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The Hospitality Factory

The Hospitality Factory

July 27, 2012

We all love hospitality but E.M. Forster wants us to reconsider.



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. 

11 Comments

  • Cinemon
    By
    Cinemon
    12.10.12 10:14 AM
    I can't stand this hospitality business. Being forced to eat 'one more, one more' makes me want to throw up. And on many occasions, that is precisely what has happened. And I don't like hosting house guests either. The last lot of Indian guests thoughtfully ground red ketchup into the white carpet in my home. Noone had the decency to tell me there was an accident, which I could have cleaned up right away. I've had the front doors to my house left wide open by guests who just wandered out and forgot to lock up.

    I guess I'm just abnormal coz everyone else seems to love house guests.
  • Ginu George
    By
    Ginu George
    29.07.12 05:42 PM
    Aah! Now it makes sense. I just finished reading that piece. I too have come here after ages. I have a lot of catching up to do. No harm done, bub.
  • Rajpriya
    By
    Rajpriya
    29.07.12 05:33 PM
    @Ginu George,

    your absolutely right. Thanks for pointing out. Jet-lagged? yes! Had to undertake an unexpected long flight. I'm still not fully awake.

    The comment should have been put under IST-Indian Stretchable Time.

    I hope NRI admin reads this and pops it over to where it belong. Sorry about that mate.
  • Ginu George
    By
    Ginu George
    29.07.12 05:25 PM
    Rajpriya, pardon me for perhaps seeming dense but does your rant have something to do with the topic? I may have missed your point.
  • Rajpriya
    By
    Rajpriya
    29.07.12 05:17 PM
    It is true India took a pretty long time to replace the century’s old system of Emperor, King and Maharaja rule with the present day Parliamentary Democracy. Indian people were very happy they could decide who represented them in Parliament to fight for their rights.

    Today we are fighting against this system because it is not what it was meat to be with politicians fighting for their own rights to stay in power because their job is a money-spinner. However if you look around we have changed in so many ways we never noticed that we ever changed.

    Take me for example: in my teen days I was writing lengthy poetic love letters, (of course mostly plagiarized) made friends with a girls’ younger brothers, bribed them and got my letters through to my dream girl. We then started writing email, then SMSed, Eve-teased, joined Facebook and finally thank Steve Jobs for inventing the iPhone.

    Today, we are fighting like a gay couples sitting at every street corner tweeting about who stays on top. Wasn’t the transition so sweet and rapid? Incompatibilities are a rare quality and a natural thing for Indians. That’s what I call liquefied democracy and that’s like a like a railway line. They are parallel but in the end never meet. Isn’t that really funny?

    Few shout for change and the majority won’t budge. Coming late is not that serious as chewing Paan, put two fingers in front of your lips and eject the spit with so much force to see how far one could reach. New Olympic Game? many Indians would arrive on time to partake.

    We are grumbling too much. Now come on and move on by having the courage to accept the things we could never change.
  • Ginu George
    By
    Ginu George
    29.07.12 02:48 PM
    Oh and again, this clash of hospitality and intimacy arises purely out of cultural variation. Intimacy might seem taboo in the West and consequently frowned on. In India, I believe this ownership is bolstered by the sense of responsibility prevailing in the host. You truly cannot have ownership without responsibility. My parents live in the US and I lived in the UK. I can vouch for my greater comfort and ease in visiting Indian homes than Western ones. I prefer to leave interactions with cybernetic organisms while living vicariously on celluloid. Real life can do without that level of mechanistic monotony, can't it?
  • Ginu George
    By
    Ginu George
    29.07.12 02:40 PM
    Aah..Indian hospitality. It truly is unique with all its idiosyncrasies and cultural artefacts. Nevertheless, I cannot endorse selflessness in hospitality. I wholeheartedly support a selfish approach to being hospitable. To my knowledge, Iranians come closest to resembling the Indian form of hospitality.
    The "over-feeding" aspect of our culture stems from the view that a guest is happiest when fully satiated. This further reflects on the general notion of ensuring the satisfaction of the guest at all times. While this can definitely go awry and overboard at times, it mirrors the more social culture India has harboured for centuries.
    Compared to the bland, mechanistic interaction prevalent commonly in Western households, I believe this is a welcome and refreshing alternative. Building relationships through hospitality cannot be half bad. You could do a lot worse than be labelled "extremely hospitable".
  • Lazy Pineapple
    By
    Lazy Pineapple
    29.07.12 10:29 AM
    I believe that we take the concept 'Atithi Devo Bhava' very seriously and that is what prompts us to get that sense of ownership. Everyone in India is like that despite their religion and culture. It is the way we have been brought up. It is only in recent years that we have started interacting with people from different countries and it is now that we realise that hospitality is not intimacy...I think we will change but I also feel that we should not because that is what makes us unique in terms of culture..
  • Angad Singh
    By
    Angad Singh
    27.07.12 11:46 PM
    I cant speak for all sections of the Indian society but in all my travels I have never come across anything that even closely resembles Punjabi hospitality. Yes my mother is the typical Punjabi mom from Amritsar who measures her love in the amount she can make you eat. But this is also one of the most endearing aspects of Punjabi hospitality.

    Ive had several friends come over from Australia and all of them would say the same. They have all been there in the 'extra rice' situation you described above except the rice was substituted with hot puris. All my mates said no once but how can you resist one last puri when the chhole are that good.

    I would say it can get a bit overbearing at times but at the same time Indian hospitality is quite selfless and it is something the Western culture does not understand or relate to but loves to experience and that's what they take away with them.
  • Rajpriya
    By
    Rajpriya
    27.07.12 10:03 AM
    It is true that our hospitality is in excess of over feeding friends and relations when they are our guests. However, there’s another side to this story. Strange things happen when you become the guest in your own home.

    Once we had a relative and his family had come to stay with us for a fortnight. A few days into their visit I had to go out with my Mum and Dad to get a few things from the nearby city.

    When we came back we saw another couple seated chatting to our relations. We thought they might have known our relations: said Hi and went inside the house.

    There was one of our relation making coffee in the kitchen. My mom inquired if they knew the visitors. Oh! No we don’t, they rang the bell, and we thought they were your friends, invited them inside, and told them you all would be back soon.

    Don’t you know them? You could drop dead.

    That’s not all. They know inside out of your own home. They arrange the furniture in the sitting room to watch TV, tell you how nice it would be if you were to put things differently having gone ahead already rearranged your own home. Then they hint the rooms are wee bit too small to move around.

    You never get a chance to use your phone. Worse when the telephone rings they answer it in a jiffy and tell us who called because they had given our telephone number to two-dozen people. Our telephone was never so busy in ten years. Not only that, weeks after they left we get calls wanting to speak to them.

    Every time the telephone rang we patiently answered in detail all questions put by strangers about the whereabouts of our relations and when they would come back. Time you think you want to move off to an African Dschungel.
  • Divya S
    By
    Divya S
    27.07.12 06:23 AM
    Nice one there. While the 'overfeeding' metaphor may not really apply, I have dealt with family and friends who get upset in a very loud and intrusive way if I choose not to stay with them when I am on holiday. I am not sure if that's supposed to guilt me into feeling welcome, but I am usually out of there faster than you can say "athithi devo Bhava".

    On the flip side- what about the horrible indian guest? Gosh the stories I have on that. *shudder*

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