A crucial part of Indian dining etiquette at restaurants is the great Indian Bill-fight... involving a special tug-of-war like game, rather close to our hearts. The restaurant bill folder serves as the rope and the winner pays the bill. It’s not about who’s physically stronger. You must simultaneously engage in verbal battle as well – “I will never speak to you again”, “You’re in my city”, “Next time, your turn”, “Maybe when you get older, I’ll let you” or any other imaginative reasons you can think of; just as long as you get to pay, you win.
Speaking of paying bills, my wife sweetly reminds me how I used to insist on paying restaurant bills exclusively during our early days of courtship and how once we became good friends, I encouraged her to pay instead because... ‘my pay-check ran out’.
This leads me to reflect on the concept of graciousness and honour in the context of dining-out in India. Amongst the many stories that I recall growing up on, one comes to mind of a poor peasant who graciously gave up the only few morsels of food he had left, to feed his guest – an angel or a king in disguise. The guest showered him with blessings and gifts that provided for him and his family for ever more. Indian folklore includes many such stories that subscribe to the philosophy of virtuous giving and so I guess it’s instilled somewhere deep in all of us.
In the present day scenario, let’s look at how restaurant bills are usually settled. In a work scenario, restaurant bills are invariably on company account, or at times the senior-most of the lot picks up the tab. Between equals, splitting the check is a given, unless one in his personal capacity is particularly wealthy or in a generous mood. Between a man and woman, at work or in friendship, while earlier it was considered chivalrous or expected for the man to pay; it is common these days for women to pay as well or then simply ‘go Dutch’ as in split the bill 50:50.
Getting back to our game... the game of who pays the bill wins, it usually happens between families, family friends or peers. Generous and hospitable self-appointed hosts of all communities in India play this game even today. Though earlier, it used to be a rather loud affair, these days, to avoid a public scene, the game is often played more quietly. Now sophistication has come in – so you could cleverly leave your credit card or some cash with the cashier to consolidate your position, either before the other ‘player’ comes in or even more ‘dangerously’, excuse yourself to use the loo, while he is seated at the table. The server in this situation, either knowingly smiles waiting patiently for a resolution or ducks out of view if he senses it best at the time.
I wait for the next opportunity to play and improve my game, learning as I go along... from the more experienced players. I recall with fondness relishing my wins with people I so much wanted to treat. I also remember feeling humbled at the adeptness of other players who were equally keen to treat me.
Should I be embarrassed or proud? Where is this coming from? We know that internationally it’s quite straightforward: if I invite you, I pay; if you invite me, you pay and if we both initiate a meal, we split the bill equally. We know that age or city shouldn’t be the deciding factor about who’s paying the bill. Right?
I believe it is possible that at some subconscious level, all of us hope to be as gracious and giving as that poor peasant or simply hope to score some karmic brownie points with mother nature which will then be obliged to repay us tenfold.
So I take much delight in engaging in this quirky nuance of our dining-out tradition with gusto and also introducing it to some of my expat friends as something that we as Indians simply must do.