The habit of maintaining a foot long distance between the mouth and spoon dates back to early stages of childhood when my mother had a stern eye on the proceedings in the kitchen. The typical conservative South Indian touch that I inculcated at such a young age under the watchful eyes of my mother has actually made life difficult for me several years later. They are simple set of rules, but when I see the general population bypass them, I have an unexplainable sense of exasperation seething through me. The first feeling I get when I see such things happen is Oh! What would my mother say if she sees this!
The concept of echchal was made clear to me at home when I had just crossed the stage of crawling I guess. It remains distinct in memory to me because at every stage it was explained to me the consequence of not following the general protocols of life. I remember as a toddler, I would follow my mother into the kitchen holding the pallu of her saree, and demanding some offerings from the daily food cooked at home. My mother would ask me to take a small plate, sit in the corner without making any noise and place a small amount of curry or rice on the little plate. She would never be bothered about the mess that I make with that small plate, but my subsequent actions fell under immense scrutiny. She would make it absolutely clear to me that I was not supposed to touch anything until I have washed my hands perfectly. At that stage, I never understood why I was doing what she said. But, I followed without a question. From then on, it became a sort of habit for me to wash my hands as soon as they found contact with my mouth.
A few years later, the habit of going into the kitchen for freshly cooked food to be eaten instantly never ceased. My father, brother and I would find the confines of the kitchen very comforting; the warmth generated from the gas masking the winter of Bangalore. Stealthily, one of us used to take something from the pan on the stove, and put it in our mouth. There would be absolutely no contact between the hand and the mouth, but there she was, ready to confront us, not that we were in a mood to confront her knowing her well over the years. All of us would immediately head to the sink to cleanse the expanse of nothingness sitting in our hands; the nothingness that was looming large in my mother's eyes as if there was sin written all over it. For all our questions, she had a simple explanation, Imagine, if your paati (grandma) or thatha (grandpa) saw you doing this, they would never again eat in our house. She would then start off about how things were different when she grew up. I would love to hear what she would say about the present!
I was lucky enough to be associated with perfect roommates when I came here to do my Masters. All of them took great care to follow the practices taught back at home. No wonder, our house in Rolla was referred to as the House of Protocols. But, none of us really cared. There was no fear of worrying whether the other person has washed his hands or not after tasting something, simply because all of us came from highly similar backgrounds and took great care to live just like the way we lived back in India. At home, we could eat in peace. So, when I eat outside, I just close my mind to the way it is cooked. It is too scary to think about it. That's the sign of having become liberal over the years. It is also amusing to see the reaction of my friends when we head to a hotel and have to eat something from the common plate. Allow this fellow to eat first, otherwise he would not eat!!!
I have also realized that it is very difficult to explain the concept of echchal to a person who has never understood the importance of it. A typical response is, "So, what if you do not wash your hands?" That statement generally is as big a question to me as for him. I have stopped responding to the question and head back with a deep sigh pondering about the times when such things were followed without a question. Times have changed, but you just wish some things do not change ever.