Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Hospitable Coercion: a night of Indian generosity

Don’t make eye contact. Just look at the hard floor as though something interesting is taking place. Yes, this is fascinating, I think to myself. I have yet to master an acting face and my subtle interest comes across as overly eccentric or mildly psychotic. With a look of deep concern, the elderly woman rushes over to my white plastic chair. To remedy my illness she heaps two more ladles of white rice onto my already overflowing plate.

I sigh deeply and struggle to mask my agitation. The angst does not translate over to the women. I can tell by her face, which continues to exude a bright smile, that she failed to notice my aggravation.

The charade starts over. I continue to attempt disinterest but she returns to my side just three minutes later, large rice bowl in hand. I hand her my plate in surrender and she fills it once more with unwavering enthusiasm.

While an overabundance of hospitality is a daily occurrence in India, tonight is special. It is prayer time in Mumbai. With an hour warning, my group is invited to attend a prayer service with members of the Trinity Tamil Lutheran Church. Having promised myself I would not miss such a cultural experience, I manage to join the company of seven others in the small yellow and red van reserved for just such excursions. Still reveling in the excitement of living out my Anthropology minor first-hand, my mind wanders to subsistence strategies, kinship diagrams and social theory.

The van rumbles to a stop near dimly lit shops and small houses. “We must walk a short walk,” the driver explains. The dirt path is lit by surplus fireworks left over from the previous week’s Diwali celebration. Rogue sparks flare towards us unsuspecting victims, subject to war in this foreign land. We trudge past barbed wire fences hidden by the darkness while our Rainbow sandals squelch in the newly formed mud. After several more minutes I spot dim lights in the distance past tall grass and mosquito infested fog.

Shoes remain outside as we step barefooted into a one-room house with a small kitchen. I see the space is already full and ponder how my group of eight will fit. Couches, a bed and all the floor space is occupied by this newly formed church. A short man with dark hair, gray slacks, a collared shirt and bare feet stands to greet us. “Hewwo,” he garbles and I am reminded of the Princess Bride. “Welkwome Concowdia Seminawy Students.”

Suddenly a shiny silver tambourine materializes into his right hand, magically already shaking out a beat. He hums a vaguely familiar hymn at a rapid tempo. I pause, mouth slightly open, wide-eyed and look around at my fellow Americans to see if they have a clue as to what is happening.

By the time my eyes go back to the man, his tambourine is moving even faster and a big grin stretches across his face. I try to hum along and hide my disbelieving smile. Three songs later, my stomach rumbling and head aching slightly, the man introduces himself as Sonn De. “Like Sunday. Or Sundae,” he says with a wink.

Sonn introduces the other house church members one by one. He pats the final woman on the head and smiles, “Wife. My Woman, Wife.” I ponder how his high-pitched voice can exit in a constant stream from his continuously smiling lips. After the poignant introduction of his wife, Sonn declared, “Now, one of our guests from Concordia Seminary will give a short message, yes?”

Our looks of intense confusion bordering on both frustration and humor seem to be a constant theme of the evening. Sonn’s bold expectation causes a flash of panic covered quickly with a relatively calm, confident response from our group leader, Sam: “Umm, yes, of course, we have come with a message. A short message.”

Sam’s compelling message about Colossians 1:1-14 spurred a loud applause from the energetic crowd of Indians. I cannot join them. I should have declined the three cups of fluorescent orange Fanta and two pieces of chocolate cake that were lovingly pushed upon me while Sam spoke of prayer and thanksgiving. Stomach aching already, I am not looking forward to a repetition of such generosity during dinner.

Despite my fervent prayers and pleadings, after three more high-pitched, fast-paced, tambourine-infused hymns, dinner is served. Copious amounts of bony mystery meat in a spicy curry sauce makes its way around the room, along with various textures of bread. Chapatti, papel, potatoes and parathas circulate to each person multiple times. My head spins and my stomach continues to turn with the moving serving platters.

The evening moves along and slowly my stomach forgives the abundance of food that has been assaulting it since I arrived in India one week ago. After several more upbeat hymns in Hindi and English my hesitancy about Indian hospitality starts to lessen. I smile to myself as the last song concludes with a short prayer.

We say our goodbyes and take a step out into the dark, misty night air. Instead of leading us on the daunting trek back to the yellow and red vans, our drivers guide us into a neighboring house. “It is Helen’s birthday. We must celebrate,” he says, as though that is a legitimate reason for continuing the evening in a stranger’s home.

Already two and a half hours behind schedule, I sit down in Helen’s house and try to hold on to my newfound happiness. Chocolate cake and Fanta are passed around and I take each, surprised at my compliant reaction. It is another excuse to consume additional calories and too much sugar. I accept the cake and cannot think of a more appropriate reason to eat than to participate in unfamiliar culture. “Happy birthday, Helen,” I say with joy. This time I look her in the eyes rather than at the floor. This is India, I slowly realize. And I welcome it, stomach ache and all.

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