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Table Manners

INTRODUCTION this real story took place at least 5 decades and 5 years back when the author was just entering his teens - as such no cause for amusement or fun about certain facts. When I was just entering my School on that day my classmate SOMU yelled at me “yeh, PANJU! Are you coming for the office party on the coming Sunday"

 

I couldn’t follow head or tail as my limited knowledge put me to guessing about the congress party, communist party etc. I retorted back that it was not the time to talk about politics at our age and I was not interested in attending such wasteful things. He mocked back at my ignorance and explained that a TEA PARTY is in the offing for the officials and one member from each of the families is invited in honor of the visiting collector. This party was to be hosted by the CUSTOMS department in which both of our fathers served. SOMU was elder to me by at least a couple of years and appeared stout and tall while I was short and puny even for my age. In spite of this fact, he was always on obligation to me at the time of exams when he used to sit behind me and indulge in copying as I was always holding top position in class.

Though there was a few more who were aspiring to be my neighbor he could easily elbow them out by his brutal strength. My only utility of him was to acquire knowledge about the worldly affairs least connected with our studies. To be honest, that was the first time that I had ever heard about a TEA PARTY. I became more inquisitive and collected every information about the impending party during which, apart from tea, sweets and snacks, they also provided the invitees with entertainment through a music band. Immediately on reaching home I murmured to my mother to recommend me to my father in order to avail this opportunity. At that age – for that matter even after my becoming a grand father – I lacked the guts to have any dialogue with my father. My father was surprised that I could gather this information about his office and declared that it was not for youngsters. When I confronted my father, I told him that SOMU a son of a class-4 staff is attending the party. I feel humiliated to face his boastings and as the son of a INSPECTOR and also holding 1st rank in the class I deserve to attend the TEA PARTY.

My father became furious and abused me for my adamant talk and declared that without knowing anything about TABLE MANNERS I would bring discredit his name by attending the party. I was puzzled about that word TABLE MANNERS and also my personal ego prevented me to know about its meaning and opted to remain quiet rather than making my case weaker by exhibiting my ignorance. My knowledge of English was substandard at that time and tried my memory to know the meaning of MANNERS so that I could connect TABLE or CHAIR whatever it is!

 

Suddenly I recollected an incident - when one of his colleagues visited our house I did not rise from my seat to welcome him and was scolded by my father for not knowing basic manners. So I concluded that whenever some respectable person approaches, we should get up from our seat. But I couldn’t get anything out of combining both terms and for the time being I did not bother. After all I was not to go to that party anyway. But on the next day after my father left for early morning duty my mother called me fondly and broke the good news that she could manage his permission for my attending the PARTY and revived my spirits. My dear mother had rescued me from my father plenty of times including for my controversial matrimony. Even now my eyes swell with tears when recollecting memorable moments in my life which always had her influence.

On that SATURDAY evening I met SOMU and boasted that I was also going to the party. He laughed and teased me that there was nothing great about that as all the children are automatically invited. He also took to me to the arena where all arrangements were being done. Lot of square tables were put with illumination of lights, erection of pandal etc. when I enquired all about the fuss of TABLE MANNERS he was visibly proud to explain to me as many times I had tutored him mathematics and other subjects. He took me aside and told me that was the invention of British dogs not suiting to our culture and simple way of life. Actually it was the custom of royal and rich people to arrange for frequent dinners and parties and just to prove their superiority they insist on so many dos and don’ts. We will discuss about the topic at a latter stage. My friend advised me to put up with the best dress as so many big dignitaries are expected. Though his father was much lower status wise he had acquired a lot of ill-gotten wealth by corruption and in spite of my father holding much higher rank he was a specimen of honesty and loyalty that has percolated to the 3rd generation.

Saturday night was restless and hence sleepless consequent of the terrible excitement generated in me by brooding over the impending PARTY. Well! At last the Sunday dawned and my first concern was readying the dress. I always liked the color blue and as such there was not much of a problem to pick that checked shirt of blue. To confess the truth I was having only 3 shirts worth wearing and the blue colored became the choice more by compulsion. As the pants are always dark, here too I faced a little problem. To be frank I am mentioning about my half pants or trousers as they used to be called at that historical time. There were no uniforms at that time and those 3 pairs of dresses were worn for all purposes. As the pair was looking crumbled I asked my mother to provide me with hot water filled and bottom flat vessel to iron out my clothes. Yes! That was the technique practiced by middle class families to press clothes!

