Wednesday, November 09, 2011

The Indian Socio-Cultural Dynamics of Eating Out Alone (OR a 12 Year Old Rant)

I’m talking about a long ago India here, and I have no idea whether this exists anymore. Eating out alone in the US is not a big deal, indeed it is the culturally acceptable norm. It is perfectly okay to sit and eat alone at some place- in fact, it is expected in some of the café/bakery sort of places. Where one can sit, eat, ruminate, read, write or Internet surf endlessly. And nobody will blink an eyelid.

As I was eating my lunch today- alone, mind you- I recalled an incident that had occurred almost twelve years or so ago. Obviously, it still rankles, since that is one memory that I have never forgotten. Chinese (Indo-Chinese) food was new on the Indian horizon at that time and I absolutely loved it. There was this one Chinese place near my undergrad school that we would often visit, named Golden Dragon (what else!). Once, I was craving that particular place, food and taste so badly that I just could not stop myself and decided to go there without further delay. Most of my friends were out of town, so I went alone.

I sat there and ate the most wonderfully unhealthy MSG laden vegetarian hot-and-sour soup and Manchurian (dishes that nobody in China has ever heard of). I suddenly heard a really snarky voice at my adjacent table say loudly … “mujhe pata nahi log baahar akele kaise khaa lete hain” (I don’t understand how people can eat out alone). Spoken out loudly enough to make sure I heard. I still remember the disdain in that voice.

I’ve never forgotten that incident. Almost every time I eat out alone, I recall this. I wonder what was going on in that person’s mind as he said this. I wish I had said something. I wish I had not been hurt. I wish I could meet him again and give him a resounding slap! I was just satisfying a primal urge- to eat some delicious food that I was craving. I wish I had not felt bad about doing this one thing I wanted to do for myself.

Eating out alone- especially for a girl, ye heavens! - was overstepping certain circumscribed societal norms. It wasn’t accepted, it wasn’t common, and hence it was worth commenting upon. Indian cultural norms are defined, created and delineated to keep women in their place, inside. The outside is seen as the site of potential breach, be it of norms, principles or people. Indian women, as the moral and physical upholders of Indian culture, are not allowed to breach anything. Be it norms, principles or boundaries. Be they physical, socio-cultural or psychological.

I can only hope things are different now. From what I hear about the new India, I sure hope that women can go and eat out alone as, when and where they want. All the Chinese, Italian, Thai, Japanese, Vietnamese, American, even Indian food that they want to eat. Without the world judging them in any way. Next time this happens to me, I’ll make sure I dump the bowl of soup on the speaker’s head.
No matter how delicious it is.

Image sources:


Miss Congeniality said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Miss Congeniality said...

Good read. I had a similar experience in Calcutta. I was going through a bad phase in life and felt like being alone for some time. 'Comfort eating' being my one of the vices, I went to Crystal Chopstick, to satisfy my craving for some Indo-Chinese food (co-incidence?!?!). The waiter kept asking me for a while, "Mam, are you expecting someone?"..........and I kept saying NO. At the end, I was disgusted and asked him, "Why? Are you not going to serve me if I am not joined by someone else?" This was enough to shut him up. I enjoyed the fact the everyone in the restaurant was ogling at me. Somehow that made me feel like a rebel. :)

Blue Bike said...

First of all why you NRI's always live in nostalgia, if you dont know what current india is like then dont comment about it, You were unfortunate enough to be there at the wrong time but please ... we have all moved on as much as the whole world.

Second it could be a very off the cuff remark and not really gender biased... from the incident which you mentioned the comment doesnt seem sexist at all ... India [especially 12 years ago] was much more closedly knit back then so it could be possible for anyone to be surprised and have that reaction for anyone except maybe for a suited up business like looking man/woman.

Its almost like you NRI's saying "How can indians live in such poverty and filth?" by just looking at slums

Rachna said...

@Miss Congeniality- great, that atleast you said something :-) and shut him up. I agree with the rebel part- isn't it amazing (or maybe sad) that the things men take for granted, when we do them, we feel like rebels?

@Blue Bike- I am happy to know that India has moved on, that is a great thing. Secondly, yes I live in nostalgia because I miss India a lot.
Anyway, the point of this post was not India vs US, but a gender perspective. I felt it was gender biased, and hence I wrote this post. I don't think it was an off the cuff remark because I do believe that a man dining alone might not have raised eyebrows or incited any comments.

Neethi said...

I'm sorry to join this party late. But I couldn't resist commenting. I agree eating out alone is far more acceptable in the US than in India. I do it every weekend. at new places or go to places where I feel comfortable. I am Indian, female in the 25-35 age group. I have yet to come across this demographic of women eating alone even in the States. I do experience some strange looks from my country people even in the US. Eating alone might not be considered a punishable act but it is still frowned upon by Indians so far away from home.

Rachna said...

@Neethi- you are always welcome to the party, no matter how late! It is always fun to try new places! It is sad that Indians would look askance at this even here, when it is such accepted practice in this country.

geosenses said...

My favorite local Indian place always seems taken aback, and sometimes a bit hostile when I come in, wanting to eat alone. At first I thought maybe I was taking up valuable seating by asking to sit alone, but then it dawned on me that it might be cultural. I am a regular now, and I think they are accustomed to me coming in alone, yet I still receive the look, and sometimes the hesitation to fill my water glass or clear empty plates.

djoiiii said...

Hi all, I just came across this post when looking for inputs on dining alone culture in India. It's a story I am currently working on. Is there a way I can talk to you ladies? Would love to learn your thoughts. Do email me on


Megha Patil said...

So I was googling "eating out alone in India" and I landed here and I feel weirdly comforted seeing so many others sharing the same experience. I live in Bangalore and love myself a good south Indian Idli-Vada breakfast every weekend. For months, each Saturday morning, I gather the courage to go out and eat this alone. Honestly, it never gets easier :( the curious eyes and weird looks never really stop :(

Rachna said...

@Joanna - I just saw your comment, I guess it is really late now to help! Have emailed you!

@Megha- Yes, it never is easy being an Indian girl/woman :-) I am glad my blog could offer some solace and camaraderie!! Though I totally envy you your idli/vada breakfast, I really miss it here.