Thursday, May 30, 2013

The ones with the Tehzeeb

Dhanno ki Amma does most of our family shopping. And she likes to buy from places that have the best quality of merchandise, without caring much for what she has to shell out.  She buys our weekly supply of fruit from a hole-in-the-wall shop in our neighborhood. Laxman, who owns the shop, is an extremely enterprising young man. However, like most fruit-vendors in India,  he is quite selective in his manners.

When Dhanno ki Amma gets down from her chauffeur-driven car and spends a fortune on mangoes and lychees, without haggling about the price, she gets the royal red carpet treatment from Laxman. Most people, who walk in to buy a couple of guavas or papayas, would be lucky to get a nod from him. So, a few days ago, when my wife asked me to buy some fruit, and my driver was trying to find a parking spot in front of the fruit shop, I walked in with a shabby look, and an equally shabby shopping bag in tow. Laxman looked through me, and didn't even blink an eyelid.

In a few minutes however, as our car slid in to a space in front of his shop and he recognized me as the poor husband of the  rich woman who spends, he rolled out the red carpet to me. He picked my mangoes for me and smelled the bad ones out. He went "inside" to get me a fresh bunch of bananas, and he gave me a lychee to taste -- a privilege reserved for the most "esteemed" of customers. But, the way he offered me the lychee just bowled me over, because that is how fruit vendors would formally offer a lychee for a customer to taste --  in the India that I grew up in.

When a fruit vendor formally offers someone a lychee, it is first half-peeled, with the white flesh in the top part exposed. The peel stays in the part that lies towards the stalk. Then, he offers the lychee holding the unexposed part for "cleanliness". The customer, presumably with clean hands, can grab the fleshy part and enjoy the lychee. This "half-peeled handover maneuver", as some military-folks might call it, is a classic example of well mannered Indian customer service. And to me, it brought back memories of the small-town India of the yester-years, where such things did matter. 

A few lychees, with one ready for sampling.

 The lychee maneuver reminded me of another example of Indian Tehzeeb (culture) that many people are no longer familiar with. As is the custom, at the end of dinner, if you have to offer your guest a paan (betel leaf), what would be the best way to do it?  Tehzeeb says that the pointed end of the paan, should always be towards you. If it helps, just treat the paan like a sword, and remember that the paan is always mightier than the sword.

The right way to offer a paan.

You might wonder why Desi Babu has this sudden fascination with Tehzeeb?

In the last year or so, I have seen my country go to the dogs. If you tune in to any news channel, or open up the morning newspaper, all you can see are news stories about who else has scammed the government of boatloads of money. All the key economic indicators are down, and the India growth story has been written off as "told". The ordinary people are worried about their future. Things look bleak, very bleak.

In big cities, you can see people in a terrible rush, to get nowhere. People don't seem to have the basic courtesies that you would expect them to have irrespective of the value system they believe in. So, when I see random flashes of a bygone era, in fruit vendors and pan-wallahs who still seem to be preserving our culture, I get happy. Happy enough, to write about it.

There was one thing that was sweeter than the half-peeled lychee maneuver though. The lychee itself. If you don't believe me, go ahead and try one yourself. The first showers have almost come, it is only a matter of time before the lychees go away.   


  1. Desibabu,
    Thanks for reminding our Tehzeeb in a thankless world! i am a diehard optimist who believes that we have to see the worst before things become better. I wish you will see more random flashes of a bygone era in the coming days.

    1. Thank You. From your mouth to God's ears my friend.