A Table For One
A writer, an artist and a photographer share their different interpretations of eating alone in a three part series for Soup.
Eating alone can be uncomfortable for some and an indulgence for others. 'Growing up' requires you to confront the reality of having to share a meal with no one but yourself for company. But do you enjoy this time or do you find yourself avoiding it as much as possible? Soup asked a writer, an illustrator and a photographer to share their personal experiences of eating alone. The result is a three part series in their own medium of interpretation capturing the solitude, the agony and finally the romance of having a meal all by yourself.
Part 1, THE SOLITUDE
Writer Bhavna Kher on moving from the comforting warmth of shared family meals to the clinical aspect of quick solo lunches in a new, bustling city. Illustrated by Sumedha Sah.
My father is a library of delicious anecdotes. One winter evening, as the stars slept sweet under the quilt of clouds, and we mused about poetry and literature, he pulled out a story from the upper rack of his memory. Something he had read in an article or a book, he couldn’t recall. I still remember the faraway look with which he narrated how painter Imroz, lover and companion of Punjabi poetess Amrita Pritam, continued to lay two plates for dinner, long after she had passed away.
The romance of this story intoxicated me for a long, long time. It threw light on our need as human beings to feel someone’s presence when we indulge in the most vulnerable of acts – the act of eating. Taking on from there, I reflected upon my own experiences and feelings associated with ‘eating alone’. Much like the diagram of a butterfly’s lifecycle from a biology book, my emotions attached to eating alone can be explained in stages. It’s been a journey of transformation for me as well.
Looking back, I would imagine that I entered the first stage when I left my mother’s home nearly a decade ago.
‘I just couldn’t eat alone.’
I grew up in a household throbbing with people. Now that I recall, we weren’t really allowed to go into the kitchen at different times and serve ourselves, we were a family where eating together was an unsaid rule and mealtime was an occasion. We ate breakfast, lunch and dinner together and that was perhaps the only time I would step out of the luxury of sulking alone to be with the whole pack. We are three sisters and so the duties of laying the food, winding up and helping mom were always divided. I would invariably escape my duty, resent being shaken from my thoughts but despite the hurdles, I enjoyed the feeling of togetherness that all noise and the talk and the smell of food brought along. It was reassuring. Even when I started working, lunches and late working dinners were with friends (we didn’t call them colleagues back then), and weekends were dedicated to rajma-chawal-dahi with family.
Let’s just say, until I began living on my own, I was entirely unfamiliar with the unsettling feeling of sitting with just ‘one’ plate in front of me. The lone plate – in those days, it was a dreadful sight for me.
At work, I felt too prideful, too awkward, too self-concious and too detached to join my colleagues (yes, by now, they were called colleagues) unless they checked on me. Most of the times they did, and sometimes they forgot I was right there. When I ate alone in a sea of people laughing and whining about their bosses in the canteen, I felt an excruciating need to wind up quickly. Although no one bothered, I felt everyone was staring at me for eating alone.
At home, looking at the dal-rice (I was not aligned to the idea of cooking a fancy meal for myself and I never liked to order in) in the lone blue ceramic plate, I would almost question my life-choices. I never skipped a single meal but I never really ate properly for months.
The third place I ate alone was the abysmal mall behind my office. I would go there and order a croissant-coffee combination every single day and eat it by myself while catching up on the newspaper. Truth is, I would actually be hiding behind the newspaper, hoping people didn’t notice I was the sad solo eater.
Those days, every feeling felt permanent. I didn’t have the wisdom to understand that it was all ephemeral. Sooner or later, something was going to change.
‘And then, I began to love eating alone.’
Time passed. The seasons on the outside and the inside didn’t remain the same. I was finally coming into my own and getting comfortable with this whole idea of eating alone. It was liberating. I had woken up to this whole new me and discovered the joys of ordering, cooking and packing a meal for one. So much so, that I had begun to prefer it that way.
By now I had found love, and love for a change had found me back. The days of unreciprocated sighs were over and the warmth of someone’s hand in my hand was the only reassurance I was looking for. I had made friends as well, my situation had changed. I was no more confronted by the fear of eating alone, I had company most evenings, but solo-eating had slowly seeped into my being as a habit now. I had developed a sort of affection for the lone plate and I would actually seek one on most days.
As a matter of fact, I was all over the place. Satisfied South-indian breakfasts, burger at the mall – with cheese, but without self-pity, and stir-fried vegetables with brown rice at home (yes! I had also progressed from the dal-rice and began enjoying cooking for myself). I did this most naturally, most instinctively, most comfortably. This phase made me content and self-contained.
But the story wasn’t over yet. A new kind of feeling was on its way.
‘I now allow this feeling to guide me.’
I am currently experiencing the sublime space that lies between the heartbreak of the freshly migrated girl and the confidence of the ‘can I have a table for one?’ writer from the big city. I am not swinging too high or too low, but rocking somewhere in between - a space where I have begun to love the idea of ‘sharing’ a meal with someone for the right reasons. And if need be, going an extra mile for the same.
I don’t care for the shattering of my own walls anymore and comfortably leap over to eat lunch with a colleague when I feel like. In the same breath, I thoroughly enjoy my meal alone on days when the heart doesn’t seek company. The sharing now is purely to enjoy someone’s presence, to catch up on the day, to laugh at a joke. Let’s just say, my experiences with eating alone have come full circle. No wonder, on most days, I can be heard saying the following golden words on the phone:
“Come soon, let’s have dinner together.”
P.S: The views expressed in this essay are purely of the author and do not intend to generalise.
Part 2, THE AWARENESS
Watched, watching, conscious and hyper aware of his surroundings, illustrator Mayur Mengle interprets the challenge of eating without the comforting presence of company.
"I felt like everyone was watching me," he says. "Like I had nowhere to hide from all these people unless I ate really soon and left."
"I have become my couch and my couch has become me."
"Even my food seems to be judging me."
PART 3, THE ROMANCE
Photographer Naina Gahlaut shares the comfort of having a meal by herself, without the distraction of company, eating exactly what she wants to eat, wherever she wants to eat it.