Around two years ago, I started work as an assistant professor and since then, like most professionals, I start my day as if I’m about to enter a race. I wake up, rush through my morning rituals, get dressed, swallow breakfast somehow and head out.
The first meal of the day, though an essential dietary requirement, is the one that I savour the least. And it’s not always due to lack of time. Even on the days that I start my day early, or my mornings are a little easier because my mother has prepared the meal, I always trade the task of eating breakfast for something seemingly more important or urgent. Rather than sit and enjoy a hot meal, I put it off and then end up rushing through it. If at all I can.
On weekdays, when I make my own breakfast, I simply whip something up and push it down my gullet, barely tasting a morsel. My family has often pleaded with me and chided me, at one point or another, to sit down, eat slowly and chew my food properly. But, all I can see is the rapidly ticking clock and the looming possibility of getting late.
Almost a month ago, before the lockdown was implemented, my younger sister came to pick me up from work. There is a bhelpuri vendor we pass on our way home: One day we decided to stop by his cart. As I was about to park the Activa [a motor scooter], I noticed he was seated near his cart, eating lunch. I decided against waiting or interrupting his meal and suggested we come back another time.
A few days later, we went back to the same vendor, around the same time, and there he was, eating his lunch again. I figured that this must be his daily mealtime. Nevertheless, I decided to stop that day and asked my sister to enquire if he was done, and could possibly prepare two plates of bhelpuri for us. When she walked up to him and repeated my request, the vendor looked up and replied, “Bas paanch minute lagenge, madam [It will only take five minutes madam].” We told him it was fine and assured him we would return.
As we drove back, I could not get our brief conversation out of my mind. I was struck by the simplicity of his life choices. For the vendor, who lived off his daily wages, the price of two plates must have some, if not significant, value for him. Yet, he chose to eat his meal peacefully and without interruption. He preferred to send away customers, rather than put aside the joy of savouring a hard-earned meal. I wondered if I would have made the same choice, if I were in his shoes. Of course, I knew the answer.
Several times at work, I’ve left a meal uneaten or gulped it down if something came up, or when someone turned up with a request or query. Seeing the vendor choose his food over attending a customer, made me pause and think. It made me strangely guilty, almost ashamed. The respect he accorded to his meal made me think of how rarely I afforded mine any gratitude.
Over the next few days, Punjab went into lockdown mode—and I have, of course, not seen the bhelpuri vendor since. But the learning of that day has stayed with me, and floats up in my mind, especially when I am at the dinner table. And then, I make an effort to focus on my meal, I slow down and observe what is on my plate, chewing and relishing each mouthful. I can well afford three proper meals, and can, in fact, enjoy food not simply for nourishment but for comfort or joy. And, I can do it whenever I like, whenever I am bored and have nothing else to do.
Even in the midst of my privileges and plenty, I cannot let this go away—the vendor choosing his meal over his earnings, eating his lunch mindfully. His choice that day was my lesson in living, in focusing on the present, and also, in being thankful for all the privileges and pleasures of life we seem to take for granted.