Monday, September 2, 2013

Karma On A Platter

Karma On A Platter

The National Food Security Bill 2013 passed in the Lower House of Parliament on August 26 might not be the magic bullet to efface hunger. We also need to revive our glorious traditions of food sharing, rich in compassion and purpose, says MEERA DEWAN, whose recent film ‘Gur Prasad’, tributes Punjab’s living tradition of food sharing
Why do we feed the fed and starve the hungry? Why do we get so much joy when we cook and serve food to our friends, those who have abundance? Conversely, some of us may soul-search on why we neglect or turn our gaze away from those who clearly need nutrition. Perhaps this is as good a time as any to revive our tradition of food sharing.
The bhandaras held on memorable occasions, the now worldwide langar tradition as practised in gurdwaras, the huge deghchis or cooking vessels at dargahs that are never empty, the sanjhachoolhas or shared tandoors in Punjab’s rural courtyards — our culture has been defined by sharing of food. No celebration is complete without it. A meal prepared and eaten together binds both giver and receiver, creating a sense of equality. Sitting together to bake and break bread brings humility and gratitude, creating harmony and wellbeing.
Selfless Seva
I came across some living practitioners who keep alive this tradition. Badshah Singh, the one-legged carpenter lives in the shade of a gurdwara on the outskirts of the Capital, devoting his waking hours to chopping vegetables. Muniza Bibi stirs up 200 kilos of grain into a nutritious, steaming daliya in enormous deghchis at a dargah in Rajasthan. The children of a neighbourhood in Fazilka, Punjab, carry sackloads of freshly ground atta every evening to the shared tandoor in the community courtyard. Jayamma, a two-acre farm owner in Tamil Nadu, sows, nurtures and reaps fields, sharing the harvest with the landless and needy. A retired army officer in Delhi’s resettlement colony brings discipline and food security to a community kitchen. These are the repositories in whose busy hands and compassionate minds, the tradition of food sharing is still alive.
Mohammad Mehtab cruises the streets of Lutyen’s Delhi. It is yet another ‘Night Out’ for the 18-year-old cyclist. As he drives along India Gate, turning towards the circular columns of Connaught Place, his eyes scan pizza shops, ice-cream parlours, seafood restaurants, and bars with ‘Happy Hours’ lit up with neon signs. These hangouts don’t interest Mohammad. His eyes seek out the hungry who flock outside, hope writ large on their faces.
As an environmental refugee from a chronically waterlogged village in North Bihar, to Kolkata and now, New Delhi, this teen has been on the streets from the age of five to 15 years. He knows only too well how cities create famines in the midst of plenty. Mohammad understands the needs of the floating population of a few thousand hungry people here. Wasn’t he one among them till recently? Working with an NGO now, he monitors the nutrition of some of the Capital’s hungry and is their barefoot doctor as well.
A middle-aged woman moves towards the congested medieval inner city of Ajmer. It is well past sunset. Yet the ancient alleys leading to the world-famous dargah, Ajmer Sharif are alive and alert. Dense throngs of rickshaws weave through lanes clogged with people and animals. Busy stalls are distributing food and quilts. Small stretches of footpaths, parks and even narrow two-lane dividers are beds to silent rows of tired bodies.
Muniza Bibi arrives and exits within minutes, effortlessly carrying two large pails of steaming vessels, overflowing with multi-coloured, multigrain broth — a nutritious daliya. The spring in her step and her enthusiasm belie her age. The dignity of the giver and the receiver become one, creating an almost palpable human bond.
Scooping out generous helpings, she is done with this round very quickly. She convinces me these pots have never been empty for centuries. I also have no difficulty in believing her when she shyly whispers that feeding wanderers and seekers at this gracious eating centre is more refreshing than sleeping on a soft bed.
Badshah Singh sits under a blue tarp, lost in the sorting, cleaning, and chopping of a sea of green leafy saags. He is humming verses from Gurbani:

Flamingoes migrate hundreds of miles leaving their young ones behind.
Who feeds the newborn chicks left behind? Who fends for them?
…One who joins a supportive community swims across the ocean of life….
— Raag Gujri, Fifth Nanak (Rehras)
Badshahji’s actions are so fluid, so fast, that it takes me a while to notice that his long, outstretched left leg is wooden. It is attached by straps to his torso. I ask him, “What are you cooking, Bhraji?” His quick response: “I am cooking good karma, just as I hope you are, with your pen and camera. We are all cooking, one way or other. Some of us eat it alone. Others share it with the sangat (community) at the gurdwara.”
Badshah Of Compassion

As he invites me to share a meal, he hobbles into the stream of people awaiting lunch. Everyone makes way for him, including women and children who are unloading buckets of chopped and washed vegetables into huge pans. He picks up a pail of dal and first serves the waiting children, walking stick expertly tucked under his free armpit. He then passes around a basket of rotis, never throwing them, but gently handing them out in pairs, like prasada. The receiver too accepts it with a similar reverence — hands cupped, arms outstretched, a prayer on their lips. There is a faint chorus, Wahe Guru — Wonderous Lord.
“Never eat without contributing your labour. It will not digest well. Work for your food with service towards the community,” he says, as we wash our dishes. Badshah Singh is Badshah of Compassion. His words bring to mind a verse:
Eating a langar meal,Cross-legged on the floor Has a simple appeal Of humanity’s inner core.The endless ritual langarSimple, free love feastHatred will not mar this bridge of Great and Least. This bridge of West and East.
Perhaps the Badshah and the Poet, a foreign traveller — who had scribbled these lines in a book at the Golden Temple — are fellow travellers with a common muse. It could be the muse of sharing food.
Lord, don’t expect me to meditate on an empty stomach!
So here, take back your prayer beads.
I do wish to walk along your path;
I’m free of all debts and obligations.
Whom do I ask, if not you?
All I need is two kilos flour, a little ghee, a pinch of salt and a handful of dal.
That’s enough for two meals a day!
— Bhagat Dhannaji

Translated by
Jagjeet Singh & Meera Dewan