If you’ve lived in India and been to restaurants, chances are that you’ve heard the waiter ask you this before. A few weeks ago, a friend and I were headed for dinner to this rather posh cafe. As we entered the cafe, we were quickly greeted by a friendly man who immediately showed us the way to our table. As we sat down, he plonked the usual question: “Ma’am, mineral water or regular?”
My friend decided to escape the binary nature of the question and instead show off her extensive vocabulary. “Normal water please,” she said.
The waiter was visibly confused. The waiter was probably not a man who had received an education in English. He seemed confused by the sudden deviation from the answer he had usually come to expect. Seeing him struggle, I promptly replied, “Regular, please”.
But this was not the end of his troubles. My friend’s request for an “ashtray” was again met with a confused look. Each time this happened, I piped in and made my best effort to translate my friend’s words into Hindi. The waiter gladly went in and brought us an ashtray.
Lighting up her cigarette, my friend looked at me with disapproval and asked, “Why are you speaking in Hindi at such a place?”
To me, it was simple: I saw a man in front of me who was unable to comprehend what was being said and all I was doing was making his life a bit easier. But to my friend, this was lowering our social stature – after all, nobody speaks a commoner’s language like Hindi in such posh restaurants.
I thought to myself that here we were, two educated women who had a pretty good grasp of two languages – English and Hindi. And in front of us was a waiter who undoubtedly had not received the same education as us and was visibly struggling with English. Yet, it was the waiter who needed to put in an effort to make things comfortable for us. Shouldn’t it have been the other way round? As educated people, shouldn’t we be the ones helping him out and make him feel more comfortable by speaking a language he understood better?
As I thought about these things, I realised it wasn’t about comfort or comprehension of the language at all, but about social image. To many of us so-called ‘educated’ millennials, Hindi is considered to be a crude language fit only for informal situations. But isn’t the point of any language to communicate thoughts rather than grant social status? So shouldn’t we all just help those who are less fortunate than us by speaking in a language they are more comfortable with? And if you really want to have a conversation in English with someone, you could save it for the dinner table talks instead of attempting it while placing an order.