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     Volume 4 Issue 25 | December 17, 2004 |

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Slice of Life

                                                                 Richa Jha

Table Manners, born: sometime in the transition from primitive to modern civilisation; died: the present times you and I live in.

"Nothing indicates a well bred man more than a proper mode of eating."
Hints on Etiquette (America), 1836

It was not as if these were pre-ordained to die. Table manners have been around with the human civilisations for as long as the written records allow us a glimpse. One school of thought says that primitive civilisation began with collective eating, and that modern civilisation began with the introduction of table manners. When people ate together, they would talk. They also needed some rules. When food was scarce and every diner had a hunting knife in his hand, lunch could turn very nasty indeed. So, with food (as with love), certain formalities were introduced.

Most certainly, the rituals may have differed from one civilisation to the other, many a time, a leading cause of embarrassment for either of the parties at the dinner table (remember that classic scene from Benhur where a deep burp is all that is required to express the sense of deep fulfilment the dinner has left the guest with). So whether the rules spoke of diners sitting around the tables, or sitting cross-legged on the floor, table manners were sacrosanct and could scarcely be tinkered with. Of course, the rules may have been arbitrary and ridiculous. The point is that table manners, like any other social rules, were meant to make order out of what could have easily become mealtime mayhem.

Closer to our times, meticulous records have been maintained about the most elaborate table manners of the Europeans, most notably, the British. Like with everything else that's British, there is more sound and thunder associated with their mealtime fuss than the actual meal that finally gets ingested. From the decorum of polite conversation to no conversation to the not-so-musical clanking of the silverware on porcelain, the English table manners have been copied and caricatured the world over.

Yours truly learned the art of wielding a table knife and a fork on a chunk of meat quite late in her life, but managed to learn it the right way (though that still leaves preparations of fish out). And I am not ashamed to say this, but a meal without dipping all four fingers into the rice and curry still leaves me, how should I put it, …high and dry.

Traditionally, mealtimes have been a family activity (albeit more civilised than the uncouth brothers in the 1954 classic 'Seven Brides For Seven Brothers'!). Unfortunately, somewhere in the past decade, the focus shifted from food to entertainment, what one ate and how one ate becoming incidental. To be brutally honest, a lot of people today don't have table manners because they don't eat at the dining table. And you don't need manners when you are slumped on your couch in front of the TV.

You may argue that this is just one consequence of living in the Home of the Free - people can choose exactly how to eat. In a democratic order of existence, there are no artificial, aristocratic standards to dissuade people from eating in the bathrooms, or on the street, or in cars, or on the sofa, or on the floor with the dog. What are table manners anyway, if not a form of social control?

Do what your heart says while eating is alright, but it is important to remember that the others around may have a weak heart. Take the case of a daawat I attended this week. The biryani was good, the ambience was understated, the mood just right for a wonderful meal out. Not until the guests started eating.

There is a limit to how much a hungry tummy can tolerate. Rice plates being dug into as if the next several meals are doubtful, not caring to wait to see that the others sitting around you on the same table have also served themselves before attacking the food, unfortunate remnants of un-chewed food hanging around the corners of your lips (whiskers compound the visual assault), bones being scrunched, curry dribbling off the corner of the mouth and the creeks of your fingers, and four fingers at a time being licked clean. Lace it with the remnants of the bones being casually thrown into the 'bone plate' narrowly missing the dinner plate of the person sitting right in front of you, the sight was enough to make the most lion-hearted among us squeamish. On a full stomach, the threshold is even lesser. And believe me, a just-used table with food littered all over and a mammoth pile of the remains of the meal doesn't make for a pleasant sight.

Truth is, all formal rituals of the table (or the floor godi arrangement in our cultures) have been abandoned in the present times. Where has our basic etiquette gone? It is seen missing from office workstations that temporarily get converted into dining tables (however divine the lunch may have been, food particles strewn on your writing desk is an unwelcome sight); it is forgotten when people, unmindful of the effect it may have on the others around them, masticate or pick their teeth in full view of others, or slurp on tea and soup, or blow their nose at the table and spray jets of food while talking, and smoke and belch their blessings out in the face of others.

It is disheartening to find that table manners don't seem to be around much these days. In fact, most people are seemingly happier for the lack of it, and many more are outright brazen about their want of it. Celebrated as they may have been in the treatises of the Greek philosophers and of Confucious, in their demise, they remain unsung and forgotten.

Long live sloppiness. May the departed souls of mealtime poise and graciousness rest in peace.


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