E.M. Forster was unlike other Western observers of the East. Of all the territories of the British Empire to which Forster travelled, he beguiled his time mostly in India. However, he adopted none of the pre-fashioned guises that populated the Anglo-Indian villages of the time. No, he wasn’t the patronizing, “White Man’s Burden” – espousing Brit nor was he the blind Westerner wholly intoxicated by Indian mysticism. But he certainly was someone who examined British India honestly - not without his famous desire to “only connect.” It is for exactly for this reason I take Forster’s critique on the subcontinent to heart.
One of the most striking of his observations in his novel, Passage to India, is that of hospitality. In the context of the story, Dr. Aziz, an eager-to-please Muslim physician, befriends two English women and takes them on an expedition to the fictional Marabar Caves. Here, I hand it off to Forster:
“All was well so far; the elephant held a fresh cut bough to her lips, the tonga shafts stuck up into the air, the kitchen-boy peeled potatoes, Hassan shouted, and Mohammed Latif stood as he ought, with a peeled switch in his hand. The expedition was a success, and it was Indian; an obscure young man had been allowed to show courtesy to visitors from another country, which is what all Indians long to do...but they never have the chance. Hospitality had been achieved, they were "his" guests; his honour was involved in their happiness, and any discomfort they endured would tear his own soul. Like most Orientals, Aziz overrated hospitality, mistaking it for intimacy, and not seeing that it is tainted with the sense of possession.”
How many times have we seen this propensity for hospitality rear its strangely infuriating head in other Indians or – say it isn’t so – ourselves? Actually, never mind that – how many times have we not seen this situation unfold? Sadly, this question should yield a more manageable number.
I know that when guests eat at my home, my mother forcibly serves them rice even when they fervently shake their heads and remonstrate (and not just one helping but multiple helpings.) She believes that what she does constitutes good hospitality and that somehow one’s hospitality is a determinant of one’s own goodness. However, the truth of the matter is one’s nobility should be determined in part not by one’s petty sense of ownership over one’s guests but by the degree of freedom and comfort one allows one’s guests. In other words, hospitality is a selfish tendency that should not set the score of one’s goodness. Rather, it is one’s selfless respect for a guest’s sensibilities that should earn bring one esteem.
So what is it that makes us confuse hospitality for intimacy as Forster claims? And why is this ailment so common among Indians? Shoot your ideas in the comments section.