Soap, Spoons, and Sunshine
You raise your hand, unsure, only knowing that you want to be as open as possible, and eating lunch by yourself in a stranger’s house seems like a good place to start. In a matter of minutes, you are walking away from everyone you had blindly eaten mangoes with the previous night. A door adorned with a faded rendering of Ganesh greets you as you walk up a worn, dimpled clay ramp that had once been well-defined stairs. Your socks and sneakers are shed and your feet quickly touch cool tile. From the entranceway, you can see all the way through the four rooms of the house, to the green-tinged back opening and the worn clothes hanging low across the courtyard. You follow your English-speaking companion to the third room, where you sit on a striated blanket. The smell of the home, you realize later, is defined by what it doesn’t smell like — there is not a hint of animal or hay or manure, as opposed to the streets. Your eyes are still accustomed to the harsh, yet gentle sunlight reflecting off of sand, but when they adjust, you see three people staring at you, their eyes wide and wondering.
“Maru nom Julia che,” you say, hesitantly, and with a horrible accent.
You are introduced to the three people, and they smile as you struggle through pronouncing their names, your tongue never quite agreeing with the unfamiliar syllables. As the food is served and you begin to eat, you have the chance to watch them watch you. You first smile at the small boy who is sitting on the ground and eating to your right. He had attended the school you visited earlier, as evidenced by his pink button-up and navy pants. His mouth mirrors yours and he laughs as you try to figure out how to eat with your hands. You learn that his name means “sunshine” but as he looks up at an older girl standing in the doorway, your gaze follows his and you realize that she is the one who reminds you of that golden light. Her sari is bright yellow, with swirling pink and orange designs. She uses her scarf to cover half of her face but she is looking at you and you are looking at her and something is recognized but it is unnamed and you smile at her and she smiles at you, slowly and gently. She does not speak; she listens. She smirks, her thin eyebrows raised, as she warmly offers you a spoon to eat with. (You end up disregarding the spoon and eating with your hands, but that’s beside the point). She acts as a shadow, following you as you tiptoe outside and learn how this family washes their dishes. As you take the gritty, thin, hot pink bar of surfactants, she observes, and suddenly reappears with a new bar, which she places in your hands. In the moment, you merely accept this offering, but later, you view her actions with overwhelming gratitude. Her detailed observations and willingness to make you comfortable make you wonder what you have done to deserve this kind of unfiltered generosity.
As you prepare to depart, you take out a sheet with a few Gujarati phrases. “Aa bhar,” you say with a nod, “aawjo!” Your small phrases are tossed back at you with ease and with love. Soon, they turn into a scattered mantra of sorts, or maybe a call and response. You are using the few words you have to say much more. On your way out, she asks for a picture with you. You gladly oblige and stand in the kitchen with her, marveling at the idea that she wants to remember you. You lightly place a hand on her shoulder and smile. Though she is satisfied with the photo, she ends up taking one more — of just you. The pixels show you that you’re laughing, your vaguely sunburnt face communicating with her in that universal language. As you finally turn to leave, the last thing you see is a flash of yellow in a darkened doorway.
A phrase that resonated with me as I was so readily welcomed into a stranger’s home was only introduced to me afterwards: “Jai Mata Jee.” As Devendra-bhai explained, this phrase means something along the lines of “I respect your gods and goddesses.” This phrase gave me the language necessary to describe my feelings as I ate lunch. There was a shared understanding, I think, between myself and my host family – we both agreed to respect each others’ ways of living, and in turn, respect each other. When I was offered the opportunity to wash my hands outside, instead of in the dark washroom, my differences were recognized. When I was taught to pour water on others’ hands so that they, too could wash up, I was beginning to understand their way of life. When I received a spoon to eat with, my culture was being acknowledged and respected. When I, in turn, learned how to efficiently eat with my hands, I was embracing their culture. When my request for a napkin to wipe my hands with was met, my cultural disparities were not scorned at. And when I licked my fingers clean at the end of the meal, my host’s prideful smile showed me that I was excelling at trying on new cultural norms. Though we didn’t speak the same language, this constant back-and-forth and this wonder towards each other showed me how easy it is to connect with people, as long as one remains open: as long as one remembers to always respect other’s gods and goddesses.