Friday, March 26, 2010


Arrival of Christopher Columbus in India, circumventing the Cape of Hope and overcoming tremendous logistical constraints typically illustrate the inalienable linkage between food and man. Food has been the major driving force for many historical wars and land conquests, whether thousands of years ago or in to day's world. If cash rich countries are buying up or leasing lands in other economically deprived countries, the intention is to ensure food security to their own people.

During thousands of years of evolution, man became a super intelligent creature in this planet and along with it came many societal practices molded by the necessities and the environment. From a hunting culture, the human society mastered the art of domestication of food crops and meat animals so that food is available all year round for leading a peaceful life. Civilizations like Maya in south American continent or Indus Valley in Indian sub continent or dynasties in Egypt or China had their own characteristic societal features and food habits nurtured for centuries before ending in total destruction. Food archeology is a fascinating subject but grossly neglected by modern man in pursuit of pleasure and exalted living styles. Lot can be learned by peeping back into history of foods and if only the rich lessons offered by the past was appreciated, many of the ills that plague the society to day could have been averted.

In India practically no day passes without one or the other group of people agitating for favored status under the Constitution under the much debated reservation system. The basis of such action is that some segments of the society have been suppressed for too long denying them rightful opportunities for growth under the pernicious caste system prevalent in the country for centuries. True there was a rigid hierarchical caste based social structure where untouchability was conspicuous by its practice amongst various ethnic sections. There are views and counter views regarding the desirability of reservation based on castes and sub castes and this is not a place to debate on the issue. Caste system was, probably, relevant in ancient India though one can question the inhuman way lower caste people were treated. Personal hygiene and cleanliness only should determine whether a person is "touchable" or "untouchable" in modern India where there is no excuse for any one to be "unkempt" in spite of availability of soaps, detergents, lotions, washing aids etc with which one can keep oneself clean with no risk of spreading infection. Definitely birth does not decide who is untouchable.

If the younger generation is reminded of caste system, it is only because of the expediency of the political class, which in pursuit of vote bank, wants to perpetuate the same. There can only be one criterion for evolving all inclusive growth and development and that is the economic status of people. Western system has different cultural practices and with hygiene and cleanliness high on their agenda, hand shaking, kissing and hugging are common way of greeting and expressing affection and friendship. In contrast the Indian society evolved a totally different system involving greetings with folded hands which is relatively safe as far as spreading of infection is concerned. Kissing and hugging, being noticed recently, are prevalent amongst some who are exposed to western culture.

It is a debatable point whether under Indian living conditions practices such as the above are safe. High humidity, dusty environment, high temperature, critical shortage of water, indifferent personal hygiene, wide spread dormant infection amongst the population, too frequent crowd congregation for political, religious and other purposes, over crowded transport systems, unkempt walk ways and side walks, the toiletry practices at home, all make it unimaginable for adopting the western pattern of social interaction. It is well recognized that more than 40% of infectious diseases are spread through physical contact between unclean hands and other human parts. That Indians do not suffer as much as others in other parts of the world, probably due to their high immunity to most vectors, does not mean that there is no need for improving hygiene and sanitation. Imagine the consequences of unclean personnel managing catering services and food processing facilities on the safety of foods to the consumers!

Old traditional living style, which exists even to day in some parts of India, had given high priority to hygiene. This is evidenced by the regular washing of feet, hands and face when ever one returns home, removing foot wears before entering the house, use of cow dung slurry to keep the house clean, cleaning the teeth with neem stick or mango leaves, location of toilets away from regular dwelling area, popularity of plantain leaves and stitched dry leaves for eating food, fumigation of the house with traditional herbal preparations, fire wood based kitchen which generates smoke that can snuff out a variety of vectors and many other practices. Refrigerator which can be considered as the single most effective food preservation mode man has ever known is a luxury not affordable to a vast majority of Indian population, especially those living in rural areas where there is power cut for 22 hours in a day and refrigerator in these places is some thing like an innocuous good for nothing "box".

The message is loud and clear. Keep yourself clean through adhering to well proven daily hygienic practices, keep your house and environment clean and follow good societal norms for interaction with fellow citizens. That is the right recipe for avoiding an impression that you are "untouchable", literally!


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