Slow and steady...

Slow and steady...

Man is driven by ambition and impatience like never before. Impatient, greedy and always in a hurry, afraid of falling behind the next man, the next town, the next country. His needs are enormous and they demand to be met instantly. This truly is the age of fast food, faster lives, of instant gratification and impatience, rues Jahnavi Barua.

Twenty-five years ago in Italy a revolution began, one that took seed quietly, in keeping with the spirit of its philosophy, and soon spread across the world to over 150 countries. An American fast food giant planned to open a mammoth 400-seater branch near the famous Spanish Steps in Rome, and a protest was organised against it. The driving force behind this demonstration was one Carlo Petrini, a journalist who had written extensively on food and wine and who had, also, started the non-profit food and wine organisation, Arcigola, three years earlier in 1986.

Carlo Petrini had been growing increasingly concerned by the industrialisation of food and had started Arcigola to address issues arising from those concerns: the injudicious use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides; the elimination of seeds, plants and methods of farming indigenous to rural, agricultural communities and the consequent inevitable destruction of the natural environment. Industrial and financial concerns seemed set to overwhelm all that good food stood for and Carlo Petrini, along with other concerned individuals in the northern Italian region of Piedmont, was determined not to let that happen.

Thus, Arcigola was formed, with the objective of supporting quality local food and wine. When the burger giant announced plans to open their outlet in Rome, it was but natural that Carlo Petrini and Arcigola would lead the demonstrations against it, for fast food was all that they stood against. Armed with bowls of penne the demonstrators gathered around the Spanish Steps in protest and this was how something called the Slow Food Movement began.

The official launch of the movement took place in Paris later that year and it was here the manifesto was signed in which, among other things, support was pledged to seed banks, to local methods of farming, to ethical farming and to fair prices. A beautiful line in their manifesto stands out, “A firm defence of quiet material pleasures is the only way to oppose the universal folly of fast life.”

These quietly powerful words may have been written about food, but they could have just as well have been written about life. Picture, for a moment, a gathering of friends or family in a restaurant. Not one of those glass and chrome and steel places with hard metal chairs and precooked food served on plastic trays, where meaningless clatter drowns out all conversation and where conversation is not sought out in any case for the objective of being in such a place is to eat food — any kind of food, as long as it fills the stomach — and leave as quickly as possible.

Imagine instead, a small, intimate space with wooden chairs and gingham tablecloths. There is a ceramic vase of season flowers on the table that the group is sitting around. Food arrives slowly but no one cares for when it comes, it is delicious. It is food made from local, seasonal, organically grown vegetables, and the meat is local too. Talk flows around the table, people joke and laugh and sigh with contentment at the taste of good food in their mouths.

In that slice of time, when food is celebrated, old friendships are cemented, new ones begin; romances are sparked off and marriages arranged. And all the while, an insidious, invisible chain of goodness runs back to the earth where all things began: the local farmer who supplied the food is happy and ploughs back all natural ingredients to the earth, thus rejuvenating it; the earth gives back more and more of its bounty; local cottage industries flourish — dairy and jams and pickles — as people come looking for things natural; the sky and rivers are clean and generous with their gifts. The natural world is in harmony and man can only be richer from this state of equilibrium.

Success sutras?

Yet, man is nothing if not short-sighted. Impatient and greedy and always in a hurry, afraid of falling behind the next man, the next town, the next country. His needs are enormous and they demand to be met instantly; he cannot even savour his pleasures when they come, for, he is always looking over his shoulder, anxious about what is around the corner. This truly is the age of fast food and faster lives, of instant gratification and impatience, and eventually, of an extinguishing of those pleasures and ways of living that demand time and patience, but which yield such rich dividends.

Reading books, for instance. A pleasure fading rapidly in this age of technology and speed. A book, not so long ago, had been one of the few means of entertainment for children and adults. Sundays and holidays, even weekday evenings had been consumed frequently by the reading of books and books could be seen in most households, even in ones not particularly intellectual, while libraries flourished in local communities. Reading, in those days, was a cherished activity; it provided one of the easiest routes of escape into other worlds.

A few pages into an Enid Blyton and a child was transported from a town in India to a windswept rocky coast off the Cornish coastline where smugglers landed with their illicit treasures; other books walked into Africa where the savannas stretched as far as the eye could see and where thousand strong herds of wildebeest, zebras and other such exotic animals roamed. Still other novels and texts set off on adventures closer to home: to where Shiva meditated on his snowy peak in the Himalayas or into the intrigues of the Kauravas in the Mahabharata.

