Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Rediscovering 'Atithi Devo Bhava' In A Foreign Land

Atithi Devo Bhavah [Atithi Devo Bhavaḥ]

(Sanskrit: अतिथि देवो भवः; English: 'The guest is God' or 'Guest become God')

~ Taittiriya Upanishad, Shikshavalli I.20

‘Atithi Devo Bhava’ my granddad would say - often. ‘Guest is God’. He saw to it that every visiting guest – impromptu or planned – was personally looked after and taken good care of. One of the most vivid childhood remembrances I have is that of a differently-abled beggar who would visit our house every Saturday. ‘I am hungry, bauji’, he would affirm. Even when the entire house would be finished for the day and all utensils washed and tucked in their places, dadiji would quickly serve up something – even if it meant something as simple as a puri and curd. When curd was not there, she always had the home made nimbu mirchi achchar. I remember, that after relishing the food, when the content beggar humbly thanked my grandpa, my grandpa’s eyes would often turn misty and in a flicker of a second, he would outstretch both his arms upwards and say – Denhar koi aur hai, lenhar koi aur… (The real giver is someone else (not me), who sends enough to be given away.)

I had little clue of what all this meant. Yet, all such episodes, left deep marks on my little mind… the heart deciphered; something. That something was very beautiful... very pure... positive, and, so powerful that it tugged the strings of the soul of a 10 year old kid to create a melodious symphony… for life.

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A trip down memory lane

Recently, as I sat down cleaning the showcase of our house for Diwali, a muddle of things came tumbling out: an old calendar, a rickety clock, a very charming Ganesha, a few picture frames, sea shells I’d pick up during my travels, etc. Among them was a picture of my grandpa and an origami paper bird sticking precariously on one of the arms of Ganesha. Taking time out from the cleaning chore, I sat down; gazing lovingly at my treasures. These were special. Very special. I placed the bird on the photo and flapped its wings. The bird never moved. But something within, did. Soon I was off… flying through a wind of memories…

I am sorry, I couldn't understand what gift I should give you… so I got these origami papers. I hope you like it and make something out of it; I am sure it will always remind you of Japan.

I turned over the origami papers that Yoko had handed over to me the previous day. Her words echoing in my ears. Carefully, I kept it in my bag as the India bound plane took off.

It was the end of summer, 2012 and, I was all set to leave home.

The flight was a long one – 16 hours in total - plenty of time to watch the movie that had by then begun reeling on the screen of my mind.

It had all started around a couple of months back …

Anxieties of my FIRST International Trip!

The trip was special.

For more reasons than one. First, it had fallen in my lap by winning a travel contest at IndiBlogger. Second, it was my first trip abroad. And finally, my best buddy, my inspiration had agreed to give me company all along – my father. Together, for one week in Japan, we were to experience and explore life as guests in a foreign country.

Of the two of us, my dad was more relaxed and excited about the expedition while the nervous wreck within me grappled with a fair share of anxieties, nervousness and apprehensions.

With only a few days to go for the trip, I had begun lapping up the big fat lonely planet guidebook frantically and most of everything the previous travelers had to say about the country. The country, it seemed, followed certain codes of conduct and protocols religiously in their day to day life and if you, as a tourist, were to expect a rewarding experience, the advice was to simply come prepared and follow suit.

The Japanese are a warm and welcoming people whose unique culture can be both frustrating and enlightening in its complexity and contradictions. It can take many years to get a good grasp of the Japanese language and psyche. Even then, some say it’s impossible for a non-Japanese to be fully embraced by this homogenous society as one of their own. ~ Lonely Planet

Each time I read about this exotic country, I discovered a new custom it a number that kept on increasing, rivaling closely only to the density of the rituals in my own country!

So, I learnt people in Japan generally prefer keeping to themselves, are quiet, and their cuisine primarily is non vegetarian consisting of fish and meat (bummer since I am a pure vegetarian) and are not very comfortable to people speaking English. To bridle this barrier, I started taking self help lessons in Japanese to overcome the language barricade that the people in the country had apparently fenced themselves in. There was more, what with an entire chapter on holding chopsticks and eating food having its own mannerisms too!

The list was long and one I could never really remember. Eventually, I ran out of time trying to memorize everything before the D day.

It was an entirely different thing that in the due course of time, all these were never really to matter.

Overcoming the biggest barrier of stereotype

My introduction to Japan came as soon as we stepped out on its land, onto the streets – bags lugging from our shoulder and a printed paper dangling from my hand. In bold fonts, it read the address of our hotel given to us by our travel company that was sponsoring the trip - Hotel Villa Fontaine. It was nowhere to be seen.

Signboards dotted our way but all of them were useless as Japanese was a language alien to us. People passed by casually - eyes lowered, paces hurried – without any trace of glance as if the two of us had gone invisible. Finally, exhausted by a 16 hour flight, I decided to take the initiative and ask.

Nervously, I approached a man – pepper haired, perhaps on his way to work - and said ‘Sumimasen, could you please help us?’ pointing to the paper which carried the name of our hotel. He mumbled something in Japanese and gestured us to wait. He ran across to his car parked half a km away and returned with a large atlas mapbook in his hands.

Next moment, he was sitting on the ground in the middle of the pavement, on the main road, searching for directions to our hotel.

