Religious functions and late lunches

I remember being invited for a distant relative’s housewarming ceremony a few years back. The invitation card proudly stated “lunch: 12:30 pm”. I had a quiz to attend later that afternoon, at 3 pm, I think. Knowing there was enough slack for me to go to the function, thulp lunch and then go to the quiz, I went. At 12:15 (I have this habit of turning up at functions fifteen minutes prior to food; that way I don’t get bored, and people won’t think I’ve “just come for lunch”). Some ceremonies were going on. 1:15. Ceremonies continue to go on, no sign of lunch. 1:45, I realize there’s no slack at all, and want to leave without eating. Relatives get offended. Finally I went to the cooks, thulped some sweets and went off to the quiz.

Almost ten years back. My thread ceremony (upanayanam/brahmopadesham/munji). The priest arrives at the hall at eight o’clock, a full thirty minutes late. “My colleagues are coming at 12:30”, explains my father, “and we should serve lunch by that time. I don’t care what shortcuts you use but make sure we can serve lunch then”. Maybe munji rituals aren’t that compressable after all. Come 12:30, there were still quite a few procedures to go. Lunch was served while the ceremony continued to go on.

Religious functions are notorious for serving lunch late, and the religious purpose of the function is often used as an excuse to do so. I fully support religious freedom, and fully appreciate people’s choice to perform whatever ceremonies that they want. Keeping guests waiting while you do that and delaying their lunch, however, I think is gross disrespect for the guests’ time. And the sad thing is that religion is usually given as an excuse for this disrespect of time.

When you bring religion into a debate, it sometimes becomes tough to pursue a rational debate. In religious functions, if you were to make even the smallest noises about the timing of lunch, you are accused of being inconsiderate, an ingrate, and for having come there only for the food (I don’t know if the last mentioned is actually a crime). It is disrespectful to leave from such functions unless you’ve eaten, and so you are trapped into cancelling other appointments, and staying on until they actually decide to take pity and serve lunch.

I’ve brought up this topic in family forums a few times, and each time I’ve been chided for making such a big issue of something trivial. I don’t, however, understand how lunch is a trivial issue. And how disrespect for people’s time is a trivial issue. I have decided that the next time I attend one such religious function, where there is potential for the hosts to waste guests’ time by serving food inordinately late, I’ll take along a framed printout of Leigh Hunt’s Abou Ben Adhem. And tell them that all their prayers and respect to god will have no effect unless they also respect their fellow men.

Two kinds of immigration

There are fundamentally two kinds of immigration – local job-creators and local job-competitors. The former are primarily middle and upper middle class people, who create jobs locally in terms of employing people (directly) to provide services for them – like maids, cooks, drivers, laundrymen, etc. The latter are primarily working class people who migrate in order to provide local services. They work as maids, cooks, drivers, etc.

Already existing local service providers welcome the immigration of job-creators. That means they now have the opportunity to push up their asking prices, since there is now more competition for their services. There is little economic opposition to the immigration of job-creators. The opposition to them is usually cultural – witness the rants of middle class “native” Bangaloreans like me against “koramangala people”.

Job-competitors, on the other hand are not so welcome. While they usually don’t contribute too much to the “culture” of the city, they compete directly economically against already existing local service providers. There is a clear economic rationale for local service providers to oppose the entry of more such providers, and since the local service providers are usually numerous and politically active, it is easier to oppose the entry of such job-competitors.

In the 1960s, for example, Shiv Sena started out by targeting South Indian middle class people. However, that campaign didn’t last long, since the “masses” (mostly local service providers) realized that it was economically counterintuitive for them to target middle class people. Hence, gradually over time, the rhetoric changed and the targets are now immigrant job-competitors. So you have Shiv Sena guys beating up Bihari taxi drivers, etc. And since this targeting of immigrant job-competitors is economically advantageous to the “masses”, it is likely to be more sustainable than the targeting of immigrant middle class people.

Tithi hotels

A new and fairly lucrative business has developed in Bangalore over the last 10-15 years or so. An uncle of mine likes to call them “tithi hotels”. They are basically institutions that undertake contracts to help you perform the annual death ceremonies of dead ancestors (according to Hindu tradition, you are supposed to remember the dead on their death anniversary every year by performing a set of ceremonies. In kannada it’s called “tithi”) .

So conducting a tithi is fairly painful business, but until these tithi hotels came up, it was all supposed to be done at home. One had to get cooks, for there are restrictions on what can and cannot be cooked for such ceremonies. And then, one has to find a priest, and two “brahmins” who are supposed to be fed. And it’s a fairly messy affair and dirties up the house, and to put it mildly, not very pleasant.

These tithi hotels offer all these services under one roof. They arrange for the priests and the “brahmins” and the food, which is prepared according to exacting standards. And they provide a venue for you to conduct the tithi, and they even arrange for crows and cows to whom you feed the “pinDa”.

