- Kasturi Goswami
Under The Vast Blue Sky, There Exist No Strangers
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.
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, and excellent food, have been the ultimate trio of his service. His guests are recurring travelers 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 and has worked tirelessly to provide a wholesome experience for his guests with the core aim of satisfaction.
For the last two decades, his daily morning routine has remained the same. Get up early, freshen up for the day, go for morning prayers in the nearby mandir (prayer house), and have a cup of Lal Chai (Red Tea). Finally, get the cook to prep 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.
The hustle and bustle keep his mind preoccupied; at the end of the day, exhaustion makes him numb. Though he is just fifty-two years of age, he appears much older. He is a member of the Local Welfare Committee, and the locals look up to him. 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, according to customs, he has an entourage of five successors. One of them would carry on the guest house’s family business; its warmth and hospitality. He would have to choose the candidate wisely. Three of his older sons are already married and have families of their own and jobs to sustain themselves. The following 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 Vintage Car Museum, the Crystal Gallery, the Taj Lake Palace, the Mewar Spring Festival, and many others. The once palaces of the Maharajas are now exhibited as luxury holiday destinations.
All tourist agencies offered vast well-planned itineraries and exotic scenic places. Still, Thomas’s project demanded the truth, the raw beauty. As evident as daylight, the real deal is always hidden within the city’s crooked lanes and streets: the daily bread earners. He believed the streets never lie. Be the subject: live, eat, and sleep like them, become one with them in the truest sense of 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 he was pleasantly surprised when he entered his room. The highlights were the highlights of a clean room with a bed freshly made every day, clean towels in the bathroom, constant water supply, WiFi, and excellent food. The owner Lal Mohan turned out to be an excellent host. He gave him a pamphlet dictating everything one would need to know about the local tourist spots in and around Udaipur, including eateries and famous photo spots. ‘Leisure Guest House’ served its purpose.
The host and guest surprisingly conversed with ease despite the language barrier. They discussed many aspects of 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. Still, 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 graduating and twenty-one years of age, he joined the prestigious institution. He had always been a patriot, and his young blood called him to the field. He trained along with 100 other sepoys. They toiled and shed sweat, blood, and tears to render themselves capable of serving their motherland and protecting their fellow countrymen. Like others from the Army, Mohan 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. Of the thousands of soldiers who marched into the battlefield bearing the crest of honor 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 on 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.
Coincidentally, one of the twins had an intense desire to follow in the strides of his father. Being enrolled as a lieutenant. When questioned about his passion for 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 of carrying back home not only the authentic scenic 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.
American Benedictine nun, theologian, author, and speaker
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