The Tea and Coconut Rule

I remember so many invitations, though it was in later years that it really got out of control.  There were occasions when someone would want a time for lunch or breakfast or dinner and, flicking through the mental obligation list, after some minutes I’d suggest a week into the future: the earliest vacant meal slot. 

I remember the demands from my friends in the village to the south for a fixed time.  For many years I used to refuse to nominate one, knowing all the trouble that would result: five courses minimum, slaughtered chickens, no expense spared.  It was the same with Selim who used to invite me to a banquet every single year.  Initially I used to refuse him too: all the trouble his wife would go to, the finances of a rickshaw driver and fish deliverer with enough children to his name.  It never seemed right to sit in his place, on the bed in the front room of the mud-floor straw-roofed three-roomer, if you count the semi-outdoor kitchen at the back, and devour this and that, then more of this and more of that; then more still until firmly refusing more.

But after some years I changed my mind.  I decided that it was wrong to not accept invitations on the basis of another person’s financial condition; that to effectively decide how my friends should spend their meagre incomes was disrespectful.  The upside of accepting invitations graciously was that the household benefited too, and all the adjoining households, for Hatiyans share.  Selim’s wife would prepare small mountains of food that I would peck at, with the vastness of the leftovers distributed to all comers: mostly all the children, Selim’s children, the neighbours’ children, the various nephews and nieces and a few others I couldn’t place.  And they would all be excited; like a festival day, that was not a bad thing I thought.  What they may not have appreciated was that the most thankful person there was always me: those invitations meant a lot.

No, on the question of invitations, Selim in particular wore me down, and because he lived close to my house and I would see him every day,  I suppose there was no way he wouldn’t have gotten a date and time out of me at some point.  It cost the lives of chickens it did, many over the years.  Once he rode his rickshaw to the main town solely for buying shrimp, called chingri in Bangla, and tomatoes, neither of which were in season but both of which he knew I would eat: the odd chingri being an exception to my no-fish diet.  Well, they’re not fish actually but crustaceans.  He managed to buy just one chingri and a few smallish tomatoes, and I hate to think of the exorbitant rates he must have paid for them, out of season.

At Nashir’s house, at his father’s, Alauddin’s and at the other cousins’ places, there were many meals too.  There was dancing and singing from Alauddin’s daughter, and all sorts of homemade delights from all the Bhabis.  I remember one occasion, I felt really terrible about it, that Nashir’s wife had warmed paish or creamy rice on the clay oven, and when she brought it to the table I saw that she was pregnant, and not just pregnant but very, very pregnant.  Their son was born the following day!  I asked Nashir why he’d invited me at a time when his wife really didn’t need guests.  He said she didn’t mind, or something along those lines; and the undeniable fact is, nobody who actually knows Hatiya would disagree, that she really didn’t mind.  Hatiyan women are so: they can manage almost anything.

But my friends in the south were at a substantial disadvantage compared to Selim.  The house was far so it was only now and then that I’d visit; at which there’d be puffed rice or muri, shredded coconut, guava or starfruit if in season, of course tea, and really persistent requests for a fixed time and date such that proper food could be prepared.  It was the friends in the southern village who were last in my giving in fully to Hatiyan hospitality.  The same logic applied: if I should not impose a ban on various friends’ hospitality closer to my village house, why were the friends in the southern village an exception? 

Poverty brings many disadvantages.  I don’t need to list them; but should it also prevent entertaining guests, wasn’t that just another disadvantage I would be burdening them with, those villagers I’d learnt to have so much respect for?  And so in the end the southerners got their date, their son played the harmonium and I ate until it hurt.

The only thing I could really do was to reciprocate.  It was never often enough and there were a few problems, the main one being that I was alone, so reciprocating meant Situ’s wife and the other ladies in the house would end up with the cooking responsibilities, while Situ and his brothers would bring in all the supplies.  I paid the bill, such a puny contribution, and when I was allowed by the guests I would serve them, just the way they’d done for me at their houses.  It used to make them laugh, and sometimes I had to sit and chat instead.

Actually, some of the guests, the ladies, used to come early and help with the preparations: in that sense it was usually a shared event, and my brothers and Situ would act as waiter alongside me, when I was allowed.  The other thing I wasn’t satisfied with, about the lunch parties, was that for the most part, thankfully not always, my friends would come alone, without wives and neighbours and the kids.  I mean it was easy for me to extend generosity to my friends because we spent so many hours together in the tea shops, so I used to shout rounds of tea, cigarettes and betel leaf.  I’d always wanted in particular at the lunch parties to host the wives and kids.

