Eating and drinking in India is a display of the incredible ruggedness of the Indian body, built by genetics plus conditioning from childhood.
Everybody but me was able to eat “outside food” and I had the distinct feeling that they were amused that I could not, coming from such a big powerful nation as the United States of America. Of course, every Indian I met who noticed this was gracious and very polite and never let me know that he thought I was being silly about my food.
We were invited regularly to visit various people while in the town of Mussoorie, high in the foothills of the Himalayas. There I figured out an unbreakable rule in northern India: the chai ceremony has to be practiced on anyone who visits someone’s home or business.
It would be incredibly rude if the host did not offer a guest hot tea with milk, sugar, and at least a little cardamom ground into it.
But there was more. Even relatively not-rich hosts had to bring out little things on plastic plates to munch on with the chai.
So, for everyone we visited, things followed the same pattern. Just as we sat down, cups of hot chai were placed instantaneously into our hands as the first step of the guest-greeting ceremony. The cups always had saucers under them too.
My wife pointed out to me that it was good to drink the chai because it was boiled and safe for one’s digestive system. It also kept a person hydrated in this high, dry air.
But the chai was always too hot for me to drink when first given to me, and I felt like a ninny watching everybody else gulp it down within the first five seconds of getting their cups. But what could I do? I could barely hold the hot cup in my hand sometimes, much less toss the chai down my throat like a shot of tequila.
The second step of the guest-greeting ceremony required that food be pushed on the guests along with the tea. Thus, various tea-biscuit-things appeared on trays before us, plus all kinds of sweet cakes and savories.
Some I could eat and thoroughly enjoy.
Some I could not eat but wouldn’t know it until later.
I tried to be subtle, but never got away with it. They pushed the little cakes and other eating-objects onto me, like good hosts who want their guests to tell everyone that they provide fully for the chai ceremony.
I refused a lot of things just on the off-chance that some of them were purchased from a street vendor. I had learned that my genes and immune system just wouldn’t let me eat any outside food.
I had already experienced the after-effects of some of these dangerous—but wonderful tasting!—foods from street vendors. In fact, during the “repair period” after my all-too-many experiences of eating outside food, I had read quite a few Hindi film fan magazines. I was able to amaze people, and perform on demand for guests, like a trained monkey, talking about which movie star was currently dating another movie star, and how some actor was just dropped from a film project.
I didn’t feel like reading any more magazines, so I turned down lots of snacks that were placed before us with our chai.
My wife gently counseled me in private one night. I was insulting everybody by not eating things at their houses. I was ruining the family name. I was degrading the entire United States of America. People were wondering how she could marry such a wimp.
So I tried eating things more often. Almost everything tasted quite good. Most things didn’t bother my digestive system.
Everybody seemed to know everybody else in Mussoorie and we had to be invited at least once everywhere, else the gossip of whose family stood higher in the community would start. It was obligatory that I accept these invitations: it was an open secret that everyone wanted to see the firangi husband, and my adopted family tree was well-known in that place, thus I ended up being a kind of ambassador for the family.
I began to relax a bit over the days of visits to homes of very nice people, all of whom practiced the chai and food ceremony.
What a fool I was.
The evil bathroom-motivator would pop up when I least expected it, when I had become cocky and sure that I was, at last, as tough as any Indian and could eat any snack from any source. It got to be a test of manhood, and a test wherein I represented the entire United States to some of these people whose homes we visited. I wanted to show them that I could eat everything.
But it was like a game of Russian Roulette when the plates of goodies passed among the people sitting around the living room table with their cups of chai, and I was the only one who was vulnerable to the bullet to the gullet. People watched, and I tried to eat at least a little of the freshest looking stuff pushed on me, and they smiled when I did. But I still surreptitiously patted the pocket containing my stomach medicine to make sure it was safe and close at hand.
The entire country of India is now in the grip of bottled water.
Lots of people in the cities know that their water is polluted, and even if they don’t have to run to the bathroom because of drinking it, there might be something in it that can cause cancer or something.
As a result, a tidal wave of water has been flowing over the land, contained in plastic bottles just like you’d find in the United States. This water has grown to be called “bislairi water,” the name being taken from one of the original producers of this clean, filtered bottled water.
