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Waiting For India
Colin Todhunter
Monty Python's Flying Restaurant
'Chai anyone'?

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 it’s 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. It’s 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 Python’s 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 Cleese’s 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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Colin Todhunter
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