It had been a rather long journey for us. We had already spent 13 hours on the bus. We had gone from (hot and sweaty) to (cold and hungry) overnight. The journey had been rocky and not, altogether pleasant. The bus had droned over endless hot, dry plains, before beginning its 3 hour ascent to the cool, refreshing hills in South India. It was 6 a.m. when the driver stopped for a break at a riverside village. “Vandi patthu nimisam nikkum” he shouted (The bus will stop for 10 minutes. )
Our knees looked like gnarled trees as we stepped out gingerly to stretch ourselves. I was happy to breathe in the fresh mountain air. We could hear a swift river flowing nearby and this small village was named after the river.
To add to the appeal, the fresh smells of Nilgiri tea wafted around us. The father and I made our way quickly toward it. The tea-shop was a shanty like any other on the route: A tin-roof, a couple of kerosene stoves and glass tumblers that were narrow at the bottom.
The point is, there we were, sleep-walking towards the spot where our noses were leading us and our bodies shivering with the early morning cold. The father ordered two teas in his booming voice. It was then that I stirred and noticed the men in the tea shop were clad in dhotis. The guy making tea was obviously a bossy sort, for he clicked his tongue at his helper. Distinctions were evident between employer and employee. The employee was a man, clad in a much-dirtier dhoti than his employer. I mean, if you are going to become this filthy, is there any point in wearing a white or cream colored dhoti? Why not just wear a brown towel or a tree bark and be done with it? Maybe it was their corporate dress policy, I thought to myself and settled into a sort of stupor again, my mind wandering. What if he wiped his hand on his dhoti and then put his fingers into our tea-cups? It happens all the time. Should I say something or risk it and down the life-saving and hope it would not become the life-taking in this case?
I peered into a vast vat with what seemed like steaming hot, very watery tea and said, ‘This isn’t the tea is it?” The father peered in looking worried. You don’t drink 100’s of cups of tea for nothing. When you peer into pots of murky liquid that you suspect is tea, it doesn’t make very good tea. I hesitated before asking the man – you see these chefs can be picky blighters. You look dubiously at their tea, and the next thing you know, they behave like recalcitrant mules on a mountain path and refuse to part with a biscuit packet, marketed by Parle-G.
I was trying to see how to put things tactfully (I can’t say I have progressed much over the years), when the bossy bloke bellowed to his helper, possibly the sous chef in the establishment. The disgruntled helper, or sous chef, wiped his hands on his dhoti and then plunged his hand into the vat I suspected to be tea and extracted a few glass cups. I mean! What? Had I not caught myself, I might have fallen over backwards in a neat scoop. The s. chef, however, noticed nothing and bustled about with his work. Having extracted the glasses from the muddy waters, he wiped it dry with a piece of cloth that would have given food inspectors in the western world a heart attack and deposited the cups on the counter for the tea.
The father and I exchanged deep looks packed with meaning and I saw the light of resolve and understanding dawn in the father’s eyes. His eyes had the it-is-a-simple-matter-of-education gleam in them. Once a teacher, always a teacher. He said to the pair of them, quite politely in my opinion, something to the effect of washing the cups in flowing water before offering us tea in it. Washing, he said, does not happen in stagnant water that looks like tea.
The disgruntled helper or sous c. growled. “Saar! It is washed!” he said
My father appealed to his inner teacher once again and explained that washing dirty cups in dirty water still leaves the cup dirty.
It did not go down well. The sous chef now looked like a sulky sous chef.
“Saar! All washed Saar. I wash again.” He smartly picked up the cups and dipped them into the same water again. I moaned. The father moaned and the chef groaned. Maybe the code of conduct with respect to washing cups had been gone over several times in his training, but had not registered much like the corporate dress policy.
“Flowing water pa! You must pour water over the cups and wash them. Otherwise, all the dirt will be in the cups too. What you want is to go for the clean effect of flowing water. Remember your town was named after flowing clean water from the river.“
What happened next could try the soul of the most optimistic teacher, for the man, simply plunged his hand into the water, took a cup and filled it with dirty water and poured it over another cup and washed it. He beamed freely at this bit of going-the-extra-mile-for-the-customer while we cried in our hearts.
“Clean water my good fellow. Clean water!” cried the father, while the helper stood there looking confused.
I noticed with a sort of sinking feeling that the father’s voice being a stentorian one, all tea-makers in the little river town on the mountainside heard this little altercation, thereby dishing our chances of picking up tea elsewhere. I tugged the father’s sleeve to let things be and asked to buy a bottled water. I then smartly poured a little bit of water on the cups and then asked for the tea in them.
I had, of course, affronted everybody by doing this. The father, for he felt that he now had to explain Economics to his daughter (Who spends Rs 20 on bottled water to wash teacups when the tea costs Rs 5 each?) The chef and sous chef cried too, for they never understood why folks bought water in a bottle in the first place, when it could be had for free in the river. To use good money to wash already washed cups was just excessive. They probably went home that night and lectured their children about not becoming obsessive and how a little bit of grime and dirt never hurt anybody.
As it turns out, they may have been right.
I quote from the article:
The findings are the latest to support the “hygiene hypothesis,” a still-evolving proposition that’s been gaining momentum in recent years. The hypothesis basically suggests that people in developed countries are growing up way too clean because of a variety of trends, including the use of hand sanitizers and detergents, and spending too little time around animals.
Squeaky clean dishes contribute to lower immune systems and therefore higher allergies.
P.S: The episode above happened about 20 years ago, but the mind has a way of resurfacing old snippets when it reads something new.