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Keya Sarkar: A square meal - Left or right hand?

Keya Sarkar 

Keya Sarkar

She was on a brief visit to Santiniketan. Harumi, a textile designer from Kobe, Japan, has been coming to India for over 10 years to work with natural dye printers in The Hindi that she learnt in made her name her shop in "Kachua". According to Harumi, it is because her surname, Ikegame, also means Her love for handmade things had brought her to India and that bond has grown stronger over the years.

So last year, when she was passing through Santiniketan, she came to our studio to see our work and told me she would like to come back to combine print with kantha embroidery. I did not take her seriously because so many people had said this before but never showed up.

But in August, when she wrote to me asking whether she and a friend could come work with us in November, I was rather excited. I wrote back to her saying yes and also to tell her that, if they wished, both of them could stay with us for a while in Santiniketan. The "lodges" that offer accommodation in Santiniketan might cramp their creativity, I thought. The better guest houses would be too expensive for a fortnight's stay. Nonetheless, they were happy to take the offer and arrived early November to stay for two weeks.

Both Harumi, because she has been a frequent visitor, and her friend Yoko, who now studies in India, were familiar with Indian food, but they were mainly vegetarians. Every time we sat down for a meal, there were comparisons between the Indian and Japanese way.

The lady who helps us clean the house couldn't get over the fact that Harumi and Yoko had not taken off the mosquito net in their room for their entire stay. She tried to reason with them in sign language but in vain. They said it was a hassle to put up the net every night. Besides, they were having fun pretending to live out of a tent.

Wanting to do things as Indians while they were here, they insisted on eating with their hands - because rice, roti, vegetable and meat were too much for them to handle with just one hand. So as they used both their left and right hand to tackle the food, my partner - who hails from Tamil Nadu and is a Brahmin by birth - felt distinctly uncomfortable. The fact that they were eating meat and handling the serving spoons with the same fingers was making him squeamish.

After a few days, when he thought he knew them a little better, he decided to take matters into his own hands. Over a couple of meals, he tried to explain to them our concepts of "jhuta" and how in a tropical climate like ours it was important to follow some rules, as food gets spoiled easily. Even, on occasions, calling out "left hand" or "right hand" appropriately.

Harumi and Yoko, enthusiastic to learn new things about India, listened eagerly. But old habits die hard. Their understanding lasted for one meal and they were back to messing up in the next. My partner was patient. He continued the education. In parallel, he sat in anticipation and quickly moved a bowl or spoon out of the way if he thought they were going to touch it with their messy fingers.

Harumi and her friend were initially ignorant of all the undercurrents at the table, engrossed as they were about learning about the Indian culture. But after a couple of days, at lunch time, just as my partner was going to move a bowl, Harumi figured it out. "Oh my God," she said "Where is the CCTV?"

First Published: Fri, December 26 2014. 22:36 IST
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