Updated: Nov 14, 2022
“In India, poor people are thin. In Europe and America, only the rich are thin!” A diplomat’s daughter once said this to me when I was a teen in New Delhi, in 1981. The observation was so startlingly true, I have never forgotten it. But, my awareness of food started long before that date. I was barely four years old, a reluctant eater of prawn curry with rice one winter afternoon in Calcutta, to the accompaniment of the story of Red Riding Hood, when my didima (grandma) lost her patience.
Tired of my constant interruptions to correct her if she tried to skim over even a single syllable of the story, during its fourth retelling, Didima took matters into her own hands. She put down the spoon and said, “You remember the beggar woman with her skinny child we saw from the car window on your way home from Montessori?”
Distracted by this new twist, I stopped chewing on the rubbery prawn in my mouth and nodded.
“Well,” said Didima, keenly conscious of how much beggars scared me, “do you think she has the money to feed that child any food at all, while you sit there and drive me crazy to eat one bowl of food?”
I knew perfectly well what money was. It was the thing my dadu (grandpa) stressed about the most. If I so much as looked at money, he made me wash my hands, “because lepers touch money!” he would tell me. But Didima’s scolding came as my first cognizance of food, which I considered a daily penance. Slowly I thought about the filthy beggar woman and how Dadu, at the time the director general of the Geological Survey of India, insisted that Didima wash all raw food ingredients in our house with a weak solution of potassium permanganate. In that instant, within my four years old head, food, cleanliness, filth, and hunger collided into one impossible tangle.
Regardless, I believe I can safely claim that I never gave Didima any grief ever again about eating the food on my plate. In fact, I couldn’t even look at food anymore without thinking of the beggar woman and her child and their misery.
Perhaps given the above association, I was lucky to marry two diplomats, back to back, who happened to serve in several developing countries where, for the most part, I never saw food being wasted. That dynamic only changed once I moved to America in 2001, to become a boarding school teacher. In this new environment, day after day, I saw my acquaintances regularly serve themselves more food than they could possibly eat, careless as they discarded most of it into a helpful trash can before they placed their empty plates into a bin to be washed later.
Dumb in my ignorance, when I absolutely couldn’t handle watching this rampant waste for a single minute longer, I asked a colleague in that boarding school dining hall why Americans wasted food like they did.
She replied, “Oh that food is doomed whether we eat it or not! There is a food administration law that mandates that all food unrefrigerated for over two hours has to be thrown out anyway.”
“Right,” I said, thinking back to the poverty I had witnessed in my own country, where too many are born on a sidewalk, destined to die quick, ruthless, tragic deaths before they can even complete a month of life on earth. Why, asked my beleaguered mind, why are some so unlucky, while others have so much—they don’t even comprehend what they have?
Many years have passed since then, and I have learned better than to make uncouth comments about peoples’ food habits. But to this day, I still think about what my friend told me forty years ago: That in the first world the poor are fat because even in their poverty, they can go to a soup kitchen and waste food.
Clearly, I can’t change a nation, but what I can attempt to do is try and reorient one person at a time. Therefore, to those who come to eat at my home in America, I recount the lesson Didima once taught a spoilt four-year-old. Then I stipulate outright that they cannot waste food at my dinner table.
You see, too often we shrug and disassociate ourselves from a problem because silence is more comfortable than sound. But how will this unfair world change unless we take a stand? Unless we are willing to at least uphold our own opinions? And our “stand,” like mine, maybe infinitesimal, but it is still a stand. A very long time ago a man called Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi imagined an India free of British rule. Alone and unarmed, he adopted a stand. In time, his stand changed the configuration of the world map.
We think “we can’t make a difference,” but as a writer, I passionately seek to change the world, even if my actions are no more than a drop at a time…because every single drop, dear reader, is a vital drop that makes the ocean. So take a stand on something today…change the mind of one person, and maybe in time, you too will change this world like I seek to do!