Like they say in a popular Hindi movie, a family that eats together…stays together! I strictly feel that meal times should be family times… as it is in my Sasuraal. All meals, breakfast, lunch and dinner are partaken together…even during the summer vacations when we all go home and there is barely any elbow space at the huge dining table at home! My memories of eating together goes way back into my childhood when some nights, we’d have ‘Kayyila peshanju podal’. This was an activity full of fun and food… Generally, there’d be stories to accompany the food. Reflecting on those days, I feel that it had been a clever ruse on the elders’ part to popularise such a concept. For one, it reduces the number of dishes and plates to clean…and secondly, no one complains about personal preferences…Finally, even a poor and fussy eater ends up eating substantial quantity this way satisfying a mother’s heart! The modus operandi is like this: the mother or the grandmother (or grandaunt in our case) mixes rice and Rasam or Sambhar…or even curd and rice…) in a big vessel and keeps a plate with the side- dish nearby. We children settle ourselves down around her and she starts scooping out decent mouthfuls of rice, adds some ‘poduthuwal’( stir fried veggies) or pickle and puts it into the stretched hand to her left… The next one goes to the person seated next and so on and so forth… There will be some slow eaters who wouldn’t have swallowed the food in their mouth and that gives a chance for the glutton in the group to jump the line and extend a greedy hand for that serving… If there is no public outcry, the trespasser is obliged…otherwise he is told to wait his/her turn! Yummmmmm! Food tasted so wonderful coming from that ‘akshayapaatra’… And if there was a story to accompany, we’d ask for more… Such sessions were common during vacations and power-cuts. Normal eating times would be different for the men -folk and children of the family, and for the women. So there’d be 8 of us, grandfather, Dad, Dad’s younger brother- our uncle and the five of us. Each of us had our own plates starting with Thatha’s silver plate and side plate… and Rat’s smallest steel plate. Plates would be set on the floor in a line…and glasses of water will follow. Grandma, Grandaunt and Mom will start serving and we’d gobble hot delicious home food… Dining table came much later. Once the dining table made its entry, we also got into our first bad habit…of reading a book while eating. The trend setter was Dad who’d read the newspaper or his Nevil Shute or Max Brand while Mom hovered about him refilling his plate, sensing his requirements… We started reading comics our Phantoms, Mandrakes and Caspers and Richie Riches…later upgrading to Enid Blytons and Westerns and Mills and Boons as we grew up… A habit I got rid of after I got married. Even after the coming of the dining table, on festivals and Shraddham ( anniversaries of paying homage to departed elders!) we’d eat seated on the floor.Eating off a banana leaf is an art in itself. First, you have to clean the leaf with the water from the glass given to you. Even if the leaf has been cleaned earlier, you feel compelled to do that as though you are displaying your credentials as a clean person. Traditional food is served on fixed sections of the leaf…in a particular order. You can’t start eating till everything has been served…and the men have done the ritualistic prayers…then you attack the food… With trial and error you learn not to tear your leaf with your nails…or to let an enthusiastic rasam or sambhar run out of territory…But the mark of true expertise lies in the way you manage the paayasam served on the leaf… The act of scooping out handful of piping hot payasam and slurping it in without dripping it down your elbow, shows your expertise in the art of eating! Again, it is time for family bonding…recalling previous ‘Sadyas’ and commenting on various items… The menfolk’s flattering of the dishes will be soaked in by smug ladies half hiding behind the kitchen door… The flipside of this practice of men and children eating first is that on ordinary days, sometimes there may not be sufficient food left over for the ladies who had taken pains to cook and who’d eat last! That is why I prefer the practice in my in- laws’ house. All meals must be taken together… For one, it guaranteed a system… making it easier for the ladies to finish all the work… During my college days meal times had become so erratic in my home. Brothers would come and eat as and when they reached home, Grandfather needed food according to his routine…Dad preferred his… Except for special occasions , we didn’t eat together… But in the last 24 years of my married life meal times have been regulated and fixed. Whether in Bokaro, <?XML:NAMESPACE PREFIX = ST1 /><ST1:CITY><ST1LACE>Durgapur</ST1LACE></ST1:CITY>, <ST1:CITY><ST1LACE>Delhi</ST1LACE></ST1:CITY> or Bhadravathi, the breakfast starts between 8.45 and 9. Lunch is to be served at 12.45 and dinner at 8.45- unless there are guests and visitors who do not know about our golden rules. I simply love the way we all sit together… Appa at the head of the table, Amma to his left… S aunty to her left…then the rest of us… Only when there are more than 8 adults and 5 kids …do we change the pattern. Then, we ladies will sit as the second batch… Meal times are the time to share jokes, tease each other, discuss things and generally to eat well. Spilling of water , occasional diasters caused by old and ‘bottom-worn’ tumblers, are frowned upon, salt and pickle passed by whoever is near them… Mind you, all passing and serving is done with the left hand, for it is taboo to touch the ladles with the right hand as it is being used for eating…There will be a background music from All India Radio , Bhadravathi station… And meals are taken in the dining room. Nobody is allowed to take their plate and shift to the living room to watch TV and eat… Quite a change from my Sharjah home, where the living and dining areas are in the same hall! So the eternal TV is on all the time. Also, I have this bad habit of treating all meals as buffets… I just pile food on my plate and settle on the sofa to eat and watch at the same time… A bad habit which I gladly shed during my visits to Bhadravathi… I try not to violate the system in that house, for I feel, in the long run, it has helped in instilling discipline in all of us.