5 min read

The Dinner Table

By Faisal M. Lalani

Have you ever eaten dinner with a Southasian family?

The fathers, sons, and uncles are usually the first seated, either huddled around a cramped table or criss-cross on a dingy bedsheet draped across the floor. In a dramatic and righteous tone, they urge their wives and sisters to sit with them so they can eat together, but do nothing to help while the food is prepared. The aunt doing most of the cooking is pacing between pans and yelling the names of the kids whose eyes are locked on the cricket match blaring on TV.

When finally the table is set and the dishes are served, everyone takes a portion, but not for themselves. What follows is war: the men dive in first, dropping an arsenal of food on the kids’ plates, insisting they need to eat more while reserving the blunt comments about how much weight they’ve gained for later. Then the cascade of judgements begin: “that’s all you want?”, “you don’t like chicken anymore?”, and of course, the infamous “we forgot the roti” (when, in fact, there are dozens of roti stacked like a tower and dripping with ghee). The rest of the dinner continues like this, with cursory glances at one another’s plates and occasional comments about how the food tastes.

The geopolitics of an Southasian family dinner are really something. It’s almost as if each moment of awkward silence is a dangerous gamble that what one is really thinking about will be revealed, and so to distract ourselves from our vulnerabilities, we look to criticisms of cuisine and redundant gossip. There is so much embedded sexism, emotional coping, and personal anxiety that once it becomes clear to you what each member of the family is going through, the dinner table becomes a Petri dish of unexpressed traumas. The saddest part of it is that there is also so much love in each gesture: everyone wants to make sure everyone else is happy, but bound by adherence to tradition and a lifetime of emotional suppression, they instead express it through these more problematic means.

The weight of this revelation is what frightens me. Not because I perceive heaviness, but fragility. At the dinner tables of friends and colleagues, aunts and uncles and cousins, and even my own immediate family’s, I see a Jenga tower threatening to collapse unless another layer of implicit tension is added. And it’s not just Southasian families - the awkwardness of any sort of familial gathering at the table, especially for cultures of color, feel the instinctual urge to preserve the tower.

This past weekend, I moderated a panel in collaboration the Southasian Peace Action Network (Sapan), in which several brilliant, young changemakers from around the region helped me reckon with this struggle. They each spoke eloquently and with passion about the culmination of their identities, not only as Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Nepalis, and Sri Lankans, but as Southasians. And through that culmination, they presented a beautiful sentiment:

These are my problems too.

Said to powerfully illustrate that our national diversities can form a regional unity through empathy, this resonance can extend to the discrepancies within our most intimate circles. How straightforward, how simple a solution: imagine sitting at the dinner table with your family, finally laying out your anxieties about financial security or sex and relationships or your purpose in this world and hearing these are my problems too.

This is not to undersell the embedded colonial trauma, deeply rooted casteism and religious nationalism, or the sheer density of historical ethnic and gender-based violence in our countries. On the contrary, I draw a parallel based on the perceived difficulty of peace building within our own families versus our larger communities within the region.

But rationality seems to have no place in the politics of love. For if it were as simple to drop the pretenses and acknowledge our pent-up frustrations and traumas, what do we have left? What is the hidden paradise beyond confrontation? Can love survive if it has nothing to hold it back? It is surely a terrifying thing to be left unabated.

And yet love persists. What else keeps the family at the dinner table? Why do we return again and again and again knowing that this person who has historically wronged us will be there, eating the same food, repeating the same mantras?

I am told often that perhaps my most endearing trait is my appetite, not just for the foods of all kinds I delightfully consume, but for the people of all types I love listening to. I feel most alive when I am fortunate enough to hear the childhood memories of the nostalgic Nepali elder or the intimate desires of the aspiring Sri Lankan student. How easy it should be, then, for me to extend this passion to the friends and family closest to me! And yet, like with many of you, there is a wall, with bricks laid bare by my gradual detachments.

Perhaps that is what the activists at the panel were getting at: the unification of the Southasian region is a matter of reconciliation at the dinner table.

Perhaps that’s all it ever was.