On our trip to Himachal last year, my wife and I had a surreal experience that imprinted itself on my mind for a long time.
No, we did not visit Himachal at the beginning of 2020, but in December, when the entire country grew Trump-level-ignorant of the community health.
And while that trip was great, the aftermath is what I've felt ever so strongly in 2021. But that's a morbid thought that you can find here.
But today, let's talk about the positive side - the experience.
Both of us had just glided down from Billing onto the plains of Bir and had one thing on our mind - food. While my virgin paragliding experience was one to remember, I hadn't eaten anything since seven in the morning out of fear that I'd throw up more than just concern atop Billing.
So, as soon as we landed and dispensed off with the monetary obligations to our co-gliders, we set out in search of a well-rated eatery a few minutes away from the landing site. It was called The Northern Cafe. After walking through a couple of farms, barns and quaint homes, we came upon the place nestled on the edge of a massive clearing.
It was a moderately sized country chalet turned into a cafe/restaurant, with a beautiful panoramic view of the paragliding landing spot from where we had just hiked. The courtyard had a few tables and chairs sprinkled all over it, but my gaze went to the balcony on the first floor that seemed oddly inviting.
Kicking off our shoes at the foot of the staircase, we made our way up to the relatively pigmy sized first floor, which was more similar to an open attic. The cafe owners had arranged short rectangular tables at regular intervals along the balcony railing, with simple cotton mattresses on either side on which patrons could stretch their legs. Now, that's what I call 'traditional Indian seating'. Suddenly, it also made sense why we had to leave our shoes on the ground floor, considering that we had to sit cross-legged in this place to enjoy a nice Himachali meal.
Hungry as a bunch of rhinos as we were, we ordered almost every intriguing dish from their Himachali selection. I could write a whole other post on the food itself, but believe me when I say it was delicious! We spent a good two and a half hours in that place, sometimes eating, at times chatting, and when all else failed, just staring at the flock of gliders landing in the foreground of the setting sun.
I kept reminiscing about that evening and that meal for weeks. There was something about that experience that had stayed back with me. It couldn't have been just the food! No offence to The Northern Cafe, but I do consume good food on a fairly regular cadence! It probably was the scenery or the sunset. But I've seen some truly spectacular landscapes since then, and even that didn't add up. And then it struck me. What I was missing the most was the act of sitting cross-legged on a mat and having good Indian food with my hands.
We do two of those things regularly at home. Eat good Indian food and eat with our hands. But gone are those days when the family sat cross-legged in a circle focusing on the meals and nothing else! These days, everyone has a dining table or a sofa that inadvertently faces the television. So, while we've stopped sitting cross-legged, the communal aspect of the meal has also faded to a fair degree.
Until some years ago, at least the traditional Indian weddings used to have a system that we call a 'pangat' or 'pankti', where all the guests sat cross-legged in knee-to-knee queues and enjoyed a full plate of food served on a traditional 'thali' or a banana leaf. But with the majority of the wedding industry shifted over to luxury hotels and destination resorts, this hereditary seating arrangement has been replaced by the western buffet, clustered tables and delicate chinaware.
I think the only few instances where someone still prefers to sit cross-legged in India are -
When they, for some reason, have no access to a chair or a sofa
When they consume a meal as 'prasadam' at a place of worship
When they seek to find physical and mental balance through 'yoga'
That's pretty much it.
But one could even ask, what's so darn special about sitting cross-legged on the floor while eating? Straight up, yogis and ayurvedic proponents have long argued that the cross-legged posture, also referred to as 'sukhasana' can aid digestion. Well, not the position of the legs themselves, but the subtle act of bending ever so slightly while bringing the morsel from hand to mouth does enough to keep the digestive mechanism well oiled.
In fact, I'd also go one step further and argue that the act of bowing down is almost akin to paying your respects to the food that you are about to consume. There is a degree of intimacy attached to the act of eating when you are in such proximity to the food and the earth that produced it. Also, because the action also relies on explicit hand-eye coordination, your focus is by default where it should be - on the food. Some may argue that this method of eating deters people from having conversations while they eat. True. Others may argue that good boys should not talk while they eat. 😂
There are other advantages to sitting cross-legged as well. Your back maintains a natural posture unless you slouch, of course. But, studies show that slouching is actually way more common on chairs than when sitting cross-legged. What studies you ask? I observed my wife for a week, and I am proud to announce that these results are a hundred per cent believable and conducted in a clinical environment.
But I definitely did not remember the meal in Bir because it helped my posture or my digestion! These are indirect advantages of an activity that in itself is dear to me because of childhood nostalgia. When I eat a meal cross-legged, I'm transported back to the house that I grew up in. On those special occasions when mom used to feed me by hand, I had to sit on her left so that she could feed me without performing awkward acrobatics with her hand. She was obviously right-handed. Praying before a meal also made much more sense in the cross-legged position in contrast to the sprawled state that I eat in these days!
But what if someone never had the memory of eating a meal cross-legged? The western civilization uses dining tables, toddler feeding stations and portable picnic furniture! Would they enjoy a meal as much as I did, in the absence of a chair or a sofa? I'm not too sure.
I've seen some Americans blend into the Indian culture as smoothly as milk in coffee, while I've seen others struggle with the cross-legged position for a whole ten minutes! Clearly, this may come down to individual experiences and preferences, along with a healthy serving of flexibility. No matter how culturally compliant they may be, I cannot imagine a three hundred pound giant be comfortable in a cross-legged position! Ask me; I was one until January 2021! 😅
So post this introspection and romanticization, is this what it comes down to? Cultural heritage, upbringing as a child and flexibility as an adult? Sheesh!
I'll take my analyst hat off and throw it away for a while, because I loved Bir and the Northern Cafe and the Himachali Dham that I enjoyed there. And I DID NOT cherish the experience because I am an Indian, or because we did not have a dining table while growing up, or because I am as flexible as Richard Reed.
I enjoyed it because sitting cross-legged put me in a comfortable environment that I had been craving throughout 2020. I enjoyed it because the luxurious food had all my attention, minus the television and the usual sitcom. I enjoyed it because I felt connected to the food in a way we were always supposed to be.
So, if I loved that experience so much, why don't I sell my couch off?
I could, but I am still a dumb human, and then I'd have to sprain my neck to watch what Chandler and Joey are up to in the latest episode! 😅