There were other little customs to hold onto as well, ways to give back.  One I remember is that when somebody’s close relative dies it is customary for the neighbours to send a big pot of rice, and other food, such that the mourning relatives don’t need to cook.  I was able to do that at least once, when Selim’s wife’s grandmother passed away.  It was rainy season and I remember Situ and his brother trudging off with several pots without proper lids, through the mud in the night, delivering the food I’d organised and Situ’s wife had prepared.  I’d wanted to deliver it personally but with my lack of confidence slipping and sliding along the muddy monsoon roads, especially at night, I’d thought that if I took one of those pots it might end up being devoured by a pothole or a rice paddy instead of by Selim’s extended family.  It was particularly slippery that night for it was raining quite heavily.

But most of what I’ve described belongs to the later years, when I’d visit Hatiya once a year for the most part, when accepting an invitation from a household was only possible once a year, such that it could not be so harmful to household budgets, as I lived in Sydney and would soon be gone again.

One time I remember hosting a party while living in Hatiya, in 1999.  It was Easter; maybe that was the first party.  In those days most Hatiyans had never heard of Christianity; even now you’ll find many who are rather sketchy on the details.  But in that year we’d just celebrated Eid-ul-Adha and also one of the Hindu festivals, I don’t recall which.  I’d been quite impressed at how the Hatiyans shared their festivals, respectfully too, like inviting Hindus for Eid lunch but obviously minus the central Eid food item of beef. 

It was normal that I should also share my ‘Eid’.  So we’d decorated the house with pictures of chickens and eggs and ribbons, about the only references there were to Easter as such, and then sat down to a purely Bengali lunch.  They’d arrived with no idea what Easter was and pretty much left the same way, though I did try to explain its meaning.  But for them the only important part was that it was my Eid; and for me the only importance was I could share something with them.

Yet in the earlier part of 1999 the situation with invitations was rather different: it took quite a while before anyone invited me to their houses, despite the curiosity and fondness for entertaining guests.  There was a general reason for it: shame.  Things have changed a bit since then, but poverty brings with it a yoke of shame and the Hatiyans, as much as we used to have fun in the tea shops, took time to understand that their financial position as far as I was concerned could not any relevance to friendship.  They thought, and I use a generalist ‘they’, that I would feel uncomfortable since their houses were small and simple; and perhaps also that I would think less of them if I saw where they lived.  Even Situ had once thought that the first time I went to his house. Besides, I don’t think they were overly convinced in the beginning that they could provide food I would eat.

Then, it was after some months, somebody plucked up the courage to extend an invitation.  I think it might have been Leku; he was one of the first.  Whoever it was, they discussed it at length with Situ outside Rofiq’s tea shop: what I would eat, would I really feel comfortable, etc. etc.  From my side I started early with the ban on lavish expenditure, the ban that Selim would later conquer. 

‘Of course I’d love to come,’ I would respond in general to invitations, ‘but only for tea and green coconut, and if you serve anything else, one single item, then I will leave!’  Situ used to translate the strict instruction.  Green coconuts were available everywhere so there was no difficulty in it.  They’d climb the trees and knock off a coconut; then cut it with a machete, making a little hole on one side through which to empty the coconut juice into a glass, or to insert a straw though that wasn’t a village thing but what the roadside sellers in the cities might offer.  Coconut juice can be a substitute for saline, so it was good for my health, and it’s refreshing in the heat.

With the strict instructions, tea and coconut, it was generally possible to only have three or four items at the house visit: tea, coconut, a packet of biscuits and maybe some homemade cakes.  They couldn’t help themselves really: tea and coconut never meant exactly tea and coconut, not for a Hatiyan.

The first few hosts had been nervous about me visiting their houses, for the reasons already mentioned. I naturally enough enjoyed myself and felt entirely comfortable in their homes, why should I not?  And then others would ask afterwards about how it all went, and the friend who’d hosted would tell excitedly just about everything that I’d said and done, and specifically everything I’d eaten.  Needless to say, the number of invitations grew quite rapidly; not least because many of my friend’s wives wanted to see what I looked like, after hearing about the goings on at the tea shops.  Much as later they’d want to see Raja, my pet dog, to know what he looked like.

Soon enough the villagers knew that if I had to negotiate the thick muddy laneways during monsoon that was okay, if I had to wade through water to reach their front doors that was okay, and if it was really hot well, that didn’t matter much either.  There were times I was really tired because sleeping through the hottest nights was not easy, nor if there were mosquitoes about; so sometimes, it can be that the guest went to sleep after tea and coconut on the bed in the front room of the hosting house.  This was understood as a compliment, that I felt comfortable there. 

My only condition for visits was the tea-and-coconut rule, which I don’t believe a single Hatiyan ever followed to the letter, not really.  But it kept at least the chickens alive.

More about tea? Prefer coffee? Or papaya juice perhaps?

Another version of this article published in Star Magazine, here: Tea and Coconut Rule

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