Sunday, October 08, 2006

Customer, Guest or Athithi

I remember my desi sensibilities being jarred the first time I visited socially with an American family. After spending a wonderful evening our hosts stayed on in their living room as we let ourselves out the door. I wondered if anything I had done had provoked such rude behavior. Back home we always walked our guests out to the taxi stand in the least. It was not unusual to have an elderly couple dropped home by the host. You never let anyone walk away from your home unaccompanied - that constituted lack of respect and courtesy.

Over time I came to realize that my friends abroad did not mean any harm by not walking me to the parking lot and that there was no uniform protocol around the bid good bye ritual. I have had the families congregate on their front porch waving until my car disappeared from view, others have driven ahead for me to follow them to the main interstate because I am directionally challenged and yes some have asked me to shut the door behind me when I left.

I also observed concept of Athithi Devo Bhava
is not ingrained as deeply in the desi psyche as one would expect. Desis settled abroad can act much like the locals do in the interests of assimilation perhaps. I have had front doors decorated with Jaipuri door hangings shut on me before I had a chance to wave good bye.

The concept of Athithi - which literally translates to "without a date" implying an unexpected visitor with whom no prior appointment was made - is beautiful. The pleasure of seeing a friend at your door when they surprise you with a visit has few equals. The idea is to treat such visits as sacrosanct and honor the visitor like they were God. When cultural differences are taken into account, you can often arrive at the same destination though for entirely different reasons not to mention motivations.

At the Seva Cafe in Ahmedabad you pay for your meal (if you want to) after you have eaten - the menu has no prices. The idea to perpetuate a cycle of giving and taking. Proceeds from what a previous guest has paid is used to pay for the next guest's meal. The hope is they in turn will continue the chain.

At Just Round the Corner in London, there are no prices in the menu either. The customer pays what they think the food is worth so in theory it is possible they may pay nothing at all. It is a social experiment in the economics of trust. The Seva Cafe is possibly an attempt to seek out the intrinsic good in human nature and let that power a commercial venture.

1 comment:

Priyamvada_K said...

Interesting post. On "athithi", I remember my father giving this explanation: for one's departed ancestors, we have "thithi"s (death ceremonies) where their spirits are welcomed, and honored with feasts. That is how a guest needs to be treated - with honor, love and lavish attention - as though they are a beloved ancestor. They are alive, so its not a "thithi" technically, but respect for "athithi" is the same.

Whichever meaning it is, the concept of athithi-satkaar is a beautiful one.