By Ramjaane Mar. 18, 2018
Marwaris are often called out for their miserly behaviour, but the kanjoosi of Kokanastha Brahmins has remained a secret. In a time of lavish weddings and four live counters, Kobra weddings will offer you four sabzis and a dal, food lesser than an average Punjabi lunch.
As a kid in Pune, my uncle once asked an auto driver if he’ll take us from Pune Station to Koregaon Park. The autowallah agreed. My uncle offered to pay five rupees for the ride. The autowallah dismissively said, “Paanch rupaye mein kaun leke jaayega? (Who will ferry you for five bucks?)” My uncle calmly said, “Maage basa, me neto (You sit at the back, I’ll take you).” As a Kokanastha Brahmin (Kobra) kid, I thought that was normal. The autowallah, distinctly not Kobra, who perhaps didn’t know the people of the land, looked stunned. Kobra miserliness can do that to a newbie.
Everyone blames the Marwaris for their miserly behaviour but it’s rather unfair. A Kokanastha Brahmin can beat a Maru hollow at being a miser. Distinctly fair, sharp-nosed, good-looking, grey-eyed, usually intelligent – the stereotypes you can paint them with pretty safely – when it comes to being parsimonious, the Kobras are in a league of their own. If you don’t know one in real life, you’d probably dismiss the idea as an exaggeration because culturally all the jokes are on Marwaris. I’ve heard a few Kobra kanjoosi jokes; they actually seem like an understatement. The Kobras are the only people whose jokes are kinder than their reality.
Living in Pune, I didn’t catch on to this trait. When you grow up as one, surrounded by them, you don’t realise you are one. My first brush with Kobra miserliness came after we moved to Mumbai. My dad was a government employee and we grew up in a colony (or government quarters, as they were unfashionably called). Our neighbours came from across the country. One floor housed four flats, and on our floor there lived a Christian, a Punjabi, and a Gujju family.
The Punjabis, our next-door neighbours, had moved in recently. As a courtesy call, a colleague paid them a visit. He was a Kobra. The Punjabi family offered him some cake. An entire cake with a knife sitting next to it. Under severe pressure, probably feeling obligated, the Kobra finished all of it. Out of severe indignation and shock, the Punjabi spoke about it in office the next day. Out of habit, the rumour took a life of its own. The Punjabi was shocked that the Kobra ate the entire cake. The Kobra was shocked that he was served an entire cake. That he was served the whole cake, only meant he was expected to eat it. The Punjabi said the opposite. That the Kobra was served one, doesn’t mean he eat all of it. Neither of them were in the wrong. Here old habits were to be blamed. Punjabis, by habit, offer more. Kobras, by habit, finish what is offered to them. If you’ve grown up in a Kobra household, you can’t imagine leaving food on your plate. You do this not because wasting is looked at as an insult to food or because some kid is starving in Africa, no. Kobras don’t have such lofty ideals. You don’t waste because there was never “enough” from where you came. You were told you came from a land where scarcity is a real thing. Because scarcity is real, you are offered less too.
In a time when weddings have four live counters and Jain Thai curry, Kobras have stuck to their guns.
The concept of “aagrah” (to push someone to eat, ruthlessly employed by Indian mothers) is uniquely Indian. Aagrah is when you insist that someone eats more. When you urge him to push his stomach to its lining. Kobras have a unique style of aagrah. It is impolite to not do aagrah. But at the same time, it is risky if the person actually takes you up on your word. The beauty with aagrah is it’s a game that keeps you on edge. The offerer keeps at it. The offeree keeps refusing. Both are only trying to appear polite. Both wait to see who blinks first. But not the Kobras. They don’t want to give the other party a chance to blink. The Kobras have eliminated the element of risk. They have an astonishing hack for it. Only with a Kobra will you hear, “Hi shevatchi poli khaavi laagel (You must eat this last roti).” Lethal. Talk about killing two birds with one stone. You’ve done the aagrah and you’ve told the diner his time’s up. This is the last one. As a guest, you’d be confused to a point of not wanting the last one. Deep down, perhaps you were hoping there’d be three more to follow. No such luck, you’re with a Kobra. Aagrah with a deadline is an astonishing concept.
So legendary is the kanjoosi of the Kokanastha Brahmins that it percolates down to their surnames. Nene, Lele are common Kobra surnames. They tend to have the same letter repeated. Here’s how the story goes: Back in the day, you had to pay by the letter to send telegrams. And the Kobras cracked how to save money here too. By repeating the letter in their surnames, they paid for only one. This is how glorious our kanjoosi is.
When it comes to being misers, we don’t discriminate. The now famous, public, loud, and garish Ganpati festival was once the sole preserve of Maharashtrians. In a Kobra home, it is celebrated for 1.5 days. For the other Marathi Brahmins (Deshastha, also called Debras), the celebration continues for ten days. Taken to an extreme, Kobra kids are told while climbing up a staircase to skip a step – simply so that their chappals last longer.
Another ruthless display of this kanjoosi is seen at Kobra weddings. In a time when weddings have four live counters and Jain Thai curry, Kobras have stuck to their guns. If you’re at a Kobra wedding, you’ll probably be offered three to four sabzis and a dal to go with it. We keep it simple. Frugal to a point of being cheap. Why waste food? Nobody eats too much these days anyway, is the cognitive bias we build once we decide to serve food lesser than an average Punjabi lunch.
How we Kobras have managed to keep our miserliness a secret, is anyone’s guess. Some think the green eyes provide for a distraction, but I think their kanjoosi extends to even their reputation.