Monday, January 16, 2012

Guest is God

This weekend Ahmedabad celebrated the bright and energetic holiday called Uttarayan, the festival of kites. Everyone gets up on their roofs, blasts Bollywood music, eats Jalebi and Kachoris and Undhiyu, and flies kites. I was at Virenbhai's house where some MS volunteers gathered and Nimo brought some of the Ekatva girls to fly kites. I mostly watched; there wasn't much wind and thus not very conducive for a novice kite flyer. As it got dark people lit flying lanterns and the night sky was pierced with the mini balloons hovering higher and higher.

At night there were fireworks. One of Virenbhai's neighbors had arranged a spectacular show, which we enjoyed from our rooftop with a front-row view. Afterwards the group of us were appreciative of this neighbor and also curious about his house, which had a unique design. Virenbhai said it was a house designed not to have any right angles. It was rounded everywhere. The MS volunteers got interested and wanted to visit the house. Virenbhai shrugged, "Sure, why not?", and the next thing you know about 15 of us are walking around the block to visit Virenbhai's random neighbor at their house with no corners.

We get to the house, which had its own Uttarayan party in full effect. I'm not sure what exactly the expectation was in us all walking over. Did we really think this neighbor would let in a random group of international strangers to his home and give them an uninvited impromptu tour while busily entertaining his own guests? Well, that's exactly what happened.

By the time I walked up to the front gate, some of our group had already been let into the house, which had a strange egg-shaped entrance that made it seem like either a hobbit house from middle earth or a luxury cruise ship. For the next 15 minutes, we wandered around checking out the unique if not slightly tacky architecture of this pod-like home with no corners. And there were literally no corners, it was pretty nuts. Everything was curved where there would be a sharp edge. All the windows were round, the doors were arched, even the handles were spiral instead of straight. Apparently the family had appreciated a Bollywood actor's home and had gotten the architect to design theirs.

It was pretty amazing how this neighbor warmly welcomed us all in and just started proudly showing off his house. A bunch of intruders who had no pretense other than, "Hey you put on an awesome fireworks show, thanks! Can I come in and explore your weirdly shaped home?" He walked us around the living area and showed us all the bedrooms. We toured the kitchen, the jacuzzi bathroom, and the underground entertainment room. We even walked up to the balcony and were introduced to the actual guests as if we were VIPs. Then it got stepped up even further: he insisted that we stay for dinner. And I mean insisted! He said it was 'compulsory'. I couldn't fathom it. In what country do you let strangers into your home unannounced, and instead of politely taking their compliments you let them in and show them around, then treat them to dinner for their imposition? What planet?

So while the actual guests waited, we were served from a catered buffet-style continental dinner spread in the beautiful garden. Given we were a big group, possibly the size of the actual party, it was no small gesture for us to be fed from a catered service. During dinner we got to talking with the neighbor, who was very appreciative of Manav Sadhna's work once the volunteers explained it. We gave him some cards and books (including Gandhi autobiography) from MS and thanked him profusely. We invited him and his family to Seva Cafe, where we would be happy to have the opportunity to return the generosity and hospitality he had shown us. But of course here was a person who demonstrated he intuitively understood the concept without even being aware that it was a 'concept'.

In India there is a cultural custom that an unexpected guest is to be regarded as a gift at your doorstep. 'Atithi Devo Bhava', literally "Guest is God". For me this was an emphatic case of the custom come to vivid reality.

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