It’s a Tuesday night at midnight. Kim and I have just landed in Mumbai when we get the inaugural call on our temporary Indian cell phone. On the line is Deepak, our host father for the first leg of our trip. He says to meet him outside Gate B, where he and his driver Balchandra are waiting for us.
Deepak is a Charted Accountant, the Indian equivalent of a CPA. Balchandra has been his chauffeur for more than 20 years. Deepak says his all of his colleagues have drivers, as well; sometimes they carpool.
“Would you expect an accountant in the U.S. to have a chauffeur?” I ask Kim, my trusty travel buddy.
“Well, I know that plenty of accountants make an above average living, but I don’t think of a CPA as someone who usually has a car and driver. No,” Kim replies.
We haven’t even left the airport and already the gears in my head are turning. If Deepak has a chauffeur, does this mean he’s upperclass? Or does a chauffeur not indicate wealth here? Would a doctor have a driver, or a lawyer? What’s the highest wage-earning profession in this country?
After a bit of a drive, we arrive at Deepak’s home and are welcomed with open arms by his charming wife Asha. She invites us into their home with grace and liveliness, even though it is 1 A.M. We apologize for keeping them up so late.
“Oh, it is no problem,” Deepak assures us. “We are usually awake at this hour. You see, here we have a different professional schedule. I wake up about 8:30, 9 o’clock. Get to the office about 11. Come home 8, 8:30. Finish dinner about 10, then take my evening walk. For us this is not late.”
Note to self: move to India.
Our semi-nocturnal host parents then show us to our room: marble floors, air conditioning, and an adjoining bathroom. Our jaws drop. I don’t want to say, “it’s all downhill from here,” but… it is.
Asha offers us food. After traveling for 24 hours, all we want to do is sleep, but for some reason I feel rude turning down her hospitality.
In Western civilization we have this concept of being “a good guest.” We make an effort to impose upon our hosts as little as possible. We help set the table, prepare dinner, wash the dishes. If we arrive late at night, we ask for as little as possible and quietly tuck ourselves into our rooms. The host/guest interface to which I’m accustomed revolves around accommodating the host.
But here, the emphasis is placed entirely on the guest. “A guest is a form of God,” as the Sanskrit saying goes. Deepak and Asha have anticipated and prepared for our needs; the respectful course of action is to accept their offers, even at 1 A.M.
So, in the spirit of being this new incarnation of a good guest, I ask for a glass of milk. Asha happily invites us to the kitchen. As we walk through the sprawling living room, I catch glimpses in the dark of the speaker system, big screen TV, and trendy plastic chairs that dangle from the ceiling.
The next morning we drag our jetlagged selves out of bed about 9 o’clock. Asha is the first to greet us.
“Now, I prepare lunch for my daughter. The man will come in about 30 minutes, and then I will be free to be with you,” she says.
We smile and return to our room to read.
“So… when Asha said, ‘the man will come,’ did she mean her husband?” Kim whispers.
“I don’t know. I think so…? Who else would she have meant?”
“Yeah. Also did you notice last night that she referred to the kitchen as ‘my kitchen?'”
“Yep, I was just about to say that.”
Kim and I launch into a jazzy discussion about the cultural differences here concerning women. I realize how delightfully in uncharted territory I am. Not only in Deepak and Asha’s home, but in India in general.
Turns out, though, by “the man will come,” Asha did not mean her husband. She meant the man who picks up her daughter’s lunch and delivers it to her at work.
This was explained to us when the door bell rang at 10 30 A.M.
Before answering the door, Asha showed us the fruits of her morning labor. “See, this is what I prepare for my daughter. This is chapatti. It is like pita bread. I make it myself from rice flour. And this is veg. Vegetable. and salad.” She unwraps tinfoil to reveal each item. “Now, the man comes, and I give him the lunchbox, and he takes it to my daughter at work.”
Kim and I exchange a look as if to say to each other, “so that’s who the man is!”
Asha’s daughter has to leave for work relatively early because she works in the school system. The benefit of this delivery service is that Asha can wake up later and cook at her own pace, and still ensure her daughter has a fresh home-cooked lunch.
I’m fascinated. I know we will encounter a thrilling amount of cultural differences in the coming months; the lunchbox delivery man is just the tip of the iceberg. But I didn’t realize how deeply these differences would run. We haven’t even been here 12 hours and already I find myself baffled by class distinction, hospitality, and the male/female dynamic, to name a few big ticket items. I know how to detect wealth, but not in this economy. Does a chauffeur mean upperclass, or just sensible and safe? I know how to be a guest in someone’s house, but not under these standards of hospitality. Does offering to help insult my host, or will she appreciate it? And I haven’t even begun to tackle the adjustment to the male/female interface. That’s its own can of worms.
I have so much to learn.