The acute shortage of food finds its mirror image on the tables of the affluent. And I do not only refer to the family table, with the paterfamilias presiding over a dinner of curry and pilau. Our fixation on food finds its epic expression at the union of man and wife – the wedding. There was a time when the author would attempt to strike up a conversation with his neighbour at one of these dietary sprints, only to find that his plate was being taken away before he had been half way through the meal. He would be roused from his sense of wonder by the soft burp emanating from his neighbour. He soon learned to imitate his neighbour (minus the burp, he hopes).
Conversation and food appear to exclude each other. A hush descends on the commensal gathering of friends and relatives the moment the steaming dishes are laid down. We are perpetually haunted by the images of hunger that we witness perennially. We thus bring to the dinner table all the solemnity of a funeral. And at public feasts, the competition for scarce resources manifests itself in visible economic choices. The laissez-faire attitude has become a permanent part of the menu. It is now par for the course.
Against this solemn background must be observed the plethora of restaurants and fast-food outlets. These are no sanctuary of monastic silence. Quite the contrary. Children scream and mothers even louder to stop the screaming, to no avail. The din of cutlery reminds one of the superb onomatopoeia of Tennyson’s famous line in the Arthurian chronicles describing battle:
‘Deep smitten with the dint of armed steel’
Familiarity begets forgetfulness of the famine in which we find ourselves. It is like the primeval cacophony of the hunter-gatherers who were one large extended family celebrating the carcass of some Pleistocene creature that the group had just clubbed to death. The family feast in public places seems to make the most noise out of that same principle of competition and that same mentality of scarcity: to warn others off. It is only when the individual is faced with the individual that they both find it prudent and politic to limit the noise level to no more than the gentle decibels of that aforementioned contented burp. The individual, public burp is, therefore, a trumpeting of truce. After this signal of the armistice, negotiations begin. There is the polite, if otiose, query as to whether one has finished eating. There follows the equally otiose inquiry if one was alone or not. And so on....