Adventures, romance, travel, crime — almost all human emotions and activities could be experienced in the pages of well-worn, well-loved books. However, all this came at a price: the reader had to expend effort to engage with the writer, with the text, and exercise his or her imagination to fully realise that experience.

This journey, that of the reader through the pages of a book, was not a lazy or a fast one. And this effort is one that is increasingly being rejected by children and adults today in favour of faster, easier options: films, electronic games, interacting on social sites to name a few. Not that there is anything intrinsically wrong with any of these activities; in fact, good cinema is and has always been a critical force in the evolution of the community.

But, here again, it is not the more difficult films that raise unsettling questions that are being patronised, but ones that provide a couple of hours of thoughtless entertainment. Nothing wrong in experiencing that either, sometimes, but the danger is when that is all that is being experienced to the exclusion of other, slower, but infinitely more rewarding forms of entertainment. Reading, for instance, which is an activity that holds the readers’ mind and attention and heart like nothing else really can. An activity, which, much like that of sharing a slow meal around a table of family and friends, requires patience and dedication, but one, which warms the soul in a way few other things manage to.

In the rat race

Man is driven by ambition and impatience these days in a way he has never been before. Some say, a few at the top set the pace and the rest of the pack has to follow and perhaps that is the case, sometimes. Yet, there are many in the pack who are equally focused on reaching the top, who then perpetuate that daily routine of rushing off to work with no other motivation than to do well, to do better than the others, to succeed at any cost, and most regrettably of all, to make more money than the rest of the straining pack.

Days are long as men and women work into the evenings and nights; they travel on work more frequently than is desirable; they often do not notice the sun rising or setting, and the sight of  a full moon sailing past on the velvet night sky often slips past them as they have their gaze fixed firmly on the next day’s work and what that would bring their way. Children see little of their parents and very often, husbands and wives see very little of one another.

Relationships are naturally strained and worn out at the seams, yet, when they rupture, there is a sense of disbelief, for in all the hurry and the impatience no one noticed the tears that had appeared in the once happy families. That holiday that one had been toiling hard for is now just a mirage and that new car, much longed for, is now bereft of passengers. Better to have paused in these frantic labours and spent a little time at home, looking clearly at people one loved and held in one’s heart.

There is a distinct edge of tension in many households today. In days gone by, home had meant just that — home. A place of refuge, where on sunny mornings pickles lay roasting in the sun, where endless cups of tea were served around bedrooms where married sisters and sisters-in-law gathered after their work was done to laugh and talk and let their hair down. It meant lazy winter evenings where families and friends gathered around a fire and reminisced about even older days when life had been simpler to grasp, when it had been easy to hold the threads of one’s life firmly in one’s hands.

And slow food was passed around: mixtures lovingly made at home; biscuits made with considerable difficulty on iron griddles, pickles made with fruit from one’s own garden, cakes made with batter whisked by wrists aching with the effort. There was all around a sense of time eddying slowly, gently around the edges of the gathering. A time that was slow and generous and full of warmth as it held within its ticking minutes a promise of more such slow days to come.

Running against time

That sense of suspended stillness has all but disappeared nowadays as every household is governed by a barely concealed note of time desperately running away. The maid’s late arrival is a cause of frantic concern and naturally so, for this would mean a later start to the working day, something one could hardly afford. A traffic jam on the way provokes tempers into flaring unexpectedly for that delay again means running against the working clock.

The working day is spent fighting a losing battle against time and when one arrives back home, long after daylight has faded, it is to a family exhausted by that battle. A quick meal, prepared indifferently by other hands, or a takeaway ordered from the nearest fast food outlet, and the day is over. A quick unremarkable end to an unremarkable day.
It would take a remarkable man or woman to disengage from this fast life and choose a slower one, but there are people doing this.

Throwing up lucrative corporate careers, deliberately winding up thriving businesses to live a life that is simpler and slower than the frenetic one dictated by others. They have chosen to move out of maddening towns into slower, quieter spaces, they have given up on material gains but have grown immeasurably richer in others. They now have unexpected wealth in their lives’ accounts: mornings spent in kitchen gardens growing their own food; afternoons spent reading delicious books; evenings under the stars with their spouses and children.

They have time on their side now, time to watch their children grow, to caress that beloved first wrinkle that appears on their spouse’s face; they have time to walk aimlessly and enjoy all that bounty one had been denied earlier: that first rain, the fragrance of that night queen in the neighbour’s garden, the sight of the sun rising on a perfectly still morning.

“A firm defence of quiet material pleasures is the only way to oppose the universal folly of fast life.” A sentiment that could not ring truer in today’s fast world, a sentiment to hold on to and to cherish if the world has to keep turning with the same grace and beauty and meaning it has displayed so far.

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