In that scene, when Harihar sits down for dinner, his wife Sarbojaya says she has something special for him. After the modest meal, she pours him a glass of milk. He drinks the milk to the last drop. Then he pours water in the glass and drinks it too.
I asked two simple questions of my friends. Why does Sarbojaya say that she has something special? Why does Harihar, after drinking the milk, pour water in his glass and drink it? Not a single American friend, though several are from Indian-origin families, was able to answer.
The answers are simple. The family, though ostensibly middle-class, is so poor that milk is like a delectable dessert. Of that precious commodity, not even a drop is to be lost; hence water is poured into the glass so that the last vestiges can be absorbed.
Even perceptive, cultivated westerners cannot extend their imagination sufficiently to conceive of a couple talking of something so pedestrian as milk as a treat. Nor can they conceive of a person rinsing a glass with water and drinking it, not to waste the tiniest drop of milk. Even Asian Americans, whose parents are recent immigrants from India, find the scene a conundrum, for relative affluence has wiped clean any family memory of scarcity. Perhaps many young urban Indians today will also find the scene baffling.
My experiences, particularly with kind and generous friends, have also emended if not erased some preferences. I live in a highly cosmopolitan place where I can eat any kind of food, but I don’t eat what I used to eat as a child or adolescent. My sensibility has guided me to eat what is good for me, but my senses have changed too and alien food now appeals both to my eyes and my palate. Yet I must recognize that years of conditioning have left a mark on my choices. I may like the bright, basic colors of Alexander Calder’s art, but in buying a shirt I choose pastel colors. I rarely eat rice, but when I eat it my heart sings. I love to hear Dvorak, and yet my whole body thrills to the strains of Vilayat.
These predilections are legitimate, but they are also a clue to the huge hinterland that lies behind our conscious thoughts and feelings. Our private world of experiences, past joys and pains, loves and hates, substantially and constantly influence our current choices, our decisions about what is good or bad, right or wrong. If we keep that in mind, we will be ready to be humble in our judgments. We will know that there are subtle, subterranean forces working within us, without our knowing, and we will be cautious.
It is not simply our decisions, but our imagination too is bounded by the range of our experiences. We simply cannot imagine certain things, such as the utter brutality of war or the bottomless despair of penury, if we have not gone through it. The Gates Foundation has done impressive work in fighting poverty, but I doubt Bill Gates can come within miles of understanding the desperation of Indian farmers who take their own lives. Or why Harihar pours water in an emptied glass of milk.
Recently I saw a remarkable film that reminded me again of Ray’s artistry. South American director Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, a nostalgic, sluggish black-and-white movie about a maidservant in the colonial barrio of Mexico City. Most of my western acquaintances found its theme and slow pace exasperating; those who saw it until the end thought it lackluster. It is to the great credit of a country that has chosen a boorish charlatan as its leader that it crowned Cuarón as the best director and cinematographer at the Academy Awards this year. I was greatly moved by the film’s charm and insight, but I humbly wondered how much I probably missed, despite my comfort with Spanish and my familiarity with Mexico City, of its myriad, mysterious subtleties.