Reflections on Indian Hospitality
Credit where credit is due: With a couple exceptions, most of the photos included in this post were taken by students in the English class I’ve been teaching. I let the kids use my camera, and told them to take photos of an important place in their life (they all chose their home) and an important person in their life (they all chose one or both of their parents).
This is what happens when you are welcomed to visit somebody’s home in a village:
The person you know greets you enthusiastically—sometimes shaking your hand, sometimes giving you the two-handed Namaste bow, and sometimes bending down to touch your feet as a sign of respect. The house is made of mud, its smooth walls painted white. There’s a goat or two standing nearby, and chickens casually stroll in and out the front door. Your host invites you inside, and leads you to the nicest room in the house: usually a bedroom, the walls adorned with various religious icons. A child quickly appears carrying a plastic chair, which they set next to you and command you to “Sit!” Other children peek around the corners of the door to get a glimpse of you. There are lots of children. It’s not clear which of them belong in the immediate family, which are cousins, which are nieces and nephews, and which are neighbors. There is always a baby or toddler present. If you watch carefully, you will likely see an adult discreetly give one of these children a handful of rupees so they can sprint off to the nearest store to purchase sugar for chai and a package of snacks for their guest.
It’s rare that there are enough plastic chairs for everyone present, so there will inevitably be people standing around you. Long periods of silence aren’t regarded as awkward or a social problem that must be fixed, the way they might be in other places. If there is a television, however, it may be flipped on with the assumption that a background of Bollywood music videos will make the visit more entertaining for you. Your attempts at conversation will be appreciated, even if your Hindi is abysmal and their English is limited. Charades will make everyone laugh, and will only sometimes be effective. Any son or daughter that takes English classes in school will be proudly presented to you, and goaded into making introductions and reciting numbers or the alphabet.
After a while, the women of the house bring out a metal plate with a cup of chai and an array of snacks. This will probably be the only time you see some of the women, unless you insist on helping out in the kitchen. The chai is made with milk and saturated with sugar: I dare you to find an Indian household that willingly chooses to drink their chai without sugar. The food will include biscuits (sugary, processed cookies available in every Indian store), namkeen (a salty, fried chip-like mix), and some homemade fried snack. You will likely be the only one eating and drinking, and it will be difficult to share the food you’ve been given. Your best bet for sharing will be to pick out the youngest kid, and start handing them biscuits. Your hosts won’t consider this rude, and you won’t have to eat the entire plate by yourself.
After eating, unless you’re really entranced by the Bollywood music videos on TV, it’s a good idea to ask for a tour of the house. This way you can see their garden and its spread of pumpkins, radishes, a plot of corn, a papaya tree, cabbage, and potatoes. The other rooms in the house have multiple purposes, but almost all of them act as bedrooms: the majority of the home’s occupants sleep on mats that are rolled up and put away every morning. You may choose to invade the kitchen, which will endear you to the women after they get over the initial humor of a guest wanting to hang out in the kitchen. The stove is made of mud, and its fire is fueled with leaves and dried cow dung. The women squat near their cooking on tiny wooden stools that are more comfortable than you first thought they would be. The walls and ceiling above the stove are blackened from the daily smoke. If they are cooking a vegetable dish, it smells fantastic. When you try to help make roti, you will be corrected because roti must be perfectly circular. Your roti will never be perfectly circular, but you will always be encouraged to try again.
If you just came by for a brief visit and a chai, the family will insist you stay for a meal. You insist that you need to be leaving. This will go back and forth for a while, but eventually the family will gather by the door to see you off. They will invite you to come back again soon—to celebrate an upcoming festival day, to have dinner, or to help their child practice English. You say you would love to.
Over the past two months, I’ve been in more village homes than I can count. I’ve spent the night at a number of Yuwa players’ houses in nearby villages and had small glimpses of their daily routines. It’s difficult to convey what this experience has been like, and I realize I’m characterizing the villagers by grouping them together in the description above.
If you travel for an extended period of time, you must learn to be a good guest. I am still learning this lesson. It’s not always easy to be constantly receiving the generosity and hospitality of others. After a while, I start to feel like a freeloader. Sometimes I can’t help but reflect on the stark difference between a village family’s lifestyle and my own lifestyle, and I’ll feel guilty about the sacrifices they’re making on my behalf. As a guest, I am always placed on a pedestal—given the only plastic chair, the biggest serving of food, and the best sleeping arrangement available. It’s times like these that I’ve got to check my own pride and recognize that hospitality is not something reserved for certain income levels. The villagers I’ve stayed with have been happy and proud to treat me as their guest. And it’s been an honor to be in their homes.
That said, I’ll have a ton of guest karma built up by the end of this trip. I know when I eventually pay it forward by hosting others—wherever I may be—I’ll be thinking of the lessons on hospitality I’ve been learning in India.