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....

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Water, the new Coca Cola

I walked through Istanbul airport, in transit for my transcontinental flight. Istanbul appears a new entrant in the globalisation of airports. That is why it felt more like a crowded market alley than an airport terminal. We should perhaps then discount them some for their faux pas about which I am writing. However they created the inspiration for this blog, enough to feel outraged, stay thirsty for awhile and to write it. And for that I am thankful to them.

I walked around looking for a water fountain, my throat parched after long hours inside a pressurised cabin. I saw sparkling bottles lining every coffee shop, restaurant and cafe. 

I had been questioning the concept of bottled water for some time now and this kept getting reaffirmed since I had been observing people instinctively buy bottled water while buying food, often without a second thought. 

It always took me back to our childhood days of train travels, where my parents carried a long necked earthen pitcher on  a wooden stand that kept the water really cool. It got refilled at large train platforms or in bottles that people carried. And every station had free water for whoever was thirsty. Granted we had more stomach viruses then. And of course, why look back, keep looking forward always....

But I have resisted buying water since some time, while also trying to retrain myself to minimize these and other resource wasting habits. 

So I walked on, thinking there has to be free water somewhere!

That's when I came across bottled water vending machines, swathed in Coca Cola wrapping and branding......the very idea bothered my sensibilities.

And to add to the thirst distress of travelers, the machines took only Turkish money and only in coins.... 

I stayed thirsty for an hour. 
Don't ask me why. Pigheadedness? Principle? Did not have Turkish money? All of the above perhaps....

Yes I could afford to buy a bottle of water as could any of the travelers there who had afforded to buy an international airline ticket. But that was not the point... 

Just how far will we go to displace water from being a fundamental free resource? 

Accepting that we always must have the right to choose between an opportunity for a stomach virus and a peaceful night of sleep. But no choice? 

Istanbul airport, I hope you see it the way I do.