In the mid-1800s, when the British set up Indian Railways, they made some communities rather unhappy. These people were appalled by the absence of separate bogies for their caste. Being expected to share seats with people of other castes must have been more preposterous than being colonised for decades! Outrageous, completely. Nonetheless, soon, the reality of the situation sank in, and convenience was chosen over casteism. That’s also probably how we learnt to share, or, as we like to call it, adjust.
And this ‘adjustment’, over the years, has spawned many essential ways of life. It generated the seat-for-three-that-packs-in-four in the Mumbai local. We learnt to squeeze in to (and out of) a BEST bus even when there isn’t an inch of space left. Eventually, it got us used to table sharing at eating and drinking places too. You know, because we’re a country of only 1.2 billion people.
Although in countries like Germany, Japan and China, table sharing is common, in India, it’s essentially a norm at smaller eateries, lunch homes and dives. But it’s more than just a technique to accommodate people. It’s a dining experience like none other. Of course, there are days when you can get stuck with a really loud bunch. But then, you also meet people from backgrounds and social strata that you may otherwise never get to interact with.
I know people who have ended up sharing tables — along with stories and snacks — with film stars’ drivers, CBI officers, police constables and scientists at bars in Mumbai. Conversations usually start with the sharing of the ‘chakna’ and then, it takes a few drinks for one to realise that there are common areas of interest.
Over the last few months, this culture has moved beyond dives. Of course, communal tables — another form of table sharing — have been serving a similar purpose at places like Big Nasty, The Table and Le Pain Quotidien. But now a new initiative by a start-up called Treetins has got many popular pubs and cafés showing interest in this experiential dining too. As part of this initiative, a jar with a flag is left at your table. If you — the primary occupants — want to share your space, then you just invert the flag. If not, then you can be shameless and hog the table. No pressure, right?
A long list of places like Woodside Inn, The Elbo Room, The Barking Deer, The Local, The Pantry, Mocha Mojo, Café Zoe and Suzette have all agreed to give this social experiment a chance. And why shouldn’t they? Accommodating more people means more money. As for those inverting the flags, it gives them the chance to spend an evening with complete strangers, look outside their groups and maybe even make new friends. Isn’t that the whole point of a good night out after all?