Do we still need finger bowls at restaurants?

Musings on everyday life


Suresh Pattali

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Published: Thu 1 Feb 2024, 9:43 PM

I'm sure not many Indians would remember the good old lota, a globular water container made of brass or copper. It was widely used in South Asian households once upon a time. The lota, especially its later avatar called kindi, served various purposes on different occasions in different religions.

Among Hindus, the lota or kindi was commonly used in religious ceremonies and wedding rituals, where absolute hygiene was observed while pouring holy water or milk. The idea was to dispense water without the user's hand contaminating the holy water. In Muslim homes, the lota or kindi was used for ablutions. This is Wikipedia knowledge.

Back in the day, a kindi full of water would sit on the veranda of traditional Indian homes all day, waiting to greet and purify visitors who would wash their feet and hands by pouring water from the pitcher before stepping in. The visitor or the male member of the family would also use the kindi water to wash their hands after a meal.

The kindi was essentially the predecessor of the modern washbasin. Centuries before innovative faucet aerators were developed to minimise water consumption, the kindi's unique shape with a snout performed the same function.

This practice is still observed during Hindu weddings where parents or siblings would cleanse the couple's feet before entering their homes or the wedding venue. The kindi's sentinel role of sitting on the veranda disappeared over the years with the apartment culture creeping into traditional living. Surprisingly, it made a brief comeback in Indian villages during the pandemic for the same purpose it was conceptualised for centuries ago — hygiene.

Enough of the introduction, now let me tell you why I am dedicating a column to this innocuous receptacle.

It was my usual weekend visit to a popular restobar in Dubai that offered a throwback to the kindi days. I don’t know when the kindi's service was made available in this particular dining place which I knew from the 1990s. Maybe, it’s a recent marketing fixture after the joint was renovated. The designer must have dug into the etiquette and culinary habits of the elite class to elicit customer interest post Covid.

The kindi service in this restaurant is an upgrade to the finger bowl, an upper-class culinary culture in the US, England and India in the early 20th century, though historians trace this dining element to the Middle Ages. While the finger bowl was introduced along with music in popular American dining places to attract rich clientele during Word War I, in the subcontinent, the maharajas and feudal landlords, who loved to imitate the Western way of life, took a plunge into the glass bowl full of lukewarm water with a lemon piece floating in it.

Anthropologist Meher Varma writes that the Americans discontinued the practice in 1910 to "minimise excess during wartime" but the culture stuck with the Indian elite and upscale restaurants.

I wasn't able to enjoy my much-craved weekend drink as waiters carried a large, ornated kindi and a bowl for the guests to wash their greasy hands. The same waiters who served your food were also carrying the portable washbasin from table to table. It's disgusting, to say the least. It reminded me of the feudal days in South India when servants would stand with a cuspidor while their masters chewed paan, or betel leaf. The only difference here is the guests did not eject their dirty saliva into the bowl that the waiter held precariously. The rest of the washing rituals were enacted unceremoniously while waiters squeezed past narrow aisles.

Let alone kindi, I can't even stand the sight of a table in the neighbourhood where a dozen members of a family simultaneously swished their fingers and squeezed the lemon pieces in tepid water. And the seven bowls full of murky water would stare at you until the waiter cleared them in their own sweet time. No, this certainly isn't a regal etiquette or aristocratic splendour but a massive splash of arrogance. A finger bowl cannot replace a roomy and hygienically maintained washroom.

The traditional kindi was never brought into the dining room. Its place was always outside — in the veranda or the porch. It was a self-service every guest was expected to perform outside the house. You don't wash your hands at the dining table in your own home, do you? A dining table at a restaurant is equally sanctified by courtesy. So, let's not bring the toilet to the dining hall. Cheers!

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