Josna Rege

222. Dropping In

In 1960s, 1990s, Childhood, Family, Food, Immigration, India, Inter/Transnational, reading, Stories, United States, women & gender, Words & phrases on August 14, 2013 at 11:50 pm
collaboratively prepared feast

collaboratively prepared feast

South Asian Americans, myself included, like to claim that back home one could just drop in on one’s friends or family anytime and be sure of a warm welcome, a cup of tea—no, several cups of tea (or coffee if they were in the South)—and an unending succession of savory snacks. By contrast, in the United States, we complain, visits are by prior appointment only, and people, denied the pleasure of unexpected guests and impromptu gatherings, become lonely and isolated. Why else do Americans eat out so often, if not to save time and to create the illusion of community? No one seems to have the time to whip up a meal on the spur of the moment and to while away a delightful evening in animated argument, with everyone talking at once. I wonder, though, if our claims for subcontinental spontaneity are outdated and exaggerated, seen through the mists of nostalgia?

I was just a girl when I last lived in India, and so naturally my perspective on people dropping in is different from that of my parents. I do remember many of my father’s students coming over, and Dad returning from the Institute to tell my mother that, by the way, several people would be joining us for dinner. I was old enough to remember my mother’s consternation when she had to scramble to prepare an acceptable meal on very short notice, especially if she didn’t have enough food in the house or the guests had unknown dietary requirements. Of course, she would always manage; more than merely managing,  she would extend the warmest hospitality to the visitors. Some of them would be tense and tongue-tied, paralytically unused to speaking with an Englishwoman, and Mum would work hard to put them at their ease and draw a little stilted conversation out of them.

There were other, regular visitors, good friends who spent many long—and, as far as I can remember, largely unreciprocated—periods of time with us, chatting, teasing, laughing, completely at one with the family. They were no trouble at all, at least, not as far as I was able to perceive, because of the pleasure their company gave us.

drinking tea together (photo: AFP, from emirates247.com)

drinking tea together (photo: AFP, from emirates247.com)

I returned to India with my husband and young son for six months in the  early 1990s while on a dissertation fellowship, and was able to observe both our hosts’ and hostess’s responses to visitors. I had never been made to feel more welcome. Indian women of my generation and older consider it their sacred duty to treat guests—especially family, and even more so their husband’s family—like gods, and to lavish them with love and attention. If they ever feel resentful or put upon, they would rather die than let the guest know. As one of my aunts once put it when I thanked her (although all my relatives instructed me to dispense with the thank you’s—the  “English manners” as they called them):

—According to dharma you should do your duty. Furthermore, you should not only do it, but you should love doing it.

Lest I be made to feel that in showering us with hospitality she was merely obeying religious injunctions, she added,

—Fortunately, in your case, I do love it.

But despite their assiduous adherence to dharma, it was evident to me, as an adult and a woman, that the strain of welcoming house guests for as long as they chose to stay took its toll, especially on those women who worked full-time outside the home as well as bearing the brunt of the household responsibilities. In order to entertain us in the style they felt our visit demanded, they would have to take a half-day off work as well as rising extra early and staying up extra late. After we arrived, unless we absolutely insisted upon their sitting down with us, they would dart in and out of the kitchen throughout, bearing fresh chapatis and refilling our plates. Visiting friends of our cousins in Uttar Pradesh, it was even worse. We were brought into the living room and seated on the best divan with the men of the house while the women stayed in the kitchen, only the mother emerging shyly, her head covered, to bring us a tray of tea and sweetmeats, while the daughters and daughters-in-law hovered inside. In order to talk with them I had to go in to the kitchen myself, since it was out of the question that they would join us. How could they have enjoyed a visit which only created more work for them?

