Friday, April 2, 2010

Sorry for asking

An experience at an Irani restaurant next to Churchgate station recalled an amusing and somewhat negative side of this city. I wanted a cup of tea, but I dislike the sweet milky concoction one usually gets so I ordered the promising "Black tea (tea bag)" listed on the menu at 10 rupees. Then I asked if I could have a tiny amount of milk on the side, and was told very sternly: "It's black tea. If you want milk, you have to buy a full cup of milk". I decided to enjoy it black, with a twist of the lemon they supplied, but I did feel a teaspoon of milk would hardly have bankrupted them any more than the lemon.

On thinking about it, my first reaction is that this mean-spirited behaviour could not be connected with the Irani roots of the restaurant. I've spent time in Iran and it's hard to imagine a more gracious and hospitable society. So where does it come from? My guess is that this is a British legacy.

A memory begins to surface in support of this hypothesis. The scene: one morning in 1984 at a charming bed-and-breakfast in Brighton, where I was attending a particle physics conference. An American physicist sitting with me was only half-attentive as the suave owner recited the breakfast menu: "Orange juice or cereal and milk, and bacon and fried eggs or poached eggs, sir?". He responded "Yeah, I'll take the juice, cereal, poached eggs and bacon". The owner froze (or as P.G. Wodehouse memorably wrote in a different context: "Ice formed on the butler's upper slopes"). He bowed coldly and repeated "Orange juice OR cereal and milk, and bacon and fried eggs OR poached eggs, sir", his emphasis placing brackets and converting the menu into a well-formed Boolean expression.

From my position I could observe the kitchen. The wife cooked breakfast while the husband took orders (more accurately, gave orders). She would fry bacon and then eggs in the same pan. But if the order was for poached eggs then a different saucepan came into the picture and bacon could not - would not - be fried. What of the juice? Perhaps they thought it was not good for you to have citrus juice and milk with the same meal. Or they simply wanted to save money. Either way, observe the sheer rigidity of the owner's decisions and his refusal to entertain a customer's request. That's Britain for you, or it was in 1984.

Also in Oliver Twist's time. And presumably at all times in between? Remember Pink Floyd's famous line: "If you don't eat yer meat you can't have any pudding! How can you have any pudding if you don't eat yer meat!".

Indeed. Sorry I asked for a teaspoon of milk.


Yayaver said...

Liked the post.. Have never heard of this British cultural trademark !

Sukratu said...

Gone a little too hard on Brits, I must say. We in the orient are perhaps accustomed to
seeing plenty of food supplies (and regrettably can afford to waste it the way we do apart from using it to present a hospitable culture) Brits like many others
are perhaps not used to such. But maybe that is true specially for Brits whom you have singled out. They created the largest and the longest lived corporation till date which satiated their desires for tea and sugar!

vbalki said...

Irani restaurants appear to have come down in the world. When I was a schoolboy in Bombay and Poona in the 1950s, they were far more generous and tolerant, especially when catering to schoolboys on a negligible budget. An order of "Ek chai char saucer" was accepted routinely. The two-anna maska-bun was delectable, even when shared with a few other hungry sharks. An extra spoonful of jam would even be slipped into the bun gratis, but that must have been due to the imposing presence of our class dada, whose uncle owned the restaurant.

Yayaver said...

Just got this line while reading, E. M. Forster rightly says in A Passage to India, is the besetting Indian vice, as hypocrisy is the British vice.

Sunil Mukhi said...

Yayaver: I believe you missed out a word. It is suspiciousness which (in Forster's opinion) is the besetting Indian vice, while hypocrisy is the British vice.

Not sure how either of these is particularly related to the vice of refusing a teaspoon of milk??

vbalki said...

Parsimony may not be unique to Brits (in Brighton or elsewhere)! I am informed by a friend of really advanced age that, in Madras (and in small towns in the South) in the old days, it was strictly sambhar OR chutney OR "gunpowder" (chili-dal powder) with your plate of idlis. According to him, the lavish array of (small) katoris bearing sambhar and at least two kinds of chutney was a welcome innovation introduced by the udupi joints. May their tribe increase!

Debanik said...


I liked your post, but I have to somewhat disagree. The stern and curt response at the restauarant is typical of Indian owners in any part of the world. I believe it comes from the fact the owners historically had control over limited resources (have to disagree with Suktau here)and could care less for the captive customers. My 2 cents.

Ankur Kulkarni said...

Prof Mukhi, I think you have over-analysed the owner's stern reaction. It might simply be that the owner suspected you of "gaming the system" by ordering a cheaper black tea and requesting a bit of free milk in an effort to enjoy tea-with-milk at the price of black-tea instead of ordering the usually more expensive tea-with-milk itself.