A few days ago, after over-ordering food at a restaurant, I invoked a line from the Hindi film Gol Maal that has almost become my signature response to such situations: “Khao khao, khaoge nahin to Police ki maar kaise khaoge bachoo” (Loosely translated, it means come on, eat well, how else will you withstand the lashings of the cops). My plight wasn’t remotely comparable to the hapless Ramprasad (Amol Palekar in the film) being force-fed by his whimsical boss (Bhavani Shankar, Utpal Dutt in the film). And I have strong reservations against any manner of corporal punishment. However, Bhavani Shankar’s soliloquy in the 1979 film has become my go-to-line for any exhortation to gluttony. Those at the receiving end could be as varied as a friend who is dieting to someone who is a habitual small eater or a co-diner feeling uncomfortable with my tendency to over-order food.
In my defence, I can only say that gluttony is a vastly misunderstood condition. For long, it was seen as a sign of an individual failing. While societies celebrated dining as a way to forge bonds between people, overeating was castigated as a sin. The Bible famously says that we “need to control our appetites than let our appetites control us.” Gluttony is one among the seven deadly sins in more than one Hindu school of thought, and Islam too sees it as a corruption of the senses.
However, writes historian Felipe Fernandez Armesto in a 2002 New Statesman essay, How gluttony went out of fashion, human societies have largely been ambivalent about people’s appetites. Food was a marker of the class system, social nourishment the most “primitive form of privilege”. “Gluttony may be a sin, but it has never been classed as a crime. On the contrary, it can be socially functional. Big appetites stimulate production and generate surplus — leftovers on which lesser eaters can feed. So long as the food supply is unthreatened, eating a lot is an act of heroism and justice, similar in effect to other acts of this kind, such as fighting off enemies and propitiating the gods. It is usual to find the same sort of people engaged in all three tasks,” writes Fernandez Armesto. In most societies, the sheer quantities of food served in feasts was an indication of status. That persists even today.
Attitudes to feasting have, however, undergone change in the past 100 years. In Tarashankar Bandhyopdhyay’s 1953 novel, Arogyaniketan, for example, the village vaidya (medicine man) excoriates a Brahmin patient for losing control over his appetite at a wedding feast.
The changing attitude towards gluttony has much to do with the modern revulsion towards fat. Esteem for fatness, writes Fernandez Armesto, was part of ancient and medieval aesthetics. Historically, being thin was associated with indigence, while fatness was an index of social standing. “But in a little over 100 years, we’ve discarded the standards of Rubens and Renoir, and substituted those of Barbie and Twiggy. Most artists of the past would now be classed as fat-fetishist weirdos,” Fernandez Armesto points out.
However, while social scientists have talked at length about the ways in which people have come together over meals, gluttony is, at best, a nascent area of study. An overeater, much like in earlier times, remains someone who cannot resist yielding to temptation. Gluttony remains a pathological condition explained largely by the rise in fortunes of the junk food industry and poor regulations in most parts of the world. Social scientists such as Fernandez Armesto blame “spiralling desire” — an instinct, or “maybe a pathology” that makes people want whatever is available, or envy whatever others have. Growing, spreading prosperity seems to accentuate the effects.
Overeating is also to do with the undervaluing of food production in several parts of the world. The modern diner takes his food almost for granted. Eating and food production are separate worlds. Munching finger foods with his gaze fixed on the computer or the TV set, today’s urban diner is way too distant from the fields where the ingredients of his meals come from.
In large measure today, gluttony is about wasting — it marks out a society that has stopped according respect to the act of producing food. I belong to a generation that has no compunction in ordering food that I may not do justice to — or worse even, laugh it off.
This article appeared in print with the headline ‘May You Eat Well’