Oprah Winfrey staring at the Gujarati thali (platter) waiting for the food to jump right in to her mouth** (Pic: Grab from www.oprah.com)
There is no way of confirming this story but legend has it that food fights break out among food items on Oprah Winfrey’s plate over which one should get eaten first.
I am told that foods of different kinds start lining up the night before on her plate, some of them even carry their sleeping bags. The only exception is salads which have been granted lifelong exemption from standing in the line. They can show up at will and no bouncers will stop them.
Legend also has it that she does not use her hands to eat. She merely looks at her food and it starts jumping into her mouth. The race to be eaten by Winfrey gets so intense sometimes that the National Guard has to be deployed to ensure that no violence occurs.
Winfrey has long reached a stage in her life where she does not have to deploy her own hands to do anything. I have this image of a dozen or so flunkies walking behind her, in front of her and on both her sides during all waking hours, anxiously looking for the subtlest of hints which might suggest a rising need. She may be hands-on as a corporate boss but that must not be taken literally.
So before India’s professional rage industry, mainly comprising young, sleek and urbane sophisticates, rush to condemn her for what she said on her India special on her new show ‘Oprah’s Next Chapter’, they need to understand the kind of life she leads. What I have described above is just a glimpse of the life that arguably one of the world’s most fabled entertainers lives.
On seeing her Indian hosts eating their food with hands (as opposed to what elsewhere?) Winfrey, who shot her special in India last year, said “I heard some Indian people eat with their hands still?” She heard it wrong. It is not some Indian people who eat with their hands. They all do and that has generally been the case since the advent of modern humans 200,000 years ago. Bipedalism ensured that two of the four limbs were freed up for tasks such as eating with hands when guests such as Winfrey came. Even Neanderthals ate with their hands, that is if you wrongly believe that they were the benchmark of barbaric, unrefined behavior.
By making the “some Indian people still eat with their hands” comment Winfrey put her foot in her mouth. (I had to get that one out). It ironically reminds of what Bill O’Reilly said after visiting Sylvia’s, a famous restaurant in Harlem, New York, in September, 2007. During September 19 edition of his radio show, O’Reilly said, "I couldn't get over the fact that there was no difference between Sylvia's restaurant and any other restaurant in New York City. I mean, it was exactly the same, even though it's run by blacks, primarily black patronship." He added, "There wasn't one person in Sylvia's who was screaming, 'M-Fer (motherfucker), I want more iced tea.' You know, I mean, everybody was -- it was like going into an Italian restaurant in an all-white suburb in the sense of people were sitting there, and they were ordering and having fun. And there wasn't any kind of craziness at all."
Of course, Winfrey’s comments are nowhere close to O’Reilly’s in terms of its affront but they do stem from a similar kind of easy ignorance about a different culture.
That said, what Winfrey said, while not worthy of someone of her global standing and influence, is also not worthy of breaking out into paroxysms of nationalist rage. Not that I have noticed much of that but one never knows. Such stories have a way of quickly acquiring ugly intensity. A 5000-plus years old civilization that has withstood and gobbled up marauders since Alexander can surely choose not to feel hurt by a TV entertainer’s comment.
** This particular meal was hosted by the Somanis, a family in Mumbai, which is purely vegetarian. They avoid even onion and garlic because, as the woman sitting next to Winfrey explained, they “agitate the mind.”