Washed or Unwashed?

The other day, my cook brought me beef biryani. Yes, we eat beef. Do I hear gasps of horror? Well, anyway. She does bring us biryani from time to time, but she seems to be bringing it more often the longer she works with us. If she keeps it up at this rate, one day she’ll be getting us home made biryani three times a week, and consequently will not have to do any cooking here at all. Her biryani is generally delicious and not overly oily either, so I’m not complaining.

Anyway, when she brings biryani, I get the impression that she expects me to turn it out into a bowl and return her own bowl to her. She is, of course, perfectly well able to turn it out into something herself, but perhaps this is not the right way for me to accept a gift? So, I turn it out into something and compliment her extravagantly (but sincerely, mind you) on the aroma, appearance and quantity.

Now, I was brought up to believe that if someone brings you food, you wash the vessel, and then fill it with something and return it. The something should ideally be some home made speciality, or, if not, something sweet, like fruit, dried fruit and nuts, or in the worst case, chocolate. If you didn’t have anything handy, you kept the dish until you had something suitable. In the worst case, you could return the dish right away, provided it was at least washed and clean.

I’m not sure whether this was a “northie” custom, a “hindu” custom, a “western” custom, or simply a custom that ran in my mother’s family or even, unlikely though it seems, was made up by my mother. But this was the custom I was brought up to.

So, having emptied the dish, I set about washing it, as I have done in the past. My cook objected. I thought that she was simply shy to see me getting my hands dirty, when she was there to do the dirty work. There is, even now, some sort of attitude that it is undignified for the “memsahib” (for want of a better word) to do menial work.

So I waved her objections aside and started to wash the dish. Then, with an apparently even greater degree of discomfort and vehemence, she insisted that I desist. “Why?” I asked her. “Oh, if you wash it, the love goes away,” she said.

I gaped at her. This was a new one on me. But she reiterated it, so I hastily dropped the half soaped dish and left her to it, feeling quite abashed. I hadn’t intended to wash away the good will with which she had brought the food.

I wonder: is this custom a “southie” custom, a “muslim” custom, an “indian” custom (that I have been so far unaware of) or simply a custom specific to my cook and her family?

So you see my problem – what on earth do I do about future offerings, specially from other people? My own instinct and upbringing say it is dirty and ungracious to return dishes empty and unwashed. But on the other hand, if the person is going to take offence at me washing the dish, hadn’t I better return it unwashed? But if I do so, won’t they go back and say, “What dirty people, they didn’t even wash the dish and return it!”

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