True hospitality is welcoming the stranger on her own terms. This kind of hospitality can only be offered by those who've found the centre of their lives in their own hearts.
Henri Nouwen (Dutch Catholic priest, professor, writer and theologian)
Lal Mohan Saraswat has run his small ‘Leisure Guest House’ for the past eighteen years of his life now. Clean rooms, safe and secured stay along with excellent food has been the ultimate trio of his service. His guests are recurring travellers who have stayed over for months at a stretch on certain occasions; even seekers of respite from the constant sightseeing and shopping spree. Lal Mohan has never faltered in his duties; has worked tirelessly, providing a wholesome experience for his guests with the core aim to satisfy. His daily morning routine has remained the same for the past almost two decades; get up early, freshen up for the day, go for morning prayers in the nearby mandir (prayer house), have a cup of Lal Chai (Red Tea) and finally get the cook to prep up the complimentary local breakfast to be served to the guests. The morning would drag on to lunch and finally dinner and some refreshments, as per the guests' individual menu preferences of the local delicacy. A well-respected man, a member of the Local Welfare Committee; the locals looked up to him with pride and respect.
The hustle and bustle keep his mind preoccupied and at the end of the day, exhaustion makes him numb. Though he is just fifty-two years in age, he appears much older. Twice married, both his wives left him too early. He has fathered six children, five boys and the youngest, a daughter who is just twelve. Thus, as per customs, he has an entourage of five successors to choose from. One of them would carry on the family business, the guest house; its warmth and hospitality. He would have to choose the candidate wisely. Three of his older sons are already married, have families of their own, and jobs to sustain themselves. The next two in line are the twin fifteen-year-old boys; though young, they help their father run the family business.
Thomas was on his first visit to India. He was determined to visit Udaipur, the land of fancy hoteliers and breathtaking scenic exquisiteness; the Pichola Lake, the City Palace, the Fateh Sagar Lake, the Eklingji Temple, the Jagdish Temple, the Vintage Car Museum, the Crystal Gallery, the Taj Lake Palace, the Mewar Spring Festival, etc. The once palaces of the Maharajas now exhibited off as luxury holiday destinations. All tourists agencies offered vast well-planned itineraries, exotic scenic places, but his project demanded the truth, the raw beauty. As evident as daylight, the real deal is always hidden within those crooked lanes and streets of the city; the daily bread earners. He believed the streets never lie. Be the subject; live, eat and sleep like them to know the actual flesh and blood.
Thomas planned to settle for someplace small. Hence, the ‘Leisure Guest House’. The place at a glance did not appear reassuring, but once he entered his room, he was pleasantly surprised. A clean room with the bed freshly made every single day, clean towels in the bathroom, constant water supply, WiFi and excellent food were the highlights. The owner Lal Mohan turned out to be a wonderful host. He gave him a pamphlet dictating everything one would need to know about the local tourists' spots in and around Udaipur, including eateries and famous photo spots. ‘Leisure Guest House’ served its purpose.
Host and guest surprisingly conversed with ease despite the language barrier. They discussed many aspects regarding life and its simplicities, monochromes to truth and view of society at large. Lal Mohan had confided in Thomas about his realities, leading to the latter’s changed perspective of life. For Saraswat work was enough for self-satisfaction, but there were days when he went into slumps thinking about the possibilities his life would have been. He was given an honorary discharge; Havildar rank of the Indian Armed Forces.
The army had been an escape for him; an escape from the harsh truth his abusive childhood and teenage life brought. Just graduated and twenty-one years of age, he joined the prestigious institution. He had always been a patriot at heart, and his young blood called him to the field. He trained along with 100 other sepoys. They toiled and shed sweat, blood and tears in the name of rendering themselves capable of serving their motherland and protecting their fellow countrymen. Mohan, as others from the Army firmly held onto the motto of Sewa Paramo Dharma (Service is our duty).
The first few years were peaceful compared to what struck during 1999. The Kargil War. The thousands of soldiers who marched into the battlefield bearing the crest of honour and chivalry; hundreds lost their lives, while Lal Mohan and many others returned home injured. The war had wrecked his shoulder permanently, though operated on, the damage was done. He was unfit for physical exertion jobs; also the reason behind his honorary discharge.
Many Indian families have bred generations of proud fighters, and they still hold on to the promise of continuing their traditions. Lal Mohan’s brief spell as army personnel dictated his entire outlook towards life. He was proud of endorsing the opportunity to fight for something worthwhile. The framed insignia of his uniform sat at the reception table; a symbol of pride and respect, a constant reminder of his bravery and sacrifice. Incidentally, one of the twins had an intense desire to follow in the strides of his father; of being enrolled as a lieutenant. When questioned about the passion he felt towards the army, he smiled, pressed his hands together into a namaste and replied, “Sewa Paramo Dharma. Isn’t it what we have seen our father do his entire life?”.
By the end of his three-week stay, Thomas had developed quite a rapport with Lal Mohan. He had the experience to carry back home; not only the true scenic and charm of the locals but also memories and a headshot of his humble, raw yet unique host, as a part of his travel memoir of Udaipur.
Hospitality is the key to new ideas, new friends, new possibilities. What we take into our lives changes us. Without new people and new ideas, we are imprisoned inside ourselves.
Joan Chittister (American Benedictine nun, theologian, author, and speaker)
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