The last time I was at a restaurant in lower Manhattan, our daughter was peering over her father’s shoulder after the waiter slid the bill for our dinner onto our table. She seemed anxious that her father’s concept of a tip hovered as a single digit percentage, somewhere right around the US Treasury Index. “Ugh. No one tips like that!” she said, rolling her eyes as he suggested a number as a potential tip. “Let’s not be cheap now, this is New York.”
Tipping, as far as I’m concerned—and we’re very concerned, my husband and I—is now taking a flavor all of its own, from tea and coffee shops to curbside check-in and restaurants. It’s not simply “expected” anymore, like a gratuity given for a courtesy received. Quite often, the tip is “demanded” in both covert and overt ways. I notice how the hectoring for a tip or bakshish in the western world is merely a sophisticated counterpart, a less unruly version, you could say, of what happens in the streets in India or in the developing world.
During his maiden voyage to India in 1962, right as Sir V. S. Naipaul disembarked at the seaport of Alexandria in Egypt, one of the first sounds he claims to have heard was the hounding of customers for a tip: “And in the streets there was the East one had expected: the children, the dirt, the disease, the undernourishment, the cries of bakshish, the hawkers, the touts, the glimpses of minarets.” In this port, he experienced, firsthand, the onslaught of squalor and deprivation that would haunt him a few weeks afterward when he disembarked at Bombay; the crude truth of poverty and caste would rattle his bones. Just as Naipaul saw the beginnings of the eastern experience in the west, we too get an idea of how this Persian word bakshish might have bobbed over the seas or trekked eastward over land into India to stain its soil.
Bakshish originates from the Persian bakhshish whose roots lie in the Pahlavi (Middle Iranian) language. I found out that this word might also trace back to the Sanskrit biksha which alludes to alms or gratuity. When I traveled in northern India, bakshish was one of the first words I often heard as my train rolled into a station. Porters in red turbans and tunics sprung into the compartments peddling their service. They nagged for a bakshish just as they loaded our taxi. “How about you add something on top of the amount, say, a little for my chai or coffee, you know?” That little “something” for a drink might account for why the French refer to the tip as a pourboire which, literally, translates to “for drink.”
I had grown up with the notion of bakshish everywhere around me. On the roads in Chennai, then and now, I saw the “squeegee bandit.” He was a fixture. The squeegee bandit, as he’s known in Canadian cities, wipes the windshields of cars while they are stopped at traffic lights and then presses the occupants to part with some cash. The precursors to these cleaners were the crossing sweepers on the streets of metropolises during the 19th century. Horse drawn vehicles littered cities in the olden days; while crossing intersections, the long, trailing skirts of wealthy women were soiled by horse droppings and other garbage. Crossing sweepers offered a service by clearing excrement from their paths and begging pedestrians for a pittance. Mostly, however, they went unnoticed unless they were persistent, like my late father’s night watchman.
My father grumbled that watchman stood by the door almost every other day squeezing another note out of him, “for a coffee, a tea or a cigarette.” Vinayagam, my father’s manservant of two decades, was stealthier about lusting after a tip but he too gazed at my father’s right hand whenever he stayed late or took on another chore. “Your father has given me the same 20 Rupees (~30 cents)for the last 10 years. The tip hasn’t ever increased, see?” he said to me with a snort, waving the note in my face. When his valet’s back was turned, my father muttered that the fellow didn’t know to ever say “thank you” after pocketing his bakshish. My father discouraged his daughters and sons-in-law from going overboard with bakshish. He would tell us to never tip beyond what the norm was in a place because it made life difficult for locals like him who could not afford to tip more. It also tended to switch allegiances, he said. He lamented that the recipient changed his behavior towards people according to the size of his tip instead of focusing on doing due diligence to his job.
In recent times, even in more upscale circles, the idea of the tip is morphing into a mild threat. A recent article in The New York Times laments the “proliferating tablet-based point-of-sale systems that force the issue by presenting consumers with a slate of generous gratuity options before the transaction can be completed.” The last time I was expected to pay about 50% in bakshish for my gourmet cappuccino (which, if I considered the height of the foam, was really 75%), the barista thrust an iPad under my face. I really didn’t see any difference between the squeegee bandit and the coffee specialist as I gathered that the iPad offered three possibilities for a gratuity: 20%, 25% and 30%.
The subject of tipping will continue to invoke angst-ridden gasps between people of different generations. I believed my father could have been a more generous tipper. My daughter believes her father needs to loosen his purse strings. And hence, that evening in New York, she grabbed the receipt to compute the tip herself. She fished out her iPhone. Her pointer finger, whose nail, as usual, was unclipped, pranced about the numbers, subtracting this and adding that. “There, that’s the total amount you must pay, Daddykins. I factored 20% before taxes.” Her nose stud glinted scornfully in the light above our heads. “I hope you both know that you don’t include the tax in your tip. Never do that.”
Sheesh, I thought. Why so much bakshish?
Kalpana Mohan writes from Saratoga. To read more about her, go tohttp://kalpanamohan.org and http://saritorial.com.