There are several major bottled-water companies, but the word bislairi has become the generic name for drinkable bottled water. This is like a xerox is a photocopy of a page, and a kleenex is a paper tissue, even though Xerox and Kleenex may not have produced them.
Ah, but the cleverness of even the poor of India shows itself in the water industry. When one finishes a bottle of bislairi water, I was instructed, you always crush the empty plastic bottle. Then you throw it out the window of your car, where the low-paid but multitudinous street cleaners will sweep it away within a day or so.
Just throwing garbage out of a car window is something that is hard for me—it is such an evil and prohibited act in the United States—and I had to inquire why I needed to crush the empty bottles first.
One of my long-suffering relatives explained with a sigh. “If you don’t crush the bottles, then some enterprising poor person will pick up the bottles, fill it from who-knows-where, and screw a blue top on it. Then, through relatives or a shifty street vendor, they’ll sell these bottles of fake bislairi, or they end up in the little grocery shops we buy them from.”
I held up a bottle that I was nesting on my lap in the car. “But this one looks all right.”
“You have to be a little careful,” I was patiently instructed. This was my wife’s older real-sister giving me this lesson, and she liked me, but her tone of voice told me that she felt she didn’t even need to tell her young children this obvious thing. But I was family and needed to be handled gently.
She continued, “Before you open a bottle, make sure that the top is sealed on correctly, the way only a factory machine could put it on. If it looks like the seal is already broken, don’t drink out of it. If the water doesn’t look completely clear, don’t drink out of it. Demand your money back, no matter how long it takes to haggle with the storekeeper.”
I realized danger lurked. The bottle of bislairi I was holding had already been opened somewhere, sometime, and I’d already quenched my parched throat from it. “Oh,” I replied to my sister-in-law’s instructions, realizing that my stomach medicine was back at the house.
The whole topic was further complicated by the fact that some cooking was done with ordinary tap water, which, to my system at least, was sinister unless boiled. If the food that would be cooked with it was going to have high heat, cooking the food and simultaneously boiling the tap water would be all right for my stomach.
The hazard I discovered was that sometimes ordinary tap water was stored temporarily un-boiled at home in old bislairi bottles—for when the electricity was off the water usually was off also. Whether the power was on or off, people still had to cook and eat … often using the tap water bislairi bottles for cooking over the propane stove. I could not drink directly from those, but in cooked food it was all right.
On a particular hot and dusty car ride, I later saw Bob, my wife’s sister’s husband, pick up a bottle of bislairi from the floor of the car. Bob, of course, was his nickname, used by everyone in the family. The bottle he was holding was full, and he unscrewed the cap and began to drink out of it, using that Indian technique of letting the water flow into your mouth from above, without your lips touching the rim.
“Bob, wait! Don’t drink that!” I shouted. He started to choke and cough on his water. The car swerved; we almost had an accident. Regaining control of the car, Bob cleared his throat, turned around and looked at me over the back of the seat and said, “Why? What’s wrong?” His face held a very puzzled expression.
“That bottle of water,” I said. “It wasn’t sealed properly. That may be one of those fake bislairi water bottles from the street.”
“No, it’s quite all right,” he replied calmly, turning back to resume his little drink. He screwed the blue plastic cap back on and said, “This bottle is good water. We filled it up at home with boiled water before we left. Using empty bislairi bottles is convenient for long car trips. We do it all the time.”
“But … but …” I stammered, “how do you know which of all the opened bottles sitting around the house contain clean home water, and which ones might be tap water?”
“You must pay attention,” he replied demurely. “You have to watch where the new bislairi bottles are placed if someone buys some at the store. You also have to remember where we put our home-boiled bottles, used when we go somewhere. Just don’t touch any others on the table, in case of your stomach.”
I thought about this for a long time. How was I going to know where a bottle of water from the little corner grocer is placed, so I could check it, when I didn’t even see anyone go out and buy it? The water boiling operation, or, in some households it was micro-filtering, usually happened at night. When I was up in the morning, sleepily bumping into things while trying to find a cup of chai, I always saw bottles of bislairi all over the place. They all looked exactly the same to me.