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My own parents’ hospitality was generous and heartfelt, although on occasion they too would find it too much. Soon after we immigrated to the States, I remember, we were visited by an American friend we had met in Athens, now returned to the U.S himself. Of course my parents made a big fuss of him and invited him to stay. The problem was, he took them at their word and then some. After he had stayed for the weekend, my parents had to go back to work; but he stayed on. He stayed and overstayed, stretched out day and night on the living-room sofa (our first apartment in the U.S. having no spare bedrooms); although bound by the code of hospitality, Mum and Dad were finally at their wits’ end. When he gave my mother his socks and underwear to wash, it was the last straw and, going against all his instincts and principles, my father had to ask their friend to leave. We never saw or heard from him again.

Despite those rare guests who overstay their welcome, I still believe in the ideal of friends being able to drop in unannounced, and some of my most enjoyable times have been those spontaneous evenings when, at a moment’s notice, we make or receive a phone call, pool the food in our respective refrigerators, and get together over a meal. There is nothing like this kind of fellowship, especially when the burden of the work involved is lightened by being shared. One of my fondest memories goes back to my graduate-student days in the early 1990’s, when my dear friend Sartaz lived in the same town as me (instead of on the opposite coast as she does now). One afternoon she called to say that she had some chicken but didn’t feel like cooking; would I come and cook with her?

We were both young mothers with classes to teach the next day, but I hastily gathered up a few items from my kitchen, bundled my son into his car seat, and headed right over. I never had more fun cooking, and when it was ready, the food tasted all the more delicious for the welcome and unexpected company. Later that night, when Nikhil was in bed and I was preparing belatedly for the next morning’s class, I called Sartaz:
—I have no idea what I’m going to do tomorrow. Any ideas?
And on the phone, we created our lesson plans together.

(from thefungus.wordpress.com)

(from thefungus.wordpress.com)

Dropping out? Nah, that’s so Sixties. Time to return to dropping in.

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P.S. Apropos of this topic, two childhood poems come to me.  The first, E. V. Rieu’s  Sir Smasham Uppe, addresses a decidedly unwelcome guest, hilariously but oh, so politely. By contrast, Eleanor Farjeon’s  Mrs. Malone (Mum’s favorite) exemplifies the ideal of hospitality, not out of duty, but from the heart. Mrs. Malone had few material possessions and lived all alone, but welcomed every poor creature who came to her door with the simple words, “there’s room for another.” (And Eleanor Farjeon also wrote the words to the beautiful Morning Has Broken, a song which welcomes Life itself.)

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  1. thanx josna. i don’t think it’s “american” versus “indian” – it’s “small town” and “country” versus “big urban”. my mother always used to complain that she was lonely in hamburg, where we grew up, as opposed to the very small town and tight neighborhood where she lived as a kid and adolescent, and young woman; where people dropped in all the time, as a way of life. to this day, i remember her praises of dropping in, and try to work that magic on my busy friends sometimes – to various success and failures…my mom made no difference between her friends dropping in from three streets on, and my friends dropping in on her house on a visit from oxford, mississippi. of course, she also knew how to say: even fresh fish stinks after the third day – meaning, uninvited guests should know how to pack up…it’ s kind of sad to see how much technology these days serves to keep people at more than arms’ length of each other; my son and his friends routinely make at least 5 -10 organizing and “insurance” calls and sms before they actually arrive at seeing each other, instead of going over and ringing the door bell. is it about a lack of both welcome, and tactfulness? are they afraid of not knowing the limits?
    bine

  2. You’re absolutely right, bine: it’s not an “Indian” vs. “American” thing; I didn’t mean to give that impression, but on the contrary wanted to challenge that formulation as a nostalgic idealization of an earlier era, when fewer women were working, the extended family lived together, people were walking distance apart, and in general the pace of life was slower. And even then the women bore the brunt of the work, giving the impression that it was effortless. My mother-in-law was the embodiment of that welcoming ideal. No one was a stranger to her, and an unexpected visitor would be invited whole-heartedly into even the most intimate of family gatherings. It sounds as if your mother is the same.
    My son and his friends seem to be like yours as well. They are very busy and highly scheduled, often meeting several different people a day, and yet they make their plans at the last minute. They will get together on short notice, but with lots of back-and-forthing via text messages. And yet when they meet they will hang out in a large and comfortable group, cook cooperatively, and generally celebrate togetherness.
    I love your mother’s “Even fresh fish. . .” saying. It reminds me of a card my Uncle Ted sent me a few years ago, with a large, forbidding looking women standing like a bulldog, arms akimbo. On the inside it read, “If you make them too comfortable they’ll never leave.”
    x J

