I love India. And I just made a new friend who has reminded me of one of the reasons I am so happy to be here.
When I left Ladakh some days ago, I flew to Chennai. I had been corresponding with a man in Chennai who had helped me with formatting my ebook, and who was incredibly enthusiastic about my book. He actually ordered it from Amazon.com in the US just so he could post a review—and he had already read the digital version! Having let him know I was coming, he offered to pick me up at the airport and then drop me at the train station. However, when he met me at the airport, he said he had decided to drive me all the way to Pondicherry, which is about three hours away. First we stopped for lunch; I tried to at least pay for lunch and gas, because it was really no small thing for someone who isn’t wealthy, but, in true Indian style, he wouldn’t hear of it.All he wanted was for me to sign his copy of my book. This is not by any means the first time I have encountered extremes of hospitality in India, but this was so far beyond and above anything I could have expected that I was completely floored.
The trip to Pondicherry—or Pondy, as most people call it, although the new official name is Puducherry—was thoroughly enjoyable. We stopped along the way for a brief visit to Mahabalipuram, which is famous for it’s spectacular rock carvings. I’ll certainly have to go back for a more thorough visit at some time. It’s really quite an extraordinary place.
One of the rock-cut temples at Mahabalipuram—and my extraordinary host, Satya. Built by the Pallavas, these temples were, unfortunately, never finished and consecrated, but they are awe-inspiring anyway.
Although we didn’t have much time, we did wander around a bit. I loved this magnificent carved wall, which is known as “Arjuna’s Penance”. Here you see Arjuna as an emaciated yogi standing on one leg, just above the carving of the temple.
We ran across this bird fortune teller along the path. The man asks your name and tells it to the bird, who flits over and selects a card from a stack which has been spread out. The man takes it and gives a reading, rather like a tarot reading. I listened as this customer negotiated a discount. He was asking rs100, but she got him down to rs40. Most everything in India is negotiable. Oh, I have no idea what he told the lady as he was speaking Tamil—and my vocabulary is still extremely limited.
Cultural tip: When an Indian extends an invitation, it generally means that he will foot the bill. Many Indians feel insulted if a guest offers to pay. (I hope that wasn’t the case here! It was just such an incredible outpouring of hospitality that I felt compelled by my American upbringing to do so.) It works the other way, as well. If you invite an Indian out to eat, for instance, he will expect that you will be the one to pay for his meal. It would be considered rude to expect a guest to pay. Even after all these years, I sometimes have trouble with this one, at least when people go so much out of their way.
On the one hand, hospitality is a sacred duty for Indians. “Guest is God’ is a popular Vedic saying. It means that in serving a guest, you are serving and honoring God. However, it’s also something most Indians seem to enjoy in itself.
Do you have stories of people who have gone way out of their way to take care of you as a guest? If so, please share them.