Python's Flying Restaurant
India may at
times appear to be bogged down with inefficiency and bureacracy, but if
there is one thing that Indians excel in, it is food. Take South Indian
restaurants for instance. They are highly organised and functional. There
is a strict division of labour between supervisors, waiters and the boys
who clear away the leftovers. And, I almost forgot - the man who carries
around an armful of banana leaves to be dispatched to each customer. Eating
is a serious business. Food is gobbled at speed as if there is no tomorrow.
Even little, old women pack away heaps of rice and vegetables. How can
such small people eat so much? The coffee served in South India is how
coffee should taste. It arrives piping hot in a small metal mug, which
stands in a high rimmed metal saucer. Like most Westerners, I like to
savour its presence in front of me. I wait for it to cool and all
the time anticipate how good it will taste when I eventually drink it.
For Indians, it is different.
After the food it shovelled down the throat, the coffee ritual begins.
It is poured from mug to saucer, and from saucer to mug five, six or seven
times. There is no waiting for it to cool naturally. Then it is slurped
down, and people get up to leave. Its fast food, eaten fast. This
is where Indians get one over Westerners in the waiting game. Most Westerners
like to sit around at the end (no doubt waiting for the coffee to cool)
and to talk. And this is especially so for the Western backpacker.
Backpackers in India like to "hang out". And what better places
to do so than in cafes and restaurants. They usually have little else
to do anyhow. "Hanging out" is a euphemism for waiting - waiting
to buy the next bus or train ticket to move to the next destination. I
know this because a lot of conversations tend to revolve around, "How
long are you in town for", "Where are you going to next?",
"How much did you train ticket cost?", and "How long does
it take to get there?"
Indians must wonder what the hell do these people (backpackers) do all
day, and why are they sitting in cafes when they have finished their food
an hour ago. Backpackers do an unbelievable lot of waiting, and I am no
different. But this type of waiting is self imposed and fairly pleasant.
It is the type of waiting that is inflicted by India that causes me (and
others) to get so frustrated. If only everywhere in India functioned like
a South Indian restaurant, there would be no problem. Then India would
be the most efficient place on the planet.
Unfortunately, it is not. Waiting in queues for hours to buy train tickets
and waiting for trains that are six hours late is the norm. And after
getting the ticket and boarding the train, waiting for chai sellers to
shut the hell up is becomes a preoccupation. One man comes along carrying
his tea urn. You can hear him from the other end of the carriage. So you
are left in no doubt that he is on his way. How can such small men have
such big voices? Each one sounds the same. It is a deep throated high
pitched scream. I swear that there must be a voice training school for
them somewhere on the outskirts of Delhi. Anyway, after bellowing their
way through the carriage, causing the utmost annoyance, they stop and
look at you, and in their normal voice ask "Chai?". It is as
if they think I am stone deaf and have not heard them as soon as they
came onto the train. And after one goes another arrives; then another;
and another. Good God, how much chai do they think a person needs? This
is not to mention the ones patrolling the platform and shouting "Chai"
through the open windows. I wouldn't mind if it was decent tea, but it
is not. They must destroy it by putting about four spoons of sugar into
each small plastic cup. For a country that grows so much tea, they do
not seemed to have conquered the art of making a decent pot yet.
There used to be a British comedy programme on TV during the late 1960s/early
1970s called Monty Pythons Flying Circus. Much of it consisted of
sketches bordering on the surreal. Everytime I am subjected to the chai
selling farce on Indian trains, I am reminded of it. John Cleese was one
of the main actors in Python. He went on to do another programme in the
mid-70s called 'Fawlty Towers'. It was based around a guest house where
Cleese played the ill-tempered owner who ran the place for his own benefit.
The place was a shambles and the guests were a definite pain in the ass
to Cleeses character. I am convinced that whoever thought of Python
and Fawlty Towers must have spent a lot of time in India - on trains and
in the hotels.
© Colin Todhunter 2003
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