Monday, April 19, 2010

Week 19: Home Hospitality

In this picture Kristine and I are receiving the hospitality of A.M. Rasheed and Suhyl Rahman in Suhyl`s home near Alappuzha in Kerala. I had met Rasheed two months ago through his friend (and my co-worker, Stany Thomas) and had given a lecture at Nedumkandam College where he is Principal. I had met Suhyl through Rasheed one week ago, when I gave my last lecture at Mahatma Gandhi University where he works and is active with SAMSCARA (a service organization of employees) which sponsored the talk. Suhyl had then invited me to his home and Rasheed had offered to provide the transportation! Such spontaneous kindness occurs here with embarrassing frequency.

A typically Hindu cultural standard is to ``Treat a guest as God.`` As Moslems, Rasheed and Suhyl abide by a similar standard by showing great generosity and kindness. Together they insisted upon providing all meals during our 30 hours together, as well as paying for a 4-hour boat ride on the canals and lakes in and around the city of Alappuzha (known as the Venice of India). The boat ride was glorious, revealing tropical splendor throughout as well as tree climbers harvesting coconuts, a tamed eagle at a rest stop, children be taken by boat to school, laborers filling their small boats with sand to sell for construction projects, and scores of people going about their daily lives using the life-giving water by catching fish, cleaning clothes, and performing other tasks. After being served a fantastic meal (vegetarian, to suit me) prepared by Suhyl`s wife and oldest daughter and served by his son and son`s friend, we continued to engage in a wide range of conversations including religion, politics, and personal matters. We also were obliged to visit the home of Suhyl`s sister and, later, his elderly father (who is credited by many as the first to educate Moslems in Kerala on topics relating to other religious traditions throughout over 60 years as a respected Islamic orator).

Earlier in the week I had attended an event at Mahatma Gandhi University which I had thought was to honor students with whom I had shared. Upon my arrival, it was clear that I was the primary person to be honored! Something similar had happened to me at St. Thomas College the week before, so I am surprised that I was again surprised! Speeches were made, cake was shared, and one student had an odd request of me: to sing a song! For over 50 people I did my best with ``Simple Gifts``, one of my favorite Quaker songs that seemed appropriate. The applause was definately out of proportion to my meagre vocal skills....

Former St. Thomas College Principal (President), Father Mathew Kokkatt came to Pala for a two day visit to see a doctor -- and used the occasion to take Kris and I one morning to visit his traditional family home as well as two others. So it is that I finally was able to personally thank him for the key role he played in the formulation of my Fulbright Grant proposal. Through him on this day we spent time with a married couple who, at age 53, had finally given birth to a child after years of disapppointment: wow, now that is persistence (with the help of God`s grace?)! Another friend of Fr. Kokkatt served us desert in her home -- on the same day she and her husband were preparing to fly to Switzerland: wow, how many folks in the U.S. would have sought to avoid that untimely hospitality?!

Fr. Kokkatt had us back to our home just in time for us for Kris and I to be picked up by Matthew Sebastian, Chair of the Political Science Department at St. Thomas College. He had made an appointment many days before for us to meet his family and have lunch at his home. His lovely wife (a high school teacher) and two daughters (one finishing medical school, and the other in college) made us feel completely at home. Among other things, we talked about educational systems and classroom practices -- telling stories that brought many smiles. After this full day of home visits, we were too tired to attend Saturday evening mass (though the humidity of the day had also taken a toll)....

Having visited Moslem and Christian homes this week, we should also mention our sharing a week before in the home of Dr. T.V. Muralivallabhan (another friend of Stany Thomas). Murali (as his friends call him), had insisted upon showing Kris and I to a couple of local Hindu Temples before arriving at dusk to his home. His home also had a prayer space devoted to a variety of incarnations of Vishnu, including Raama and Krishna, though Shiva and his son Ganesha were also represented. Hindus declare that there are at least 10,000 names for God – and tend to culturally accept (and occasionally absorb) virtually all of the world`s other religious traditions. Murali is, himself, strongly in the tradition of the ancient Hind sage Shankaracharya and his 19th century devotee Vivekanada who taught respect for all faiths: after all, is not each religious tradition but another path to trek up the same mountain at the summit of which is the Truth that is God?

Hindus, and all those influenced by Hindu culture, are often said to be preoccupied with issues of dharma (duty). This helps explain the extreme hospitality shown to us by so many people in India. While I am sure some folks genuinely like Kris and I, while others want to visit with us for the status attached to having done so, there is no doubt that doing one`s dharma plays a role. As a last example of ``doing dharma`` for this week`s blog entry, I will tell of the visit by Mr. Nayar to us two days ago.

Mr. Nayar is a desk clerk working at the Gandhi Guest House across the street from Gandhis Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmadabad. One month ago we stayed three nights there during my involvement with a Global Warming Conference. Mr. Nayar and I had enjoyed light conversation during our stay, and he had phoned us in Kerala later to say that we had overpaid our bill by 1,000 rupees (about $20.). I had told him to simply make a gift in our name to any charity of his choice. Instead, while visiting relatives about 6 miles from where we live in Pala, he travels with his cousin by bus to hand deliver the Rs 1,000 to me. He insisted that was his duty! Kris served them some apple juice and fruits (what little we had available for surprise guests) and I insisted upon walking with them back to the bus stop. Picture the three of us men sharing a small umbrella in a torrential downpour of rain – laughing at our common discomfort while observing how wonderfully clean the air smelled! Duty. Doing dharma not only builds community, but can be a lot of fun!

Rasheed, Suhyl, Fr. Kokkat, Matthew, Murali, and Mr. Nayar: May your life examples continue to inspire me and others to build a world more at peace with itself…..

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