Monday, May 16, 2005

Sinister habits

"How much for the bunch?"

"Five rupees."

I held out the money.

"You're an educated boy, right?"

Now this was not a question one would expect from the local jasmine-seller (different from a florist in that this man sells mostly jasmines and other flowers that look suspiciously like jasmines, at least to the layman), but in spite of (a) being in my early-teens and (b) inexperienced in dealing with potentially hostile people like the local jasmine-seller, I was known to maintain my sang-froid in sticky situations.

"Yes," I replied stiffly.

"Don't you know how disrespectful it is to hand over money with your left hand?"

I looked at the offending limb and saw that the man was right. Later, replaying the incident over in my head, I realized that it was the fault of the tailor, who kept the wallet pocket behind the right trouser leg. But, then, trousers hadn't originated in South India, and wherever the damn things had been invented, I am positive that it was not considered a violation of the local etiquette to use the left hand in day-to-day transactions.

Coming back to the present, (or rather, the past, if your frame of reference is today), I mumbled an apology, handed over the fiver, wishing that it had been four-something, so I could've told him to "Keep the change, you filthy animal!", and bicycled home, in time for my mum's evening pooja, for which the flowers were needed.

The problem that I had often faced as a kid was shifting customs. The years spanning my primary education - and some of the secondary, too - were spent in Bombay, which for a kid like me was a city of crammed-together flats, friendly neighbours, slightly strange friends (which kind of happened all my life), and holi! However, being as I was from Tirunelveli, the summer vacations were spent there. Now Tirunelveli at the time was as diametrically opposite a city to Bombay as could be. Roads free from traffic (and tar), hot, dry afternoons, lazy evenings, and the occasional irate jasmine-seller.

So much for the romantic descriptions. I'm all for the works, but I tend to get carried away a bit and the reader is left lost in the ravine. So, I'll get back to the story at hand. Now I was in the ravine, and... wait. No, that's a different story. Erm... ah, yes. Since I was flitting between the two cities, I often had problems with the local etiquette. For example, in Bombay, if a kid were to address anyone on the street, it would be "Uncle" or "Aunty" depending on the apparent age and the apparent gender of the addressee. Now this is all right as a kid, but once you sprout stubble, it is not advisable to call a slightly older-looking chap "Uncle", or worse, call a lady "Aunty". Disastrous effects are almost assured in the latter case. Probably why the Army trains kids within its influence to call anything that moves "sir" or "ma'am" depending on the case.

In contrast, in Tirunelveli, any stranger is "Anna" (elder brother), or "Akka" (elder sister). Which was not too difficult, considering. Also, since the language was also completely different, I could learn, without confusion, politeness in both languages. However, actions speak louder than words... whoops, sorry, I mean, actions are tricky things, lacking a language segregation. A harmless signal for hitching a ride at region (a) can be interpreted as a jeer in region (b), often resulting in injury to the surprised hitchhiker.

Similarly, we South Indians are a little touchy about using the right hand for the right sort of actions. Preserving the decencies of narration, I will refrain from mentioning the origins of the custom. So it was rather unacceptable to hand over stuff with the left hand, pick food with the left hand, write with the left hand, change gears in the scooter with the left hand, etc.

Okay, so I was only pulling your leg about that last point. But you get the hang of it. In fact, this was so engraved on the young and impressionable minds of the region that they were more thorough on this concept than on the concept of right and left. When I was teaching the kid of a family friend to ride the bicycle, I almost dropped both in shock when I said, "Turn left", and the girl paused, brought her right hand up to her mouth a couple of times in a food-eating gesture (accompanied by something that sounded like "num, num", which, I believe, was how she thought she sounded when she ate), nodded her head, said "Ah! Okay!", in the manner that Tycho Brahe may have exclaimed when in the middle of his class, he suddenly realized what was wrong with the concept of platonic solids he was working on, and proceeded to turn left (the kid, not Brahe).

Unfortunately, I was not similarly gifted, and this aspect of my otherwise irreproachable manners was often brought to light at my grandma's dining table, when I reached for an idli from the pile in the bowl with my left hand.


Ow!" I muttered, rubbing my wrist.

"Never use your left hand to touch food. Don't you know that -" and, depending upon the age and the religious knowledge of the admonisher, I would receive a crash course on the goddess of food, her quirky natures, etc. I would nod numbly, reaching for the idli. My grandmom makes amazing idlis, which sublime in the mouth, making you forget any amount of physical abuse your body has endured, like slaps on the wrist.


"Now what?"
I hissed. Idlis or no idlis, there is only so much a boy can take.

"Echhi kai!" - now, there really is no euphemism for the translation, but to put it mildly, the term refers to a hand which has deposits of saliva on it, owing to the fact that when one eats with the fingers, one needs to insert a few fingers into the oral cavity and close the mouth over them, and then withdraw the fingers to prevent the food (especially curd rice) from spilling out. Anyways, though the eating of idlis does not entail the actual insertion of fingers into the oral cavity - at least, it wasn't my style - there are people who are a little finicky about the thing.

"So I can't pick up the idli with my right hand, and I can't pick it up with my left hand. Great."

Now, back home, my mum used to cleverly overcome this minor point by using a large spoon of sorts, which in turn could be held by the left hand, if you're not a purist. However, that turns out to be a rather huge "if".

"What am I here for? If you need an idli, ask me. I'll serve." And an excess of idlis appear on my plate.

The customs are slightly quirky, but I forgave my ancestors. One has to take the rough with the smooth, especially if the "smooth" part includes those idlis. If any of you happen to pass through Tirunelveli, drop in to my Grandma's place, and try them out. And keep that left hand away from the table.


Vignesh said...

I have a related issue. I love murungakkai sambar (I have no idea what its called in english, so I'm not even going to try). So I try to get a ladle full of the sambar (with my left hand), with the said vegetable, and try to pick out the vegetables with my right, saliva-fied hand. *slap* I didn't touch the ladle with my right hand, I didn't touch the rest of the sambar, I touched only the veggies that I was going to eat.

Apparently this stuff is communicative. It spreads, through various media.

Mangs said...

drumstick :-)

shrik said...

I once got berated by a storeowner for paying with a ten-rupee note that I'd folded along its length and proffered by holding between my index and middle finger (of the right hand, mind you!). I apologized, but to this day have no clue what social taboo I'd broken. Any insights from this forum are t'ed.i.a. (and no, I wasn't pointing my hand like a gun, either)

Vignesh said...

Oh yeah... another one about shopkeepers... this lady, actually refused to give me what I paid for because, she claimed, according to vaastu, I wasn't in the right place to receive it.

I demanded my money and walked outta there. The nerve !!!

Senthil said...

Vignesh: Heh... it does spread, all right... like that sensation the milk-drinking Ganesha idol caused...

...and as for the storeowner, wow!

Mangs: Bingo.

Shrik: I think it was for folding the ten-rupee note along its length, thereby causing a crease across Mr.Gandhi's face...

sandeep said...

that was damn funny.. keep postin.. ;)

Senthil said...

Thanks, Sandeep. Your wish, as they say, is my command. And hey, presto! A post appears!