Growing up, life was full of mysteries waiting to be unraveled. The wedding feasts I used to attend represented one such enduring mystery. The dictionary meaning of “feast” had led me to expect a lavish spread of dishes, while actual experience was utterly at odds with that expectation. There were quite a few dishes, but the course that was served first and which overwhelmed everything else was rice and saaru (rasam). Everything else served later was in small quantities. A young boy with a small tummy, a habit of eating slowly and an ill-developed strategic approach would easily get overwhelmed by the feast. He would find, as I did, that the meal he had at the feast was less rich than the what he consumed on an average day.
Let me illustrate this point for my North Indian readers. How would you like it if you were lured to a feast and served copious amounts of dal with rotis, and when you were almost sated, minuscule amounts of paneer butter masala and malai kofta were plonked on your plate? The wedding feasts I attended were like that.
I grew to adulthood without the puzzle being solved. I learnt to cope by consuming less saaru, eating faster and by developing a better appetite. In time, as the cares of the world began to weigh down on me, mysteries that challenged me during my boyhood receded from my consciousness till the debates over Sainath’s and Utsa Patnaik’s assertions that the poor are consuming less food brought back the memories.
Those who followed the debate will recollect that Patnaik had claimed that the poor were consuming less food on the basis of the fact that they were consuming less foodgrains. Many others, including Aadisht, had pointed out that they may be consuming less foodgrains, but the same data indicated that they were consuming more of every other kind of food items. Thinking through that debate gave me the answer to the puzzle I had forgotten.
The key to the solution lies in the fact that these wedding feasts are heavily influenced by tradition. The basic format of the feast has probably not been altered for centuries. Even 25 years back, the basic meal for most people at the feast would have been ganji. Rice with tomato saaru as the main course and some huli (sambhar) with actual vegetables in it would have counted as a feast for them. The format served to give the guests a taste of better food without busting the bride’s father’s budget.
Now, while the format of the feast is guided by tradition, it is not bound too tightly by it. It is inevitable that improvement in economic conditions has brought about some changes. You can increase the number and quantity of the other dishes served. You can make all the side dishes a little richer, which will result in guests consuming less rice.
Have these things happened? Last week, in Mumbai, I had an interesting conversation with an uncle on this. His family has been cooking and catering to wedding feasts for three generations. Apparently, when his father was cooking, the rule of thumb was 40 sers of rice for every 100 guests. When his brother started, it came down to 25. When his nephew started, it was 16 sers, and now it has reduced to 8-10 sers. In other words, over a period of 50 years, the consumption of rice by middle and lower middle-class Brahmins at wedding feasts has come down by over 75%. That is something to chew on.