The scene moved me beyond words, something shifted within. At that very instant, I threw off a large part of the baggage I had carried along. Mind you, here I am not talking of toiletries or the clothes that we were carrying on our shoulders. But, a baggage much bigger than that. That, that we tend to carry in our minds. That of stereotype!

A voice within repeated… Arti, you ain’t seen anything yet. This is only the beginning. You, are going to love Japan.

And indeed, it ringed true in the days to come.

Hospitality-ness is next to Godliness

The trip had been special right from day one and even more now, as it dawned that anyone and everyone I was meeting was hell bent on making me feel special as well. People bowed in respect and I bowed back - this served as my ice breaker - just like an Indian Namaste making Japan that much more friendly to me.

So there was the subway office lady who came out of her cubicle to help us book a ticket, the bullet train booking staff ‘Midori ni Midogachi’ who left his seat so that he could return my camera that I, in my excitement to book my first bullet train ticket, had forgotten in his cabin, the man who left his own metro train just so that he could help us catch ours, the pretty lady who went out of her way to help us get out of the confusing subway network and there were many more. There was the time I was surprised to see a “vegetable” sushi waiting for me specially ordered by the folks of the travel company that had sponsored my trip; and the time a man literally jumped off his train when he saw me stranded at the metro.

Most of them, including the man who helped me find my way to the hotel, did not speak English fluently – but, it didn’t really matter. What really mattered was they spoke the universal language of love and had humility and kindness sowed in their hearts which sprang out in their smiles, friendliness and eagerness to make sure we felt relaxed and eased.

Meeting Nara blogger friends and discovering the similarities in the essence of living

Our itinerary included meeting 5 of my blogger friends from Nara and spending 3 days of my trip with them. We had been online friends for about a year or so, communicating sporadically with each other through our blogs and comments.

Frankly, I had been a little apprehensive about this part of the trip as always grappling with a few anxious questions rippling in my mind:

Would I be asking too much from a bunch of online friends whom I had been in touch only via blogs? Would they trust me – a stranger visiting from over the seas – enough to let her in, into their houses?

But the subsequent email conversations we shared wiped away all my anxieties and apprehensions leaving behind a very good feeling about my blogger hosts and the treatment I would be receiving.

  • Arti, I hear you are a pure vegetarian? Would dairy products be okay for you?
  • Arti, we would like to offer you a homestay at one of our houses in Nara.
  • Arti, what kind of a hotel should we book for your stay in Kyoto?
  • Arti, we are planning your sightseeing in Nara, but here’s your rough itinerary...

Nara in Japan proved to be a different world in this oriental country, a small countryside – with a lot to see and even more to feel.

Yoko, a petite woman with kind quiet eyes and a soft speaking tone, welcomed us into her pretty home surrounded by beautiful flowers and trees. Like in India, I was offered to leave my slippers outside and wear house slippers before stepping in. We gathered around the dining table for supper where my dad (perhaps the eldest and the only male in the group) was escorted to sit at the head seat of the table. When they saw me fiddling with the handling of chopsticks, immediately I was offered the fork and spoon along with a warm assurance ‘Don’t worry Arti, use these’.

Days were spent exploring Nara with my blogger friends who took time out from their busy schedules to show me around. Ancient heritage temples dotted the nooks and corners giving me a taste of their rich fascinating history. We purified ourselves' by washing our hands and hit the gong before entering most of these temples. Visiting these temples, paying reverence to the deities, also feeding the very-friendly deers in the park felt so much like embarking on one of my very own yatras all over again.

A warm comfy cushy bed awaited us at cosmos's house where we had been invited for a homestay. Tired by the explorations of the day, we fell asleep to the peace of the countryside.

We were deeply touched when we realized the degree of kindness extended by cosmos and her family only later. That night, they had slept on tatami mats while we enjoyed the comforts of their bedroom.

It was not for nothing that I felt that way. Over all the 6 days I spent in Japan, I felt like God because I was treated like one. It wasn’t my home but it was home jaisa with the same laughter, chatter, food and the warmth. I wasn’t a guest anymore but felt someone of their own family…

Stories, continued reeling one after another in those moments and after…

More Indian than I thought

Once back in India, with the help of instructions on the wrapper, I folded the paper into an origami bird and placed it lovingly in the showcase shelf near Ganesha as a good luck memento for my yatras.

This was sometime in 2012.

2 years have passed by since then… today, the bird is a member of my family peeping through the showcase glass reminding me how the world is so much more beautiful if we can break the cage of stereotypes and train our minds to fly.

Yes, Japan was an international trip and some sort of nervousness was implied with culture shock coming into the picture but the only way to fan all these feelings out and feel at home was by connecting with humans on a humanitarian level and following the basics in the etiquette of life, my dad always told me even before the start of the trip, but I learnt it my way.

Japan was very different, culturally but very very similar to India in the very essence of life. In fact, it was much more Indian than I could think. The profusion of history soaked in temples, the loving compassion towards animals, the simplicity in words, the thoughtfulness in actions and the love in gestures tugged my heart strings with something… something that was very beautiful and pure… creating that melodious symphony again… after so many years later, recreating the same magic of a masterpiece which had been etched in my soul by my grandpa as a ten year old… Atithi Devo Bhava!

Today, I am sitting in India – a country I proudly call home. But as they say home is where the heart is.

A fairly big piece of my heart still very much beats in Japan. My heart yearns to go there someday... surely, there are more stories to be told.