“Tea or coffee?” asks our affable host Charles as I shuffle into the living room, rubbing my eyes. My day has hardly started and I’ve already been presented with a reminder of India’s penchant for creative borrowing. Indian tea would hardly be recognizable to a Chinese connoisseur; Indian coffee would baffle a café-frequenting European. The drinks have been given an Indian twist, as have many foreign traditions (gustatory and otherwise) that have found their way into the already-crowded world of Indian customs. In India, coffee and tea are commonly prepared in the same way: with whole milk, heaping spoonfuls of sugar, a hearty helping of masala (spices) and a pinch of the caffeinated plant in question. While tea is popular throughout India, coffee has its strongholds in the south; since I was in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, I opted for coffee.
Even though we hadn’t met our hosts before we arrived at their house,, they were bound by the threads of obligation and reciprocity that hold together Indian society. When my father came to India in 1971 to lead groups for Indian clergymen, he worked with a priest who soon after became a bishop. Decades later, the bishop’s secretary asked my father to make a donation on behalf of a destitute village; my father obliged. Many years passed, but when the secretary heard my parents were coming to India, he insisted to repay my father’s generosity by hosting us at his sister’s house. By the time we arrived, the secretary was in Belgium. This was no matter to us for the secretary arranged for us to stay with his sister Christina and brother-in-law Charles with whom we had never made personal contact.
We guests, my parents and I, plus a friend, speak no Hindi, let alone Tamil and for the visit, we communicate largely in gestures. Charles speaks some English, the result of his work in China and Romania as an embassy police officer, so we’re never totally at a loss. While abroad, he also learned to cook, a rare skill for a traditional Indian male, especially a federal officer, but one that made him many friends in the embassy, despite some gentle ribbing.
Perhaps because of the language gap between us and our hosts, they show their warm hospitality largely through their actions: bringing us bottle after bottle of mineral water, giving up their bedrooms for us -we try to object, but to no avail- and serving us massive amounts of food. Since we are honored guests, we get the finest food: fish, chicken, even beef, a rarity in the Hindu-dominated north but a bit more common here in the south where Christians make up a larger part of the population.
Breakfasts are a little lighter, though the portions are still substantial. After sipping our morning drinks, we take our places at the table, and our hosts bring out the mountains of food. The menu: puri (little fried circles of wheat, similar to fried dough), coconut chutney, tomato chutney, and a spicy potato dish. Our hosts stand attentively behind us as we eat, filling any empty part of our plates. Only after we finish do they eat.
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Today a priest, Father Solomon, has generously offered to take us around in his air-conditioned Toyota Corolla, quite a luxurious ride in this part of the world. Our destination: nearby Kanyakumari, the town at the very southern tip of India where the three seas meet: The Indian Ocean, Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea. The six of us pile into the Corolla, Charles and Fr. Solomon in front, we four guests crammed in back. Our hosts object, say we’ll be uncomfortable, but we insist it’s okay. By Indian standards, this is nothing. I’ve seen tiny autorickshaws with 10 kids crammed in, limbs and heads sticking out the sides at odd angles. Four often fit onto a single motorcycle, whether it's a father, mother and two little kids or – more precariously – two men and two goats.
Because nothing in India happens in a straight line, we don’t go directly to Kanyakumari. After a brief stop at the post office, we head to a local church that Father Solomon helped renovate. Even here we were given food: Fanta and bananas, another reminder of India’s blending of outside and indigenous cultures. We hit the road again.