Notes from a small island
A weblog by Jonathan Ali

Thursday, July 31, 2003  

Dhal and rice is a staple dish among Indians in Trinidad. Even among Indians who are more creolised than others, and thus eat from a wider range of cuisines, dhal and rice features often enough. One question I find worth asking in this regard is not how often dhal and rice is eaten, but how often it is eaten with the hands.

There would have been a time years ago when the eating of dhal and rice with one's hands would have been ubiquitous. It was the cultural norm among all Indians, whether Hindu, Muslim or Christian; whether the practice floundered when it met caste and other social lines is another matter, one I'm not too sure about.

My grandparents all ate dhal and rice with their hands. (My mother's parents, who are alive, still do.) One of my abiding memories of childhood is of my grandmothers - my grandfathers were at work - sitting at their respective kitchen tables and working their plates of dhal and rice with their fingers, mashing the soft-boiled, dhal soaked grains of rice (which in all probability I helped pick free of impurities before cooking) together, then bringing the resulting paste up to the mouth, almost on the tips of the fingers, to be eaten. Whatever norms of etiquette may have been in practice at the time among Indians certainly did not extend to any sort of false sense of decorum in this regard - at least, not in your own home; my grandmothers would not have given a moment's thought to the yellowing of their hands and forearms, or the covering of same with left-behind grains of rice.

(Another consideration of etiquette (not to mention hygiene) that in all probability was never strictly observed, if it existed at all, would have been concerning not eating with the hand that one cleansed one's self with; and that I think I'll leave right there.)

The fascination I had with my grandmothers eating with their hands is explained by the fact that I do not engage in the practice. It was never done in our home; though undoubtedly as children my parents would have done it, or certainly my father at any rate, who came from a rural, more traditional community.

My mother's people, since their arrival in Trinidad from India (via Martinique, on my mother's mother's side) in the early 1900s have always been townsfolk, and much more influenced by creole forces. And it was into this type of family that I was born. Whether it was a conscious decision by my father to - in his mind - progress, he never ate dhal and rice with his hands at home, nor either did he do so when visiting his parents.

I could never imagine my mother eating with her hands, and she would have blanched at the mere notion of her children doing so. In fact, my mother, bless her soul, waged a one-woman war in keeping my sister and myself from doing things - and, especially, speaking in a manner - that she would have considered, shall we say, bucolic.

Not that I looked askance at the practice of eating with one's hands; I quite happily did so when it came to eating roti and various other things, Indian and non-Indian. I simply always considered eating dhal and rice with one's hands as something other people, namely my grandparents and country folk, did.

For a brief spell in my late teenage years I attempted, in some humorously misguided idea of getting back to my roots, to eat dhal and rice with my hands. I say attempted because, of course, it all went disastrously wrong. The problem was that I thought the hand was simply a substitute for the spoon, and all I needed to do was, shovel-like, scoop up the dhal and rice, bring the mixture to my mouth, and presto - nobody could be more Indian than I. I hadn't watched my grandmothers closely enough, and failed to realise that the art of eating dhal and rice with the hands is a rather more complex affair, involving the working together of the rice and dhal with the fingers beforehand; in essence getting down and dirty. The end result of my gentrified attempts at personal Indianisation: dhal and rice everywhere except in my mouth.

Soon enough I got over my fixation with becoming more Indian, and returned to the trusty old spoon. It's worked fine for me ever since.

posted by Jonathan | 12:09 AM 0 comments


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