To survive a checklist

Last Updated : 21 November 2015, 18:35 IST
Last Updated : 21 November 2015, 18:35 IST

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The waiter placed the steaming cup of coffee in front of me. I abhor cold coffee and so hastened to sip the steaming brew. I frowned at its sugarless state. My companion, pointing at the two containers neatly arranged in the middle of the table, asked me to help myself because coffee was served without sugar in such high-end places. “If I have to add sugar myself, why do they charge so much for it?” I asked. “It is for the ambience,” he said.

I mixed a spoon of sugar and took a sip. I almost threw up. Who in the world likes salted coffee? I had added salt for sugar. I must have risen that morning from the wrong side of the bed. Everything I did was turning out to be minor disasters.

Earlier,  I had spotted a French-sounding dish on the menu card. When it arrived, it was our masala dosa with cheese gratings sprinkled over it, with a gleaming fork and spoon on either side of it. Since one has to be a Roman in Rome, I took the spoon in my left hand and the fork in my right, ready for the surgical procedure — I separated a generous piece of dosa with the spoon, pushed in a piece of potato, dipped it in the coconut chutney bowl, and opened my mouth to receive the juicy morsel. About an inch from my mouth, the dosa slipped and landed on my dress, and the potato piece fell on the golden Kanjivaram sari of the lady sitting in the next table.

My pen fails to record the commotion that followed and my apologies to the aggrieved person. Then followed the salted-coffee episode.

Five decades ago, a similar episode had been played out in another posh restaurant of those times. The mass exodus of educated Indians to the West had not begun yet. The few and far between who ventured there were given publicity. They were seen off warmly at the airport by hundreds of relatives and friends, along with handshakes, hugs and tears.

Garlanding and clicking the photographs by box cameras followed. The photograph appeared in the newspapers under the caption ‘Bon voyage’. For the next few months the family basked in the glory of having a son in ‘foreign’!

It was a common myth that those who went abroad had to be non-vegetarians, or they would starve. This made a vegetarian cousin of mine, who aspired to go abroad, practise eating non-vegetarian food. To start with, to eat an omelette that was cooked by the servant in the garage of the house (egg was prohibited inside our orthodox household). He managed to swallow half of it before he threw up all of it. His condition got so bad that he had to be hospitalised for dehydration. The doctor laughingly diagnosed the condition as ‘vegetarian syndrome’.

The second myth was for all of them to speak with a ‘western’ accent (while in the West) to be understood. Some became listeners of the BBC and Voice of America radio broadcasts. Those who wished for an audio-visual stimulation would watch all the western films in city’s theatres. A relative of mine frequented theatres that played British and Hollywood films. Once, when he stood in the queue to buy tickets for an award-winning film, the board ‘House Full’ greeted him. But he saw the lady at the women’s counter walking away with tickets. So much for gender equality, he grumbled. I then became an unexpected beneficiary by accompanying him to theatres and buying tickets for both of us from the counter meant for women. Some of his friends did not stop at learning the accent, but started smoking and enlisted themselves for ballroom dancing classes, too. After watching the films, they were convinced the two activities were mandatory for acceptance in the western society.

Using fingers at mealtime was uncivilised, and one had to learn to eat with a fork and spoon — another myth. Once, a cousin took me to a restaurant for me to learn their use. He felt I should be up-to-date in case I married a groom who lived abroad. That was when a vada piece dripping with sambar slipped off from my fork  and landed on the frock of the Anglo-Indian seated in the next table. ‘Ohs’ and ‘Ahs’ followed, leaving me red faced.

Years have passed. We have fewer foreign-returned Indians but plenty of foreign-settled Indians. Mini India(s), complete with temples and hotels, have sprung up in countries wherever Indian communities live. Recently, a non-resident-Indian niece of mine attended a family function along with her American husband. He came clad in dhoti and kurta, sporting a kumkum mark on his forehead. At lunch time, he sat on the floor cross-legged and savoured the traditional food served on the plantain leaf. Seeing him licking his fingers, my niece smilingly whispered that he carried curd rice with lemon pickle to office every day for lunch.
Life has come a full circle, has it not?

Published 21 November 2015, 16:27 IST

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