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The Only Free Lunch


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
The Only Free Lunch


Langar - or the tradition of serving a wholesome meal to anyone that wants one – is not uncommon across North India. The word and the practice are wedged within the intersections of food and bounty, of occasion and ritual, Hinduism and altruism. In this forum, there could be an unappetising aspect to accepting a meal without rendering any return– the needy tourist remains an anomaly.

But Guru ka Langar, the customary meal adopted by and adapted to Sikhism is served at every gurdwara, and has attained the cult culinary status usually bestowed by Michelin stars. You must go. A broken funny bone compels me to add, “No reservations required.”

To the food, the food, the glorious food. Vegetarian, so none are excluded from partaking. Usually cooked in really really pure ghee, the milk skimmed for cream, and clarified into clear, golden butter in the very kitchen that the langar is prepared. A la carte options range from different dals (lentils temporized with herbs and spices), rotis (thin leavened bread), sabzis ( a multitude of vegetables) to the quintessentially Punjabi choley bhature (spicy chickpeas with puffy fried bread).

If you distilled the essence of your favourite Sardarji uncle into a meal, it would taste like this–comfortable, hearty, robust. It is the emanating warmth, not solely from the piping hot food, which transforms the meal into an experience. All the homespun epithets apply. Like mamma’s, like grandma’s, langar has that elusive whiff of familial and familiar, even if your conception of a home-cooked meal might be turkey and pumpkin pie.

Watchful eyes and ready hands anticipate the next roti and cajoling voices coerce you to consume more calories while you rub your belly in the universal gesture for ‘I’m stuffed!’ And you are not being singled out for special attention – affection is ladled out in hearty portions to everyone that sat down alongside or across you.

To sit down for a meal (cross-legged, standard lotus is the preferred stance), with someone wholly unlike you is not an occurrence easily replicated. The rituals and etiquette that enclose a meal herd us into heterogeneous eating groups. Guru ka Langar effectively breaks barriers between the breaking of common bread. Like a liberal matrimonial classified, langar is caste, creed, community, and class no bar. The collective smacking of lips and licking of fingers (cutlery is eschewed) creates a camaraderie that nourishes after you’re done digesting.

The ingredients for each meal served at the gurdwara are purchased by volunteers, prepared by volunteers, served by volunteers. And the used dishes are then washed by volunteers – rinse and repeat, typically twice daily though in some larger gurdwaras such as Bangla Sahib, all the livelong day. For Sikhs this is seva or service, as integral and inalienable to their faith as the quintessential visual signifier, the turban.

And therein lies the catch. Wait, didn’t you know there are no free lunches? Seva is the ‘suggested donation’ an expression of gratitude, a mode of recompense, a medium of prayer. The final tally still leaves you in lucre, if you consider the exponential spiritual dividends. And if you’re not divinely inclined, there’s still an abundance of food for thought.


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