The talking thali

The best way to destroy a culture is to destroy the kitchen. For it is in the kitchen that a language is spoken that addresses the eye, the ear, the nose, the tongue and even the skin, all five senses, something that all of us are exposed to since childhood but few of us realise.

Illustration/ Devdutt Pattanaik

No child is born with an understanding of culture. As the child grows up his mind is shaped by thoughts of those around. But these thoughts are not necessarily communicated through words, and certainly not the written word. What the mind receives are not instructions but patterns. And patterns have always been communication through symbols, stories and rituals. A kitchen is full of symbols and rituals that shape the mind of the child.

Change these symbols and rituals and you change the thoughts of the children and with it the culture of an entire community. It is surprising that this has not been realised or noticed by child psychologists. Perhaps the humble kitchen as a place of learning seems too farfetched for the modern mind.

A traditional Indian kitchen was a sacred space. It was decorated with auspicious signs. Sometimes, it doubled up as the puja room. In many households, you are not allowed to enter the kitchen with footwear, you are expected to bathe before lighting the kitchen fire, you are not allowed to eat unless you have taken a bath -- all this clearly gave the child a message, food is not just for filling the stomach, food is something special and sacred, the offerings of the yagna of life. Without food, there is no existence.

Today, the kitchen is changing in character. The aim is to create a kitchen that is highly efficient and effective and sanitized to satisfy the needs of the working couple. It almost seems like a factory: a good fridge, a good dishwasher, gadgets to mix and grate and pound and mince, microwaves to quickly heat food. It is clean and quick, everything wrapped in foil and plastic, no stains, no smells, no vapors. What is the message? Cooking is a chore, food merely nourishment for the body, of functional value primarily and at best of aesthetic value secondarily.

What changed the kitchen from temple to factory? Is it the rise of secularism that saw food scientifically and rejected all sacred notions as silly superstition? Is it the rise of feminism, the Western variety, which saw the kitchen as a prison created by men for women? Kitchen duties, once the soul of the household, became a burden. There is a desperate need for quick solutions -- easy to cook food, readymade food, outsourced food, food cooked by a cook, to liberate the lady of the household. Food ordered from outside has become more exciting than boring daily kitchen fare. What is the message that is being given to the child? Everything can be outsourced, everything can be industrialized, even the heart.

The author is Chief Belief Officer of the Future Group, and can be reached at

The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper.

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