Coming from the hot sun into the cool lobby of a five star hotel is a relief. As I walk in I am greeted by a smartly dressed young woman seated at a table with a sign that said Guest Relations. I have been invited to dinner and my host who soon comes out of the elevator, greets me warmly and leads me to the dining room. When I am seated he asks, “What would you like to drink? “ “A glass of water please!” I reply.
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When I was a little girl, my mother told me to always offer a glass of water to someone who entered the house. That is a gesture of our hospitality, she said. Atithi Devo Bhava. A guest is like a god in the house. So whenever the door bell rang, and the postman, vegetable seller, or whoever stood there sweating in the heat, I asked them : Would you like a drink of water?
On a trip to Jaipur in the sixties, I was traveling with a group of American teachers on a study tour of India. In our “airconditioned” (barely cool) bus we carried an icebox with water, cokes, and chicken sandwiches for a picnic lunch. Before the ubiquitous plastic bottles of mineral water, we always carried our own food and water whenever we traveled. The road to Jaipur from Delhi was then a one lane slow. bumpy track .
The landscape was brown baked dry in the summer sun. Suddenly we saw a beautiful sight. A group of Rajasthani women in their colorful attire, were walking single file along a narrow path between the fields, carrying bright brass water-pots on their heads. Their bright red and yellow full skirts swinging, they were walking towards a well and a clump of trees a short distance way.
“Stop!” yelled the Americans in unison. They piled out of the bus and ran across the field, towards the well, cameras in their hands, stumbling over the cracked clods of earth. Clearly this was a Kodak moment. Possibly a great picture for the National Geographic. I ran after them, and talked to the startled women, explaining that the strangers wanted to take their photographs. They smiled and nodded, giggling under their veils, posing with their water pots, rope in hand at the well. The cameras clicked. I was hot, and walked towards a tree to sit under its shade for a while to cool off. I noticed a woman seated next to me, her pot already filled, by her side. In her hand she held open a small metal lunch box which contained two chapattis and a little pickle. She smiled, held the box out to me and said “Come, have some lunch?” A welter of emotions washed over me. I was humbled when I remembered our lunch of chicken sandwiches, embarrassed because I could not accept her offer without perhaps her thinking I spurned it, and touched by her generosity.”Thank you,” I stammered, “ I am afraid I have to go, the bus is leaving.” She understood, nodded and said Namaste.
Sometime later, I went with a friend to Kutch in the drylands of western Gujarat. There in a settlement of Rabaris, migrant camel herdsmen, we were photographing their beautiful embroidered clothes and artifacts. We stooped to enter a round, thatched, window-less Bunga. The room inside sparkled with myriad lights, reflected sunlight on mirrors embedded in sculpted patterns of clay on the walls. We took pictures. It was midday and time for us to head back to Bhuj in our taxi that was waiting outside. “Do stay and have lunch,” said Vanka-bhai. My friend and I looked at each other, uncertain and hesitant. But he urged us, we were hungry and we accepted and sat on the mats on the floor.
Quickly his wife made a dough of coarse bajra flour, kneading it on a large brass plate. Her daughter-in-law had in the meanwhile peeled a fistful of garlic pods she took out of a basket, and ground the garlic on a stone slab with red chillies and salt. We watched as the older woman deftly slapped the heavy dough on her palms and baked chapathis on an iron skillet in the small hearth, alight with wood kindling. In half an hour we were eating our lunch on brass plates, seated on the floor near the hearth, as we were served fresh hot chapathis eaten with spicy garlic chutney . Our burning palates were cooled with thin buttermilk ladled out of an earthen pot. Surely this must be one of the most tasty and memorable meals I have eaten!
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In the hotel dining room the waiter has brought me cool mineral water and set it on a table covered with starched white napery and shining silver. A menu card appears before me and my host invites me to order. An awesome choice of dishes, five star hospitality.
But my mind goes back to the dry desert and its Atithi Satkar (“guest relations?”) I know that real hospitality is when people who have so little, share their substance with those who have too much.