Thursday, May 16, 2013

May I get a glass of water please?

It is getting harder every day to distinguish our shiny airports as city after Indian city acquires massive glass fronted buildings with high ceilings, and store frontages within it sporting a sameness that tell you they are part of globalisation and mass production at their best. 

As we rapidly set up franchises of French bakeries and 
American coffee shops, it gets difficult at times to identify in which city of which country am I? The sights and sounds of India are getting gulped down with the cappuccinos and americanos on the menus. 

My client recently treated me to a 'Koorgi (with a K) coffee', excitedly suggesting it as a new offering at this trendy cafe in Pune. I have so often longed for the unique and rich taste of 'filter coffee', a rarity when not in the locales of south India. So of course I was delighted to taste Indian Coorgi coffee in an Indian cafe away from South IndiaI do love cappuccino and am fiercely loyal to Starbucks to an obsession, but when in Rome......
We can do as the Americans of course, can't we also do as the Indians?

I got a cappuccino at Delhi's smaller terminal from a 'Bistro' recently, where all servers looked French forehead upwards, efficiently whipping up and productively serving the queue of eager buyers. After paying Rs. 300 for a cake and coffee, I asked the server 'may I get a glass of water please?' The imitation French girl gave a sweet Indian smile and said matter-of-factly, 'No, we do not serve water'. She said they had those sparkly bottles of water that I could buy. Of course, how stupid of me to expect it for free with the 300 rupees I paid....but I just wanted a sip, not a litre.....

Of course I understand the running of a business. God forbid that they go bankrupt giving free water to all and sundry.... .....profitability, bottom line, return on investment, all must naturally be preserved.

But can't we be French or Italian or whatever AND Indian? And hospitable and profitable? Why not be creative AND contextual beyond being imitative? What a potentially wonderful opportunity to have the confidence of a franchise along with the richness of being culturally relevant?  

Something had not felt right.......wasn't what I just experienced against the core of our Indianness, our 'atithiyata' (hospitality), our culture and our pride in our hospitality? Aren't we, at least until my generation, brought up to know that giving water is a part of breathing the air of India?......and refusing water??! 

My mother taught me that if you do not give water to the thirsty, you become a 'chatak pakhi' (a Bengali word for the bird that cries lifelong with the agony of thirst) in your next life......old wives tales maybe, but something about being rooted in compassion and hospitality. Perhaps these birds do not exist in French...

If the server had asked me, 'would you also like a bit of water and may I add a rupee to your bill for the paper cup?', I would probably have been happy to pay five. They would have made a profit from the cup and I would have left a happy customer. And we would have preserved the essence of being Indian while still being a profitable cookie from the global cookie cutter.

Lets move to the next level of globalisation through creative AND cultural adaptation....