  3. Loved the post Josna. My son in London has a very good friend who comes from India. Some time ago this friend invited us over to his house to meet his Mom and family who were visiting from India. His Mom insisted on doing the meal and offering the hospitality. It was an evening I’ve never forgotten. We were lavishly treated to both food and conversation and she in a most magnificent sari was at the heart of it all. She was the epitome of grace and hospitality. So I’ve experienced just something of what you so beautifully describe when it comes to Indian hospitality. My wife J and I still talk about that evening.

    • Thanks you for sharing your story, Don. Yes, that’s the Indian hospitality I recognize! So many memorable gatherings made possible by it. As you see, I mostly celebrate it, too, though I also suggest that it can take its toll on the hostess, even if she herself would never acknowledge that.

  4. Oh yes! I agree – hospitality is an individual thing. It is not based on class, wealth or geography. My mother was always able to bang our enough food for all comers at any time. I do remember many people who came and stayed at our place over the years. I have no idea who they were; obviously not relations but were somehow connected.

    That is a most beautiful song. I always thought Cat Stevens wrote that. A quick look at Wikipedia and you’ve made me learn something new!

    • Thanks very much for your comment and for sharing the story of your own mother’s hospitality. I love the feeling of there being food for all comers and a succession of people staying with you. I do agree that hospitality is an individual thing, but I think it’s also learned, and varies according to a number of factors besides individual personality. I think that class can be a factor, in that–in my limited experiences–working class people tend to be more used to sharing what they have to help each other survive and depending on where they live, can have a supportive network of community. I also think that different classes and cultures are more tolerant of a friend or distant family member becoming a part of the household for extended periods of time. Have you read “Doors”, a short story by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni in her very first collection. Arranged Marriage? It shows the cross-cultural conflicts that can arise when one member of a couple has different attitudes and expectations from the other about how much hospitality should be extended to a house guest, and for how long.
      And yes, isn’t that a lovely song, both tune and words? The tune that Eleanor Farjeon put to secular, or at least ecumenical, words is apparently an old Gaelic one. It was of course Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam who popularized it in our time.

  5. When I was growing up, I don’t remember anyone just dropping by. Sometimes people, mostly family members or friends who grew up with my father’s family, came by but I’m sure even these were not surprise visits. To this day I feel ill equipped to deal with drop-ins and surprise meals, especially since, these days, I do not keep a big supply of food on hand. I do always have tea available. After a bad experience this summer, I really think that this is something I have to figure out, and soon. It’s come to the point where my daughter’s often bring food to feed all of us when they drop in.

    • Kristin, you are keeping me honest! While I celebrate the friends and family dropping in as a rather romanticized ideal, I myself prefer not to have it happen to me too often in reality, especially when life is so hectic. It is usually the women who are expected to be graceful under pressure and magically produce a feast out of a hat. My father told me that there was a certain dish called pitla that his mother used to make when someone arrived late in the evening and had to be given something to eat before turning in for the night. It was a kind of polenta-like mush made from roasted chickpea flour and water, with some spices thrown in, and served with hot chappatis (which also had to be made from scratch, of course). I hate being in the position of not having anything to serve to unexpected visitors. Also, I think there is the assumption out there that once a woman has retired, she has nothing else to do but be available to help family and generally make herself useful to others. (There is a novel by Anita Desai called Fire on the Mountain that addresses this societal assumption.)

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