Reading while eating

The books would slip and fall into the sambar, thus acquiring newer flavours.

Some childhood habits stay with you. For me, it is “reading while eating.” During the 50s, we children enjoyed being served by the womenfolk of the house as we sat cross legged on the floor. When it was time for our lunch or dinner, we would troop into the dining hall with a story book or a magazine in hand.

The elders were certainly not happy with our strange habit. They used to tell us that by practicing this habit, we would not know what we were eating, how much we were eating and hence it was harmful to our health; but we were a set of spoilt kids and had our way.

We would plan in advance which book to read during our next meal. Invariably there was a big competition for the latest Tamilvananan’s mystery novel. This author’s novel used to feature a detective hero called Shankarlal, who solved crimes and fought criminals in countries around the world. His style was unique; he presented fascinating facts and surprised the reader with his original and thought-provoking ideas.

We had a variety of choices in children’s magazines — Ambuli mama, Anil, Kalkandu and Karumbu. These books were gateways to our fantasies. We were not sure if the food tasted better because of the flavour of the books that we were reading or the other way around. Sometimes, the books would slip out of our hands and fall into the sambar or rasam, thus acquiring newer flavours.

On full moon days, the above practice took a slight variation. We used to gather on our moonlit terrace. My grandmother would walk in with a big bowl of rice mixed with sambar or curds, and start feeding us by turn, which in itself was a big task. But the biggest task, was to tell us a story alongside.

My grandmother “K” had the endurance of a marathon runner in storytelling; she could tell stories for hours continuously, still holding our interest. She maintained eye contact with her audience and made it interactive. Her intonation, pauses and the excitement in her voice ensured that we were able to exactly visualise the characters that she was talking about.

We would gobble up our food imagining the wicked face of Pinjakan in Karunkuil Kundrathu Kolai or Ananda Singh (Sherlock Homes) walking and tapping the road and detecting a trench near a bank (red-headed league). The food would soon get over and my grandmother would shout out for more supply from downstairs.

My professional life gave a long intermission to my habit of reading while eating. After retirement, I switched over to TV watching while eating which, now I realise, was a big mistake. These days, I am neither happy with the content of TV channels (violence, death, accidents) nor the presentation (a cluttered screen with nine to eleven points of information). They are certainly not an enjoyable watch during a meal time.

I have now resumed my good old habit of reading a Wodehouse or R K Narayan’s book while having my dinner.

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