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EATING AND BEING

The fault is not in their stars, Cassius reminds Brutus, but in themselves, that they act like Caesar’s underlings. The Chinese, with a bit of help from the Americans, have now taken Roman (or Shakespearean) common-sense a step further. They have shown that the fault is not, indeed, in the stars but in something as banal as what people eat — specifically in the choice of staple. It seems that people in the Chinese north are psychologically different from the people in the south because the former eat wheat while the latter eat rice. Since many of these earth-shattering ‘findings’ are founded on magically small samples (in this case, 1,162 people were studied, from of a nation of 1,364,340,000), it is tempting to extrapolate even more outrageously. Could these wheat-and-rice, north-and-south divides be projected on a country like India? Or, better still, on the entire world? Would history have been hugely different if, say, Europe, Scandinavia and the United States had grown and eaten rice, while China and Japan grew and ate wheat?

It is impossible to keep out questions of climate at this point, especially water; rice needs more of it than wheat does. So climate, particularly humidity, becomes a vital determining factor. The world then divides not only into the rice people and the wheat people, but also, alas, into the sweaty and the dry. Already, this way of characterizing people according to what they eat begins to sound somewhat dodgy — teetering on the brink of political incorrectness. Not for nothing does racist or communal abuse rely so unpleasantly on stereotypes based on diet.

Of course, Bertie Wooster attributed Jeeves’s intellectual powers to his eating a lot of fish; as do all Bengali mothers their sons’ peerless mental capacities. In fact, the Bengalis — in their own eyes, and in the eyes of their national and foreign Others — are copybook rice people. They seem to have forged an entire way of life, and a work ethic (or lack thereof), out of post-lunch ennui. So much of the image of the heavy-lidded colonial baboo depended on perceptions of what he was fed at home, that moving the capital from Calcutta to Delhi could even be seen as a strategic shift from rice to wheat, with long-lasting consequences for the denizens of the delta. Yet, China and Japan have a different kind of rice culture, based on exactly the opposite qualities: litheness, agility, enterprise. This difference is owed, perhaps, to those instruments of minimalism, subtlety and elegance — chopsticks, which make cutlery look industrial, and eating with one’s fingers positively stone-age. The culture of food is as much about how food is eaten (and how much) as about what is eaten. In this, the eating of rice both unites and divides India and China. But the fault is not in the stars, nor in the food. It is in the tableware.