Indian hospitality, American lives

As I am saying my good byes to people in Blacksburg, where I currently live, and moving to NoVA, I ran into an old acquaintance of mine. This professor of religion –the son of American Methodist priests was born in India – and knows Telugu, among other Indian languages. We got talking about a mutual acquaintance, an Indian scholar, who is constantly traveling. He told me that his family hosted this Indian scholar for a week, even though he didn’t know him at all. “Quite a common Indian expectation, isn’t it,” I asked him. And then the conversation turned to Indian expectations of hospitality, the topic of this brief post.Indians do tend to have high expectations of themselves and of others. As guests and hosts, there are particular rituals, traditions and norms that are followed. Living in a Western society does change this norm a bit, but not radically; there is a constant negotiation going on, in terms of how much ‘tradition’ the family will  uphold and I believe how one treats a visitor is a key part of this negotiation.indian-hospitality-HC62_l

Indeed, there are sayings in various Indian languages such as “Atithi Devo bhava,” which is a Sanskrit aphorism that roughly translates as “The guest is God.” Quite a big claim, isn’t it? As a host, we are expected to treat the guest with everything that we are capable of. I remember this, as a matter of upbringing. Every time someone would visit us, my mom taught me to check if they had eaten, would want some water and offer some snacks, at the very least. These were the basics of being a good host. As a guest, it was one’s duty to refuse anything that was offered, and it was the duty of the host to force them to change their mind. This seems to be a nuanced cultural game that Indians learn to play, at an early age. Eventually, one of the parties wins. Either the host wins and the guest ends up eating, drinking or staying for longer than they anticipated, or the guest wins and leaves.

At the root of this persuasive behavior seems to be the need to please the other, and for the host to feel that they are indeed generous. At the risk of generalizing, I would claim that this is common across various cultures and religious traditions in India. I have been to very few homes in many parts of India where this isn’t true. Of course, with changing societal norms, people are becoming less generous with their time and other resources. But what about Indians living in the U.S.?

Indian-Americans live a schizophrenic life. This roughly translates into living ‘American lives’ but being expected to behave like ‘Indians in India.’ This means attempting to follow much of the same rules of hospitality as one does, in India. Many India-Americans I know are incredibly generous people, who try to uphold their traditions of hospitality, but at the same time; are aware of their own sense of freedom and time-commitments. They would not offer the same kind of attention, time or resources to a host that an average Indian host would. Again, this is based on anecdotal evidence and I don’t intend to generalize.

I am reminded of another incident, where a group of visiting bureaucrats from India were hosted at Syracuse University. I was helping with the program management of this particular group and spent some time with the 30 plus group of officers. One of the complaints I heard from them during their two week stay was “Why aren’t the professors inviting us to their home.” This expectation that they would be invited to the ‘hosts’ home is quite natural, in an Indian setting, but for an American to invite you home for dinner, you’d have to be someone special, and not just a regular trainee in a two-week program, who one’d just met. So, there was a matter of being lost in cultural translation.

As generous as Indians are expected to be, there is also wisdom in curtailing over-staying guests. As much as some traditions can be burdensome, there are others that check this behavior, as well. This saying, which is quite popular in India, captures the spirit:  “On the first day, the guest is bhagvan (God), the second day, the guest is insaan (human) and on the third, the guest is Shaytaan (devil),” reminds us that the hosts should be mindful of not over-staying. Finally, my professor friend reminded me that, growing up in India, he noticed a peculiar custom: Of the host offering to pay the return ticket to the visiting guest, once they had stayed for a few days. “This  was, perhaps a way of telling the guest that it is time to leave,” he pointed out. Some wisdom in that generosity, indeed!

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