My mother was surprised on my refusal to take Tiffin (uppuma or dosa) on the plea that I wanted to give justice to that PARTY. My father left for his work after which he was to join the party in his KHAKEE uniform. He just glanced at me and warned me not to join that notorious SOMU as he may do some mischief and take shelter under you being the officer’s son. But he could never give me an alternative for a worthy companion. I just nodded my head more out of formality than of obedience. In any case I couldn’t have ignored SOMU or vice-versa. The clock rang 5 times and I rushed to the bathroom and washed my face with soap more liberally than usual. When I put a lot of water on my rough and thick bunch of hair my mother shouted not to pour water on the head and invite cold. But that was necessary to groom my unruly hair which was in abundance at that time. I had to spend considerable time to produce that crown like curl at the forehead. My mother, sisters and brother were looking at my strange behavior.

The venue of the function was hardly 15 minutes from our quarters, but before that SOMU met me on the way. Actually I hurried so that he doesn't reach my house before my leaving the house and confront by my family members. SOMU made a glance at me from head to foot and laughed as if I was a joker. He was surprised that I was not wearing a full pant and full hand shirt. On his part he was trim in his full pant and matching full shirt tucked inside with a leather belt. He was wearing a canvas shoe with sox. He had put a lot of powder to cover his dark complexion with little success. But I couldn’t withstand the odor of a strong scent that was more of an irritation than enjoyment. When I made a compliment about his look he only abused his father for not presenting him with a watch for a long time. He also declared that my dress was not up to the standard of my father. But there was more of sympathy than of pride in his talk. He made me nervous to the extent that I was doubting whether I would get entry at all. He encouraged me by telling that when he was around none on earth dare stop me from entering and adding to that I was the son of an officer and on that ground alone other factors will be bypassed. I was elated momentarily as if my father was a governor or minister. But it is also a fact that my father’s position was having sufficient weight during those days. My friend SOMU selected a table that was covering almost all angles of viewpoint. They had put a table cloth of spotless white with embroidery work at the 4 corners. Out of the 4 chairs the remaining 2 chairs were inviting the attention of other invitees. But SOMU was preventing all of them from occupation on some plea or other until he spotted 2 guys of his acquaintance whom he invited to occupy the seats, as if he was the host. I was astonished by his superior air and way of conversation as if he was the son of that collector for whom all were waiting. Uniformed men of the catering company were briskly going around serving with forceps varieties of sweets and snacks. He warned me not to touch them until the chief guest made a start. He also remarked - that was part of TABLE MANNERS.

My fingers were itching at least to get the feel of those strange edibles. There was a small munching sound from my friend beside and I noticed he had already put something in his mouth and was enjoying it secretly. But when I looked at his plate all the pieces served so far were intact and on comparison one of mine was missing. He winked at me mischievously and at the same time called a bearer and complained that my plate was not served with that piece. However the bearer was not to accept it and declared that in all probability it must have already been consumed by me. SOMU in turn protested vehemently that as I was the son of an officer there was no such chance. On hearing that the server apologized and put that sweet on my plate. After he left, SOMU winked at me for the 2nd time and even dared to take a portion of that sweet from mine declaring that but for his presence of mind I would have lost even that half. On my part I sheepishly conceded his right when I had lost that half of sweet for nothing.

The COLLECTOR had at last arrived as was evident from the sudden silence and song of welcome in chorus. Rose garlands and a big bouquet were presented to him and his wife. I was proud momentarily to see my father shaking hands with the COLLECTOR and glanced at SOMU to see his reaction. As a well groomed politician he took full advantage of the scene and declared to that small gathering that he was the father of his friend –me. All eyes were focused on me much to my embarrassment and I am yet to know whether it was on admiration or pity. Then onwards he took complete control of the situation either for handling the bearers or for approaching the orchestra party. Frequently he was rushing to them and demanding that the Inspector's son wants a certain tune from a particular film to be played. But it was unfortunate that a particular carnatic based song that I wanted to be played was never executed by SOMU. The speech of the COLLECTOR tested the patience of all including myself and my father put an end to it with his characteristic intervention and hilarious jokes. I felt proud that my father could make the whole audience to heartily laugh where the collector failed miserably. If at all I have acquired some literary ability that it is entirely due to the genetic inheritance from my late father.

