It took a homecoming 28 years ago to realise that the spirit in which a gift is given is more important than the gift itself. That spirit is very much alive today in India…
I grew up in America where “no room at the inn” is a common phrase to describe any situation where a person arrives somewhere expecting to be received and is turned away.
The source is the Bible and the story is of Mary and Joseph knocking on the door of an inn in Bethlehem. Mary is nine months pregnant with Baby Jesus and the innkeeper, the cad, refuses to give them a room. Just before he slams the door in their faces, he taunts them, saying they can sleep in the stable if they want to.
That’s the version I grew up with anyway.
The actual text is milder. “But while they were in Bethlehem, the time came for the child to be born, and she gave birth to her first-born son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn.”
Spirit of sharing
No deliberate insult, no slammed door, no taunting. Just a simple fact: there was no room in the inn. It took coming to India, the land of hospitality and largesse, where there is always room for one more, where no matter how little you have yourself, you still have enough to share, for me to understand what must have actually happened that night in Bethlehem.
When Westerners are invited to stay with friends, they expect to be treated pretty well: their own room, for sure; attached bath, preferably. If put up on the couch or in a room with the kids, they are justifiably annoyed, but on behalf of their hosts, not themselves: “Why did they ask me to come if they knew they didn’t have space? The last thing I wanted to do was to inconvenience them,” they say plaintively, as if proving their merits as guests by their concern for their hosts.
Since inconveniencing your host is impossible when you are God (The Guest is God), this logic is lost on the average Indian. So if all they have is space on the floor, that is what they will offer. And what amazed me when I first arrived in this country 28 years ago is that the offer is always made with infinite grace and pride, as if the spirit behind the gift utterly transcends its quality.
I have been offered over-brewed, watery, bitter tea and stale biscuits with a flourish that would put the Queen Mum to shame. I have been ushered to a mat on the floor with the same ceremony one would expect from a clerk at the Taj Hotel. I have been compelled to be the sixth person on a train berth meant for three because no one could bear to see me standing (even though it was far more comfortable that the tight squeeze sitting entailed). It used to confound me. Didn’t they know what they were offering was crap?
And over time, I have come to marvel at the simplicity and humility of people who give what they have, who do the best they can, who see a need and try to answer it without worrying about being judged in the process.
I think what happened that night 2,000 years ago was that Bethlehem was a tiny village and there were all sorts of people swarming in for the Census. I think the innkeeper seriously had no room left to give the young couple, but being raised with an Eastern sense of hospitality, there was no way he could turn them away either.
So he offered what he had, and he did it with style. If what you have is a stable, you stress the warmth the nearby animals guarantee, the ease, perhaps, with which the Wise Men and the Shepherds will find it and the iconic status the manger will one day come to hold.
It was only much later, and out of a misguided sense of what constitutes true hospitality, that the innkeeper’s generosity was re-packaged as the surliness of an avaricious businessman. Only using the lens of a Best Western where you pay your money and you get your room could the offer of a space to lie down and deliver your child be construed as an insult.
The Sangh Parivar’s recent call for a bandh in Orissa on Christmas Day was a similarly ill-conceived attempt to twist India’s long-standing tolerance for all faiths into something ugly and violent and it has been thwarted. The citizens of Orissa are not prepared to be used as pawns in a political game of Divide and Rule. It has also been tried in Gujarat and Godhra and Kashmir and Mumbai — it did not work then and it will not work now.
On Christmas morning, Indians of all faiths will recall the birth of the baby who came into this world with a message of peace and love and together, as one nation, we will reject the forces that attempt to divide us.
Let the word go out: there is room in the inn for all.