Serving with consent, be it food or love

Do you like being pushed to eat, or do you like to be left alone and enjoy your meal on your terms?

Photo: iStock

If you’ve grown up in or even eaten at an Indian household, you’re probably familiar with the tradition of being compelled to eat more than you can stomach. While I can already sense indignation bubbling among those who consider the tradition to be an expression of love and hospitality, I also can’t help being very set in the way I was raised.

My mother is a fiercely independent woman. She’s so self-sufficient that she can go days without even speaking to me, while I’m sulking in my room, plotting how to seek her attention. The child in me grows irritated with this but the adult in me is proud. Growing up, I got similar values instilled in me: do it on your own, don’t depend, don’t expect. It’s an excellent upbringing; one I value greatly. It does get me in trouble sometimes, mostly when boys complain I’m like the guy in the relationship — the aloof one, the one that doesn’t need constant mollycoddling, the one to take time to utter the “L” word (if at all). It annoys me to have to mollycoddle a guy, or anyone for that matter. It annoys them that usually stereotypical roles are reversed. It’s a blow to too many egos.

But mostly, it works for me. I was given tons of space as a child and like all things that your mind absorbs when it’s at its porous best, I got used to not being fussed over. I got used to not being smothered, or being questioned, or being pushed to do things I didn’t want to do. It’s what I identify with “healthy”. My value system was further validated when, during adolescence, I officially learnt about the importance of consent in relationships. “No means no” made so much sense. “Is there even another way,” I would think. But I saw my environment sometimes defy this value system. Friends and extended family couldn’t take “no” for an answer. And it infuriated me.

Whether it was at a large family dinner, or just the idea of going out with a close friend, there was always someone trying to get me to change my mind.

“No, I don’t want another roti.”

Ek aur.” (“One more.”)

or

“I can’t go out tomorrow evening. I have work to do.”

But work’s during the day. Just come.”

“Umm no. I mean I have extra work to do.”

You can do it after you come back.”

To me, all of this equals someone believing I don’t know my own mind or what I really want or what I’m doing.

*You really, secretly do want another roti.*

or

*I know your schedule better than you do.* (Or worse. “My ego will take a blow if you don’t abandon work to see me.”)

I don’t equate force or compulsion with love. I know the times that I’ve felt the most loved and respected is around people who’ve given me “freedom”. I tend to feel loved when my choices and opinions are respected, even if not agreed with. When someone realises the only expression of love isn’t having a person all to themselves. “Love” could also mean letting someone do what makes them happy, even if it’s not what you would do yourself.

If I went to review a restaurant and one of the servers tried to coax me into eating more, they wouldn’t get brownie points for it. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever been to a restaurant where the staff have pushed me to eat or drink more. I think the idea of “bingeing” must remain an individual’s prerogative.

So, yes, I’m against the custom of dolloping extra food onto a dinner guest’s plate. If they’ve said they’re full, I believe them. If a friend is too busy to see me, I believe them. I expect people to stick to commitments they make, but I won’t push them to abandon a prior commitment to spend more time with me. Just like I won’t push someone to eat more than they can, considering a shameful number of people in our country go days without a morsel. I don’t consider all of this “being hospitable”, even if that makes me a traitor to my own culture-of-birth. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that I never spent my most impressionable years growing up in that culture. Or that I was just taught how to take no for an answer.