When the green signal was given all the gathering had started the real business of devouring the plate for which they were patiently waiting. There were more of ill manners rather than TABLE MANNERS in those ensuing 30 minutes. But to tell you the truth, most of them had stealthily emptied at least half of their plates except me the fool who was always following rules, regulations, decorum etc during the rest of his life. Most of the items that I had taken were for the first time in my life.

The party ended by 9 pm and I parted from my friend to reach my house. My mother and others crowded around me and I explained my new experience. I was all in praise of my father who was all the time crowded by others and listened patiently to his fluent English and versatile jokes. Father reached late in the night in a very good mood and then talked to me candidly. I was very shy even to tell him that his talk was interesting and thoroughly enjoyed by the audience. As it was already late in the night my father assured me to tell me all about TABLE MANNERS the next morning. He was quoting so many anecdotes and incidents concerning this British culture. But during his time the culture of British was very much in existence as only 5 years had passed after independence at the time of occurrence of the above events. Also let us not forget about the historical culture which is however in existence even now in ARMY QRS, like NDA, IMA and also in parties thrown amongst army circles. There are innumerable cultures of TABLE MANNERS DIFFERING FROM COUNTRY TO COUNTRY. To quote the Chinese way the system revolves around CHOP STICKS with which we are to bother lastly. Let us confine ourselves with the INDIAN WAY which is largely uniform through out India. Here are a few.

  • Wait for the host or the eldest person to start first.

  • You should maintain silence while eating food.

  • You are not expected to chat unnecessarily with the people around the table.

  • It is acceptable to not use cutlery for eating, as many foods - such as Indian breads and curry - are best enjoyed when eating with the hand.

  • Wash hands thoroughly before sitting at the table as some Indian foods are primarily eaten by hand.

  • Also, wash hands after eating the food. Usually, a finger bowl (with Luke warm water and lemon) is served per person for rinsing fingers.

  • In North India, when eating curry, the gravy must not be allowed to stain the fingers -- only the fingertips are used. However, in South India, it is acceptable to use more of your hand.

  • When flatbreads such as chapatti, roti, or naan are served with the meal, it is acceptable and expected to use pieces of them to gather food and sop-up gravies and curries.

  • The cardinal rule of dining is to always use the right hand when eating or receiving food and never the left. Even a piece from the bread is broken using the right hand alone.

  • It is considered unhygienic to use your spoon or fingers to share food from someone else's plate once you have started using your own. Instead, ask for a clean spoon to transfer the food to your plate from the common dish.

  • When eating with hands, always eat with right, as mentioned above. However, use only the other clean hand to transfer food from a common dish on the table.

  • It is not necessary to taste each and every dish prepared; but you must finish everything on the plate as it is considered a respect for served food. For that reason, take only as much food on the plate you can finish.

  • Usually guests help clear the dishes.

  • Footwear that is used outside must not be worn inside the house as it is considered unhygienic.

Lastly my father quoted an incident involving the noble laureate RABINDRANATH TAGORE when he was invited by the Queen of England to facilitate him with a party. He was not accustomed to such parties thrown by royal dignitaries. When he was served hot tea in a cup and saucer inadvertently he poured the tea bit after bit in the saucer and started sipping as it was very hot for him. That was against the concept of British manners as it is prohibited to transfer the tea to the saucer under any circumstances.

All the surrounding guests were shocked and considered it as an act of insult to the royalty. However considering the reputation of Tagore the queen wanted to dilute the crisis by following Tagore in transferring tea to the saucer from the cup. Immediately all the other royal gatherings followed the gesture of the queen in a similar manner. It was not only a great relief to the august gathering from embarrassment but a worthy tribute to the great Indian literaturete.

Contributing Writer: J. PANCHAPAGESAN DSP-RETD, CHENNAI  


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