The Very Best Food in India
After we’d photographed in the dining hall for a while, one of the volunteers began talking with our guide and gesturing toward us. I was afraid we had done something to offend them, but our guide told us we’d been asked to sit and eat.
“Please tell him it would be our great honor,” I said to the guide.
“He says no, it is his honor to feed you.”
The man led us to a spot on the mat, handed us each a metal plate onto which he ladled lentils and rice and smiled, pausing long enough to look into our eyes before he moved on.
Sitting cross-legged on the floor along the row, we were an equal part of the community. A sense of wonder washed over at me: we were not better, richer, poorer, smarter, slower or less or more good looking. We were thinking, feeling human beings just like all the others in these rows. We were receiving nourishment that was handed to us with no judgment or obligation, but out of the most sincere sense of sharing and giving. This was not the “have’s” giving to “have-nots”. It was egalitarian: some people ate and others cooked. All of us who ate did so seated on the same level, facing out and tasting the same food. It wasn’t dull; it was a beautiful expression of wiping away comparison and competition, of giving and receiving with respect and humility.
I looked over at my father, whose face bore a nearly childlike expression of tenderness and marvel, and I knew he felt it too. We held each other’s gaze for a moment: one of us said, “This is incredible” and the other nodded in agreement. We stayed there a while, until we felt ready to leave. We slowly, silently walked out, handing our dirty plates to the waiting volunteers.
If I am ever again asked to describe the best meal I have ever eaten, this is the answer. The lentils and rice served to me with the purest spirit of giving and fellowship; lentils and rice that brought equality and humility to the hundreds of us who ate knee-to-knee at the Sikh temple that day.