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Experiencing lived culture

One important aspect of “lived” culture is about who belongs and who does not. A community figures out who is an outsider by looking at such simple things about him (her/ their) as the name and the surname he bears, the dress he wears, the food he eats, the way he eats, the words he uses for things, the way he pronounces them, the way he organizes his space, etc. Let me recount some experiences of mine in this respect.

Prof. Itagi of Central Institute of Indian Languages (CIIL), Mysore, who is no more, was a very good friend of mine. One morning we had breakfast together at a small but very popular eating place in Kalidasnagar, Mysore, which served excellent South Indian food. We ordered “Mysore masala dosa”. The waiter gave us sambar and chutney in small stainless steel bowls. He had given a spoon for the sambar. I wanted another.The waiter gave me an un-understanding look and told me that he had already given me a spoon. “It’s for the chutney”, I told him. Itagi Saab told me that if you eat chutney with a spoon, you are an outsider. You are supposed to dip the pieces of dosa into the chutney bowl and eat chutney that way. I would have eaten it that way had he not given the chutney in a bowl. Ordinarily it is served with dosa on the same plate. He said Mysore masala is a big dosa and there are other chutneys served with it. Those are on the same plate but the coconut chutney is sometimes served in a bowl. But whatever the way chutney is given, if one asked for a spoon, it would look odd to a local (Kannada person), Itagi Saab told me.

One evening, we were in what he called a “heritage” restaurant in the city. It was snacks time. I ordered bhaji (probably brinjal bhaji). The waiter brought hot bhaji with chutney. I asked for sambar. The waiter looked at me in mild disbelief. He looked at me as though he did not hear me and wanted me to say it again. “Please give him sambar”, Itagi Saab told the waiter. “Okay, I will but what will bhaji taste with sambar?” he muttered. I realized that I was the outsider. I did not know what in the food culture of Mysore went with what.

If one is an Odia or a Bengali – in fact, an eastern Indian – one doesn’t eat hot jalebiwith freeze-cold curd, as people in Nainital do or cold jalebi with boiling hot milk asdo people in many parts of North India.If you add sugar toyour daal at home, you are not an Odia. If you eat your gulabjaman (a cheese sweet) hot and your rasagolas (another cheese sweet) cold, you are not an Odia.

It was in Kanpur that I learnt about egg dosa and mutton dosa. There was a dhaba (small eatery) near the Pared (the popular pronunciation of “Parade” in Kanpur) crossing, on the menu of which was mentioned mutton dosa and egg dosa, in which, instead of mashed potatoes, the stuffing was minced meat and scrambled egg respectively.I got a culture shock. For me, egg dosa and mutton dosa constituted a contradiction in terms.I never tried either. Then one dayin Bangalore – Chennai Shatabdi Express they served me egg dosa. I was absolutely unprepared for it, but I ate it. At that stage it wasn’t possible to modify the order and ask for vegetarian breakfast. I didn’t know that egg dosa part of non-vegetarian breakfast that morning. That dosa is unforgettable; it was the lousiest dosa I had ever had. In sum, who belongs to your community and who does not belong, in this case, rested on the stuffing in the dosa. It is a matter of what goes with what.

And sometimes, who goes with what. It was a hot, humid day in 1978 when I stepped into “Red Rose”, the only restaurant there was in IIT Kanpur campus. When I ordered fish and rice curry, the elderly waiter laughed loudly and endearingly and said “aaapbangalibabuhonge (You must be a Bengali)”, suggesting that I wasn’t a North-Indian.While at CIEFL (Central Institute of English and Foreign Languages), Hyderabad, renamed as “EFLU”, my Phonetics teacher told me that if one had good “phonetic ears”, one could tell which part of our country one is from, from his pronunciation of English.

As far as I am concerned, I do not know about “phonetic ears”, but I know that all one needs for the purpose is knowledge of the sound system of a language and also that one must be an alert listener. If one is pronouncing the first consonant sound of “shop” and “sop” in the same way, the person is a Bengali; if one is pronouncing the first sound of “joke” and “zoo” in the same way, the person is an Odia and if one pronounces “school” as “iskul”, with the vowel “I” in the beginning, then he is from Punjab. Now, what I learnt that day from the waiter of Red Rose was that if you are knowledgeable about the food preferences of the people of different parts of the country, you would figure out where one is from, from his order.

The same term, different meanings: for one who loves language, it can befun. Outside language use, in a real life situation, it can be a problem. At the Irani restaurants in Hyderabad, special tea has a layer of cream floating on the tea. “Special tea” in Punjab is very milky and sweet. I hadgrown up with a different concept of special tea. Once I surprised the waiter of an Irani restaurant by asking for a spoon when I saw the tea he had brought me, so that I could remove the cream. He understood that I wasn’t a Hyderabadi. “Eat it, Saa’b; it’s tasty”, he told me with a persuasive smile. There was so much goodness in his tone that I ate it and pretended that I relished it. As for the Punjabi special tea, the best you can do, if you share my dislike for milky tea, is this: after you have the first sip, don’t touch the tea again, ask for normal tea and when you leave the dhaba, just pay for both.

That was my first visit to Kolkata (“Calcutta”, as it was called then). I was having lunch at a Bengali house.It was a fabulous lunch. There was rice and dal, then shukto, nicely sliced potato fry, sliced brinjal fry, parval curry, fried rohu fish and mustard fish curry. As I was trying to reach the mustard fish curry, my hostess told me that I should eat shukto first, then the vegetable items and only then the non-vegetarian items. That’s the custom, she told me. I told her that in my state, Odisha, it was different. One could start with any item. Many start with the fried non-vegetarian item. “Any way, I will follow your custom”, I told her.“When in Rome, do as the Romans do”, is what I told myself.

Years later, I was having lunch at the house of a close friend, a Bengali. A great lunch again, with a wonderful mustard fish curry. During our post-lunch chat, my friend asked me which style of eating is better in my opinion: the Bengali or the Odia?I told him a story.

After death, two persons met god Yama in the other world. The dispenser of justice told them that for their doings in the mortal world, they would have to have some unpleasant experiences and some pleasant ones in that world of the non-mortals. “Which one would you like to have first?” asked the god. “The unpleasant ones first”, said one. “Why?” asked Yama. “The memory of the unpleasant experiences would make the pleasant experiences doubly enjoyable”, said the man. “What about you?” Yama asked the other person. “I’ll prefer to have the pleasant experiences first. The happy memories of them will make my unpleasant experiences more bearable”, he told the god. It’s then one’s choice: the bitter shukto first and mustard fish curry last or the other way round. Each has its justification. My young friend told me, “Wonderful, Patnaik da, my sandeshis yours!”

“Lived culture”, as mentioned above, is about who belongs to the community and who does not. It’s about differences. I do not think lived culture tells a community how to deal with the other, who is different – “aspirational culture” does, but this piece is not about that. It looks like it is the individual’s decision how to deal with the “different other”: accept him, considering his way of living as just different, neither superior nor inferior with respect to his own or to keep him at a distance and interact with him when the need arises.

To acquire knowledge of the lived culture, one need not, in fact, must not, read the literary classics or knowledge (-based) texts or go to the temples and festivals or educational centres; one must go instead to the market place, railway stations, bus stands, road-side eateries and the like.

(The views expressed are the writer’s own)

Prof. B.N.Patnaik

Retd. Professor of Linguistics and English, IIT Kanpur

Email: [email protected]

(Images from the net)

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