Why Indians Drink Without Touching Lips to the Cup or Bottle
The first time I actually saw someone doing it, it looked strange but I didn’t think too much about it. I just assumed it was a one-off sort of thing. But like many things I think about India, man was I wrong. It’s actually something that I would start to see in action on the streets, at coffee houses and restaurants, by my mates in and around town and at work. But there is one particular moment that stands out and actually inspired me to finally ask, “What was the deal with Indians and this apparent drinking problem?”
I was sat with my driver Shiva at the truck stop about two hours outside of Bangalore on the way Chennai in Krishna Gree. Shiva is vegetarian so we ate at the only vegetarian truck stop I had ever seen in my life up to that point (in the U.S. and Europe a veg truck stop wouldn’t fly for sure!). We had ordered and were awaiting our dinner when all of a sudden a really scrappy looking man walked into the restaurant, checked out the tables closest to the door, selected ours and walked up. I looked up with raised eyebrows at first and then probably a gaping mouth after a few seconds. Our table had a pitcher of water and 4 metal cups sitting on it (they all did). He reached down and picked up one of the metal cups sat on our table, picked up the pitcher of water, poured himself a cup full of water and then drank it. But he didn’t drink it like I would, by placing my lips on the cup and tipping back the cup little by little. Noooo! Our new friend threw back his head, lifted the metal cup up so that it hovered above and NEAR his mouth and then proceeded to pour the water into his mouth from a distance of about a 2-3 centimetres away. (Read about the road trip and the truck stop here)
It was CRAZY! Partly because it felt like our table and our “stuff” was invaded by someone without our permission. Also, partly because it seemed like the guy had a drinking problem. I mean, I’ve never seen anyone drink that way at a restaurant before. He finished his cup of water, looked down at me with a curious look and then marched back out the main entrance again. Seriously… WTF? I looked at Shiva and he could see my amazement so he started right up and told me, “This is normal, madam, it’s okay. The water is community, it’s for everyone.” He also explained that since the water is community that people won’t touch their lips to the cups to avoid germs.
The thing is, I know that if I had tried that exact same move that I would have spilled water all over me and the table probably. I’ve never tried to aim and shoot water into my mouth like that before and can’t think of a reason or situation where I’d even want to try really – aside now just for the fun of it. If it were me, I guess I just wouldn’t drink from those glasses. But that’s not the way things are in India in all scenarios. There ARE community glasses and perfect strangers do share things at times that I would never have imagined – like the cups on a dining table at a restaurant.
Since that funny night I’ve witnessed the “aim and pour” drinking technique loads of times. Sometimes it’s in a car with my mates and they are drinking water from their own bottle. Other times it’s at work or at the fast food place I adore that serves masala dosa (check it out here! I cooked in a typical Indian restaurant making dosas!).
Anyway, it still looks strange to me for whatever reason. My curiosity finally peeked so I started asking around about “why” my friends and people in general poured their water into their mouthes from a distance instead of drinking it like I do. Were they afraid they would catch cooties? Was it the cool way to drink? Their answers varied, as diverse answers always do! Some of my friends had funny stories dating back to when they were kids, while others gave me more logical ‘adult’ answers. Here are my favourite answers:
- The tops of bottles can be dirty so this is the safest way to avoid germs
- My Mum used to say “Don’t kiss the bottle, it’s not a frog!”
- If my parents caught me drinking with my lips on a cup or bottle they would smack the back of my head (DANG! I guess I would stop too if my mom whacked me every time I did something!)
- It depends. If it’s just me then I will sip as I wish but if there are more people drinking from the same cup or bottle then I won’t. Unless they are really, really good friends
Okay, okay I get it. But it’s still strange to me. In the U.S. we’ll kiss hello to friends and family on the lips. In Spain we two-kiss people every day, even in business (read all about kissing here). I can remember sharing bottles and cups of mixed drinks and beer with friends freely since I was in high school. Even today me and my friends and my family will happily share cups or bottles or straws in drinks or try food off someone else’s forks, etc etc… I wouldn’t think twice about that actually. And I would certainly never strategically pour water to drink out of my own water bottle, which is something I see my mates and driver do with their own water bottles all the time.
My guess is that these habits were adopted in the past to combat some health concerns. Maybe there was inconsistent proper sterilization of bottles, and that it’s probably really not necessary to pour water from bottles anymore. Please do me a favour and share your personal story or insight as I would love to have a more definitive idea about why this practice is so alive and well today.
© 2011 Angela Carson