It got worse as I became more aware. People who knew which was which would use the right bottles, but then put them down wherever they felt like it in the house. It was impossible for me to know if a suspect bottle of street water had snuck into our house with all the people coming and going on errands, cooking, boiling water, and moving bottles around.
I sat at the kitchen table one night, staring gloomily at the array of bislairi bottles before me, wondering which, if any, I could drink from safely.
I turned to my wife nearby, with a worried look on my face that only she recognized, for I was trying to act polite and unconcerned about this topic with everyone else in the house. She caught my thoughts and said quietly, “Don’t worry about it.”
That sure helped a lot. Typical. Shrug your shoulders if you can’t fix something at the moment, and say yeh hai India. This is India.
India will mold you to its ways: never, ever the other way around.
I’m positive the grungy skinny guy who sells chai at the train stations doesn’t use bislairi water to make his tea.
Whenever we rode on a train and it stopped at some intermediary station, there were always chai vendors crowding around the platform. These men wore colored turbans on their head to identify themselves, but their rather dirty white cloth wrapped around the rest of their body Gandhi-style didn’t project an aura of care about water cleanliness. I never said anything to anyone, but when we stopped and got out and stretched at a station, somebody from the family always bought us some little cups of chai from these vendors. I always held my chai in both hands, looking down into its milky darkness, paralyzed, and wondering.
My wife said she always trusted chai when traveling, because it had to be boiled to be made. It was one way to make sure you didn’t get dehydrated on a long train trip, she told me. Everybody but me was drinking the hot liquid heartily, and even carrying an extra cup or two back into the train compartment. I sipped at mine carefully and usually never finished the cup.
When you travel by train, the chai vendors often sell their product in a little red clay cup. This simple pottery was something that could be made quickly, and often could be remade easily from the shards of hundreds of broken cups found next to the train tracks outside of a station.
There were always red clay teacup shards by the tracks because they were remains of one of India’s national games. It surprised me on my first train trip. Somebody opened the window of the compartment we were in, and as the train was gaining speed, everyone threw their empty clay chai cups at the wooden utility poles as they trotted past the window. You added two points to your score if you hit the pole, shattering the cup into bits. Only one point counted if your cup touched the pole, but didn’t fully shatter. You accumulated zero points if you missed the pole entirely and the chai cup landed on the ground.
I stuck my head out of the window during this game and saw that all up and down the train a little red clay cup would fly out of somebody’s window, and often hit a utility pole.
I looked down. Even when the train moved slowly, I could not see very many red shards left by the chai cup game beside the tracks.
“What the hell …” I muttered. Why weren’t there mountains of clay chips beside the tracks, I wondered, if everybody played this game for the last 60 years?
I turned to one of my nieces, sitting across from me in the rocking train compartment. “Where do the chai cups go?” I asked her.
She frowned. “Out the window.”
“No, I mean, what happens to all the broken pieces?”
“They are on the ground.”
“Right. I mean, why aren’t there more pieces out there if everyone throws their little clay cups out the window, year after year?’
“Oh. Somebody comes along the tracks and gathers up the shards,” she said. “They take them someplace, grind them up, and remake them into new chai cups.”
“So the cup I’m holding now, with my tea in it, has been used by other people?”
“No. It’s recycled. You are the first and only person to use that cup, and you throw it out the window so the chai vendors can make new ones.”
“So every time I buy chai at a station, I’m getting a new recycled cup?”
“Is it clean?” I asked tentatively.
“Sure. Unless someone is stupid enough not to break their cup after they’ve drunk the chai. Then the vendor will just reuse it unwashed.”
I thought about this for a while, then looked to my wife, who, for all her years in America, still had built-in Indian wisdom. She saw the almost-hidden look of worry on my face again and whispered to me once again, “Don’t worry about it. The chai is boiled.”
I drank my chai. I threw my cup out the window. It missed the pole.
I hoped it at least broke on the gravel beside the rail bed.
Alex Maarten is a 20-year veteran of the high-tech industry. He now writes full time while trying to figure out his adopted Indian family.