I have nothing against bottled water. What I have a problem with, is the lack of choice

A tiff with the staff of a posh coffee shop is not always a bad thing. It can put you in a blissfully benevolent mood for the rest of the day — that is, if you win.

Some weeks ago, I decided to have a late lunch at a café. It was a hot day, and as I had previously gotten thoroughly lost on Anna Salai thanks to the one-ways created to make way for Metro Rail construction, I was somewhat tired. I walked in, with the prospect of a long evening shift ahead of me, but already visualising a sandwich and a chocolate milkshake. When a waiter approached, I asked him for a glass of cold water, before I placed my order. This apparently, was an impossible request. I was told I could buy a bottle – here, said bottle was pointed to on the counter. After a long argument, I was reluctantly served a glass of rather warm water.

The price of a bottle of water at roadside shops is between Rs. 15 and Rs. 20. In cafes, it is easily double that. It’s becoming an increasingly common phenomenon these days: walk into any high-end restaurant or coffee shop, or lounge-cum-café, take a seat and ask for a glass of water, and the waiter tells you to buy a bottle. Some cafés take it a step further — a tall bottle with a silver ribbon around its neck is placed suggestively at the centre of your table. At others, when you ask for water, a waiter scurries away and comes right back with a sealed bottle and a smile. “Regular water?” you ask, and the response is: “Sorry, we only have bottled water.”

I have nothing against bottled water; many in fact prefer it to regular water for hygiene reasons. What I have a problem with, is the lack of choice. You go to a restaurant after all, to indulge in your preferred choice of food and drink. Shouldn’t that then allow for a preference for ordinary water? Or since a restaurant’s business is selling food and drinks, is it acceptable for them to ask customers to buy their water?

Several people have commented on online forums about this trend that slowly seems to be taking over many fine-dining places across the country, coupled with, or maybe catering to a trend amongst many who only want mineral water. Online, there are even some references to a court ruling on serving regular water to customers, though this is unverified. But does it really need a court ruling to serve customers ordinary water?

Walk into any home, big or small, in the city or village, and the first thing your host offers you is a glass of water. Every roadside snack stall, beach shack or chaat shop gives you water when you ask for it. If it’s a sit-down sort of place, you needn’t even ask — a glass of water is automatically placed before you. It is understood that as a customer of their enterprise, you might take a few minutes to place an order, but a glass of water is always welcome, since it is invariably hot outside.

It seems such a basic, unimportant thing. After all, it’s just water. Sometimes it’s hard to see if it’s even that big of a deal — if you’re paying for a meal outside, you may as well buy a bottle of water with it. But that’s the thing — it’s fundamental — every meal goes with water. And even if you don’t eat or drink anything else, drinking water is a constant. A denial of choice here, when practically everything else on the menu has options and alternatives, seems not just inconsiderate, but inhospitable too.

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