While doing my father’s tithi earlier today, I noticed some stuff I hadn’t really noticed today. So the two “brahmins” I spoke about – one is supposed to represent god and the other represents your dead ancestors, if I get it right. The former is “worshipped” wearing the sacred thread the right way, with rice, and doing things clockwise whenever there is circular motion involved. To “worship” the latter you wear the sacred thread the wrong way (right shoulder to left waist), use black sesame seeds, and performing all circular motions anti-clockwise.

My cousin, who is married into a family of priests, reliably informs me that several of her relatives make a living out of being “brahmins” at such ceremonies, where they take on the role of “god” and someone’s ancestors interchangeably, and collect a nominal fee (I think the tithi hotel I go to pays the brahmins 250 bucks a sitting) and a lunch heavy enough to last them the day. In fact, at my mother’s tithi last year one of the brahmins was an auto-driver, and he had taken a break from his driving duties to play god and collect his fee and lunch.

This business of tithi hotels is only bound to grow, since the population is increasing, which also means that the population of dead immediate ancestors is increasing. And I think the rate of growth of population is faster than the rate of growth of various forms of atheism, so this seems like a good business to be in. Actually this business has undergone some changes in the last 20 odd years.

Earlier, there used to be some large-scale tithi hotels, where they would do several tithis on the same premises, with priests and brahmins jumping from one to other and multitasking to cater ┬áto a large number of clients. As you would expect, these places knew little about concepts such as hygiene (I’ve been to and conducted tithis in places like these, and haven’t understood at all the “cleanliness” (maDi) that is supposed to be associated with religious brahmins). But they think commercial and exploit economies of scale to provide tithi services at a reasonable cost.

Of late, these have been supplemented by “standalone” tithi hotels, which do only one tithi per day, thus ensuring greater cleanliness (though tithis continue to be messy affairs) and privacy, and allows you to invite a larger number of relatives to the tithi. Oh, and the one that I go to (twice a year, once each for my father’s and mother’s tithis) does serve up a damn good lunch.

Oh, and I don’t get this, but every tithi hotel I’ve been to has been largely staffed with Gults. Wonder why.

When will people come?

So I was trying to estimate how many of my invitees will attend my wedding ceremony and how many will attend the reception (the former is at noon and the latter the same evening). While a large number of people have kindly RSVPd, not too many have really mentioned which event they’ll turn up for. So it’s my responsibility to somehow try and figure out how many will come when, so that the information can be appropriately relayed to the cooks.

Personally, if I’m attending the wedding of someone I don’t know too well, or a wedding I’m attending more out of obligation than out of the desire to be there, I prefer to go to the reception. It’s so much quicker – queue up, gift, wish, thulp, collect coconut, leave. The wedding leads to too much waiting, insufficient networking opportunity, having to wait for a seat in a “batch” for lunch, and the works.

Again, I hope that most people who are coming for my wedding are coming more because they want to attend rather than looking at it as an obligation. Actually I was thinking of a wedding invite as being an option – it gives you the option to attend the wedding, but you pay for it with the “cost” of the obligation to attend. In fact, over the last few days, I’ve felt extremely guilty while inviting people whose weddings I bunked (for one reason or another).

That digression aside, what upsets estimates for my wedding is that it’s on a Sunday, when more people will be inclined to come in the morning rather than at night. For one, they have the day off. Secondly, usually people like to spend Sunday evening at home, ironing clothes and the like, preparing for the grueling work week ahead.

And the fact that the venue is on the northern side of Bangalore, while most of my invitees live in the south (the fiancee and most of her invitees are in the north) makes me want to increase my “lunch” estimate and decrease the dinner estimate. And then the fact that I’m getting married on a seemingly “auspicious” day, when there are lots of functions all around, makes me wonder if I should discount the total attendance also.

After the wedding is over, I’m willing to anonymize and share the spreadsheet I’ve used for my estimates. Ok you might think I’m a geek but what I’ve done is to put an “attendance” probability for each event for each attendee, and then taken expected value to get my estimates. As I write this, I think I should take standard deviation also, and assume the law of large numbers (yes I’ve invited a large number of potential guests) in order to provide my in-laws (who are organizing the whole event) 95% confidence intervals for number of guests..

Anyways, I just hope that my (and my in-laws’) estimates are right and we won’t end up erring in either direction (shortage of food, or wastage) by too much in either direction. And the costs of the two (localized costs – as hosts, our costs of food shortage (in terms of reputation, etc.) is much higher than cost of wastage; though from global sustainability perspective it’s probably the other way round) have led our solution of the Newsboy Problem to be conservative in estimate.

And yesterday I was suggesting to my in-laws that after the wedding lunch, we can revise the estimates for dinner to M – X where M is the total number of guests we expect (counting double for people who we expect to attend both lunch and dinner) and X is the number of people who had lunch. It’s important, I think, to use as much information as possible in making decisions.