It’s frequent enough, in restaurants and cafés from Brooklyn to Delhi, to read signs announcing some variation of “no wi-fi, talk to each other.”
In the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, it is a little different: it’s politics, not wi-fi, that is to be shunned. The other taboo subject is business, particularly real estate. The goal is to actually make customers talk to one another a little less, not more, and especially avoid charged conversations fuelled by non-substantial orders.
“People would order just one coffee and sit for an hour, then order another coffee and sit for another hour,” explains Senthil Kumar, manager of the Chennai headquarters of Adyar Ananda Bhavan, a restaurant chain popularly referred to as A2B. The restaurant’s dining hall features a sign asking patrons “Viyabaram arasiyal real estate pesa anumathi illai”— “talk about business, politics, and real estate is not allowed.”
If such long conversations—particularly on politics—were to be allowed, Adyar Ananda Bhavan would soon have hungry, paying customers waiting for the politically invested ones to wrap up.
Srinivasan Raja, secretary of the Tamil Nadu Hotel Association (TNHA), confirms that this rule has been in place, almost as a tradition, not just in Chennai, but across the state. The 86-year-old would know, for he has seen such signage for at least 60 years. “It’s very hot in Tamil Nadu,” Raja says, “so people get easily infuriated when they talk about politics and they disturb other customers.”
Small village establishments, he says, are especially likely to impose this rule since they have limited space and it wouldn’t be viable to have tables occupied for long hours by the same set of people sipping only coffee.
In fact, such signage is common in large parts of southern India. In neighbouring Kerala, for instance, it is usually a pithy “Ivide rashtreeyam parayaruthu“—”do not debate politics here.” Sometimes it would start with a “Dayavucheythu” or “Please!”
This is not to say that Tamil Nadu’s restaurants don’t support democratic expression—quite the opposite. Not only is it common for them to display messages encouraging voting (including at the ones that shun political chats), they also take proactive measures.
To support the district collector’s efforts to reach an ambitious 100% voter turnout this time, the TNHA has announced that its 1,200 member hotels and restaurants will offer a 10% discount on election day (April 18) after 6pm to patrons showing their inked finger, a sign of them having voted.
Though as of yesterday (April 16), many establishments in Chennai were yet to receive official word on TNHA’s policy, even non-members are joining the initiative anyway. For instance, Madurai Rajammal Curry Kolambu, a popular eatery in the Neelankarai locality of Chennai, today (April 17) announced a 10% discount on election day.
Meera Maria contributed to this report.
Read Quartz’s coverage of the 2019 Indian general election here.