Last week, I had nine overnight guests. The previous week brought just three.
This being India, I know that doesn’t shock you.
Atithi devo bhava. The guest is divine. We’ve all grown up hearing it. The ministry of tourism is even using the philosophy in a marketing campaign to promote Indian hospitality. And at no time do we feel it more than June and July, as families head off for holidays—some of them in our houses.
There’s irony here because one person’s relaxation becomes another’s (read: mine) added workload. And that’s on top of, of course, the wage-earning work we’re supposed to be doing 40-60 hours per week. Employees can use the guests-waiting-at-home excuse to leave office early once in a while, but nine times?
It makes me wonder if it’s time for an update to the sloka, given the constraints and stresses of modern Indian households. Should we ask guests to take pre-paid taxis from the airport, fetch their own water and wash their own underwear? Should stays be limited to three days? Should a collection bowl sit atop the fresh towels on the guest bed to offset our skyrocketing gas and electricity bills (especially in these summer months)?
Yet, each time I thought of saying something recently, I bit my tongue and remembered the refrain. I recalled images of my mother carefully matching towels from the closet. She fried fish, rolled rotis, squeezed limes. And I remembered the countless visits that I, the American cousin, made to India when others treated me as divine, making my favourite dishes, pulling threads out of my beloved pomegranate, shuttling me to zoos, forts and temples. Guest, after all, is god.
Because the people who might govern such elements of Hinduism were too busy over the last few days protesting kissing, sex education and artwork, I turned to those on the front lines of implementation: my fellow working women. They tell me they have quietly made some amendments of their own.
“I don’t compromise on my son’s time,” said Megha Nihalani, a Delhi-based travel agent with lots of family abroad and some in Mumbai.
Last year, her husband was chauffeuring an uncle and aunt to Hardwar when her nine-year-old son, staying back at home with her, developed typhoid. Distraught, she made her husband turn around and come right back, the holiness of Hardwar unseen.
In the Nihalani household, this month and next will be “100% guests”.
But volume, she said, was highest in January, when 17 relatives trickled in and out. After that experience, Nihalani said she was more than happy to offer some tips to cope. Saying no, we agreed, was really not an option.
Nihalani says she never lets her travel company take a back seat to the visiting company. A common request she makes: “Aunty, can you lay down the plates while I do my ticketing?”
Towels, I asked her. How do you manage all the towels? And laundry?
She laughed. Same philosophy—guests might be god, but they are self-sufficient ones. To understand these intricacies and instructions, arrivals are given a few minutes of orientation to Nihalani’s home in Mayur Vihar, from the towel cupboard to the jugs of water and empty glasses.
“Your clothes have been laid out, please take whatever is yours,” she’ll say. “Here’s the glass, here’s the water, please help yourself.”
This reflects an attitude shift in Indian home hospitality, said brand consultant Lulu Raghavan. Her employer, Landor Associates, counts Jet Airways and the Taj hotel chain among clients.
“As nuclear families are being set up, a lot of the attitudes are very western,” she said. “Our generation doesn’t welcome guests with open arms as much. Typically, both the husband and wife are working. When guests come, they just sort of upset everything. In Mumbai, people put up with it more than any other city because hotels are so expensive.”
As an assurance to me, she also cautioned that guests’ expectations are similarly changing. They might want to venture to sights on their own, even eat out for a few meals.
“It’s so generic—what is Indian hospitality?” she said. “If you take the worst elements of Indian hospitality, it’s overwhelming. You just want to be left alone.”
If all our vacation time is spent taking around others, then when do we get to relax?
“It’s what we need to do staying in India,” Nihalani said. “This is something we cannot avoid. But what I have started doing now is arranging them and not letting them take over my house, my time, my work.”
On our first night of freedom this week, my husband and I went to someone else’s house for a change. Around midnight, my mobile rang. It was a friend in Dubai.
“Do you mind if I stay with you for a few days in June?”
“Of course,” I said.
For the months of June and July, it looks like office will be my escape.
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